Women and Prison: A Cambridge Conversation

Women and Prison: A Cambridge Conversation

Program at Citywide Senior Center on Wednesday, May 21

Andrea C. James (lead photo) has been an advocate for prisoners – women prisoners in particular – since she got out of jail herself in 2011 after serving a two-year sentence in the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut. She was married, a lawyer, and the mother of four when she was convicted of wire fraud in connection with her work in real estate. Her experiences in prison are the basis for her book, Upper Bunkies Unite, published last year.

She spoke Wednesday night, May 21, to about 70 attendees at a special program titled “Women and Prison: A Cambridge Conversation” at the Cambridge Senior Center on Massachusetts Avenue. The event was presented jointly by several local organizations including the Cambridge Women's Commission, Cambridge Restorative Justice Circles Working Group, YWCA Cambridge, and On The Rise, Inc.

Ms. James detailed the alarming increase in the prison population in recent years, especially among women and minorities, and cited some of the ill effects. She said poverty and the war on drugs were responsible for much of the increase.

“We have the highest incarceration rate of any country. . . We have criminalized poverty and addiction,” she said. “Prison is never going to be the answer.”

Ms. James is the Executive Director of Families for Justice as Healing, an advocacy group formed by formerly incarcerated women to advocate for reform of the criminal justice system. The organization is the sponsor of the Free Her Rally set for June 21 on the Washington Mall.

Also speaking at the event was Charyti Reiter (right), Program Director at On The Rise, Inc., a local non-profit day program for homeless women at 341 Broadway.

“A lot of women are being kept in prison who have not been convicted of anything,” she said. “The problem is that they have no way to get bailed out. We need to think of ways to help with that. And for many of them, leaving prison means entering homelessness.”

Once they are released, On The Rise helps them access the services they need and form connections in the community, she said. They are offered basic services -- a meal, a warm coat if it's needed, use of a shower, phone or computer, and other comforts of home. Later, when they are ready, they can go on with the help of professional staff to tackle challenges like homelessness, addiction, medical and legal issues, abuse, and unemployment.

A highlight of the program was a showing of The Grey Area, a documentary movie by Noga Ashkenazi. In it a group of prisoners at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women share their experiences during an eight-week Feminism class taught by students from nearby Grinnell College. A suspense-filled sequence focuses on one of the class members as she seeks to get her sentence commuted.

Before and after Wednesday night’s program the audience, seated around tables in the Senior Center meeting room, took part in a Restorative Practices Circle experience introduced by Cathy Hoffman. Participants at each table, led by a moderator, passed a “talking stone” from hand to hand as they shared their thoughts on the evening’s theme and discussed their reactions to the presentations.

Representatives of local groups offered a wide array of information and opportunities to participate in the effort. More information about these can be found on this site in an article by Anna J. Weick of YWCA Cambridge. She is a CCTV correspondent, an activist/advocate, and a Commissioner with the City of Cambridge's GLBT Commission. Her article includes links to many of the organizations that were represented at the event and that are working to reform and improve the correctional system.


An interesting coincidence. The May 25 Sunday Globe had a long article about leading conservative personalities who have come out against capital punishment, and many are also speaking out against the very high incarceration rates in this country.

Much of the concern comes from Libertarians who distrust government. They have disrespect for the justice system, as with taxation and government generally. True Libertarians used to be against wars and some still are. A new right-wing concern for civil liberties is also being created.

The trend in prisons since the 1980s has been a spirit of lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-keys. The result has been an increase in executions and in prison populations. But a new trend is out there away from bungled executions, people in jail for marijuana offenses, stop-and-frisk, and threats to civil liberties. NSA spying has created another division among conservatives.

The list of key conservatives activists opposed to capital punishment is growing : 80-year-old guru of specialized political mailing lists, Richard Viguerie ... evangelist Pat Robertson ... Ron Paul ... Jeb Bush ... Texas Governor Rick Perry ... Newt Gingrich ... hard line budget cutter Grover Norquist ... and pundits such as George Will, John McLaughlin, and Boston's own Bill O'Reilly. Some like Robertson have come out against Marijuana laws.

It used to be that only liberals were in favor of prison reform, starting out with Quakers over 200 years ago. Alexis de Tocqueville came over from France to compile his famous notes for Democracy in America, but his official goal was to study new innovations in prison reform, triggered by Quaker activists in Philadelphia. Many 19th century radicals got into trouble with the police and ended up sympathetic with prisoners. Their activism carried over into prison reforms in America during the 1920s and 1930s. I have a book of 1970s vintage called “New Horizons in Criminology,” which showed a photo of the last public execution in the U.S. : in 1935 in Kentucky. 25,000 people attended, and the gallows were surrounded by a sea of people.

The collapse of liberal political strategizing and organizing since 1980 has meant little in the way of prison reform over the past 35 years. Many of today's prominent advocates of stopping capital punishment have been a mix of Catholics, and conservative politicians who went to jail for their sins. There was a former Governor of Illinois who stopped executions, before he went to prison for corruption ... there was the famous case of Chuck Colson, the Massachusetts hatchet man who went to jail during Watergate and came out an advocate for prison religious ministries. Many of the conservative opponents of capital punishment are Catholics who have heeded the words of Popes in recent decades in favor of life and against executions.

One rare left-to-right crossover came in the case of the Unibomber -- a bright student at Harvard who became a recluse in a dismal hut in Montana, mailing out bombs to people he thought to be Establishment stooges. His brother David turned him into the FBI, but also fought against the death penalty. David reached out to Viguerie, who had written a book expressing his new views in 1980. A group of liberals and conservatives got together to discuss joint action against the death penalty about a decade ago, but not much happened.

Suddenly the issue has broken out in public discussion, and a much wider base of support seems to have blossomed. The effort could grow in favor of a quite different approach to crime, law enforcement, and who knows – a public justice equivalent of Alcoholics Anonymous. An anti-crime AA would have citizens working with active or former prisoners to get them back on their feet and stay out of the trap of crime, prison and criminal rap sheet. The next question is : who is going to oppose these efforts? Not the liberals. So who will it be? The pro-capital punishment clique could collapse.

The best analogy we have for possible change is the phenomenal success of the same-sex rights movement. From marriages to anti-bullying campaigns, an amazingly strong coalition came together. It started with the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York, and then made a breakthrough with the landmark decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in the Goodridge case of 2003. The last five or six years have been an astounding period of transformation, as traditional marriage laws were swept aside by judicial decisions or votes of state legislatures. Many conservative governors who fought for the traditional marriage laws (and then were overruled by the courts) have now given up and are not even planning to appeal.

The secret to the same-sex revolution was to appeal to all sides and avoid ideology and traditional factions. When a vote in the New York state legislature looked iffy, the advocates contacted every company CEO in New York whose children had come out as LGBT and got their support. It was a social movement, not a political one. Fat cat capitalists made a big difference.

Contrast this rapid shift with the racial equality or civil rights movement. We are approaching our fourth century of colonial and post-colonial slavery ... Jim Crow ... separate-but-equal everything ... and a return to racial separation in our schools. And still no real solution.

Meanwhile, the same-sex rights movement has swept the country in half a century.

I remember after the Vietnam War protests peaked in June 1970 : the big event on the MIT campus was the effort to create what they called the MIT Homophile League. As I recall it at MIT, this was the first open public activism on the issue. Think about the change that has occurred since then, in only one-third of a century.

Also contrast the sweep of same-sex rights with the slow pace of womens rights. Look back at the punishment of Anne Hutchinson in the 1630s by ferocious Puritan bullies and at the struggles of Abigail Adams to get equal time for women while our Founding Fathers were promoting freedom for white males. A whole century seemed to have been lost in the 1800s, with the best book on women's rights being written by a man, John Stuart Mill. The long struggle simply to allow women to vote was followed by some successes in the 1960s and 1970s, but a big loss came with failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. Slow progress indeed, as we approach four centuries of effort in equality for women too.

Regular conservatives have simply been shell-shocked by the rapid progress of same-sex marriage laws, including decisions by their beloved Supreme Court. They could not overcome a broad-based social movement that was based on simple freedoms, not rigid ideology.

With capital punishment in the near future, the whole nation could see a massive social protest similar to same-sex marriage, led by a libertarian impulse to get rid of capital punishment, and revise legal, court, prison and post prison experiences. Who knows quite where it will end, affecting prisoners of all ages and races, men, women and families alike. If it is organized like the same-sex marriage movement, the result could be a tidal wave of change to the justice system.

After that what might be next? Ahah! Education.