Less Seen/Less Heard: Learning from Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women.
Less Seen/Less Heard: Learning from Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women
Craig Andrade, associate dean for practice and director of the Activist Lab at SPH, and Sashi James, a representative from Families for Justice as Healing, discuss the work that her organization is doing to end incarceration of women and girls.
Less Seen/Less Heard: Stories from the Margins is a new podcast by the Activist Lab, in which experts discuss a range of pressing public health topics. This week, Craig Andrade, associate dean for practice and director of the Activist Lab at SPH, and Sashi James, a representative from Families for Justice as Healing, discuss the work that her organization is doing to end incarceration of women and girls.
Listen to the full conversation here, or read the unedited transcript. For highlights, read the Q&A below.
Less Seen/Less Heard: Stories from the Margins
Families for Justice as Healing (FJAH) was founded in 2010 by five incarcerated women in federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut.
As a result of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, there were a lot of conversations at the time about the need to end mass incarceration in the United States, but so often women and mothers were left out of the discussion entirely. The founders sought to bring mothers into the conversation by creating an organization with the focus on incarcerated mothers and the impact of incarceration on their children.
Now, FJAH is entirely led by incarcerated women, formerly incarcerated women, and women with incarcerated loved ones, and their mission is to end incarceration for women and girls by raising awareness around the need to shift from over-criminalization and incarceration to reinvestment in communities. They are also a member of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.
“I am here as a daughter of formerly incarcerated parents,” says Sashi James, the daughter of a founding member of FJAH and a representative of the organization. “The trauma of having my mother taken from me and my siblings still lives with us deeply, and my goal is to say that my children, my sister, my niece, and all the young girls that I mentor will never end up incarcerated. This system, even down to the public education system, does not teach our children that they are bigger than what they are.”
James spoke with Craig Andrade, associate dean for practice and director of the Activist Lab at SPH, about the impact of incarceration on children and families, the state of incarceration for women and girls in Massachusetts, and how society, as a whole, can better support those who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
With Craig Andrade and Sashi James
Craig Andrade: What does incarceration for women and girls look like in Massachusetts?
Sashi James: First, I just want to say that I live in Roxbury, and Roxbury is in the center of the most incarcerated corridor, which runs from Nubian Square to Franklin Field. This area also happens to be predominantly Black and Brown.
In terms of the incarceration of women and girls, Massachusetts has one of the lowest numbers of incarcerated women in the country. It is a little under 600 women. However, we have one of the highest numbers of women serving life in prison. So, it’s really one way in and no way out.
Over the last 10 years, there has been a 700% increase of women incarcerated. So, what does this mean for Black and Brown communities? The system has already been taking our fathers from us, even dating as far back as slavery, but now we are being stripped of our mothers, who are so often the backbone of our communities, as well.
Andrade: Separating families, children from their mothers and fathers, has been a history that goes way back in this country, and it has been a deliberate strategy around making sure we can weaken the bonds that families create. Can you say a little bit how that affected you and how you see others being affected?
James: Everybody needs their mom and everybody needs their dad. There is no system that can replace the bond of having a mother and a father. But, when you have a system that is creating a vision, even for our children, that says that your father is a monster or your mother is a monster just because they made a mistake, it creates a hate within yourself as a child.
This hate can even eventually drive you to become a monster because you feel like you don’t have any other outcome other than incarceration. Your dad has been incarcerated, your mom has been incarcerated, and it feels like the only logical next step.
For me, my dad had been gone for so long that when my mom was incarcerated, I was already insensitive to the situation. I felt like this was her time and my time would be coming. This is just something that so many of my community members eventually have to go through in life. And that is wrong. It is a sign of oppression, a cloud that the system has put over Black and Brown communities or cash poor communities.
I appreciate Families for Justice as Healing and the infrastructure that we’re creating in communities because we are really breaking apart that cycle and saying that our community does not have to end up in incarceration. Incarceration was only there to destroy us as an alternative to slavery.
Andrade: I have family in prison, and I had family members die in prison. People don’t understand how invisible those that are incarcerated, those that have been over policed and under-represented in all kinds of different ways, actually are. People can believe that anybody in prison deserves to be in prison, but we recognize more than ever that this is not always true.
The over incarceration of Black and Brown people in the United States really is unique compared to other countries across the world and speaks to the injustice that has been part of our country for a long time. We have, with ease, just locked people away as if they don’t exist anymore. We’ve taken away their humanity. We’ve taken away their rights.
How do we hold the humanity of incarcerated people and fight for their rights to be sure that they’re represented as effectively as possible?
James: One thing we can do is really around our language and learning how to humanize people again because the system has created a culture of dehumanizing people through language like “inmate.”
Also, and probably most importantly, at Families for Justice as Healing, we do not focus on nonviolent versus violent because we understand that the state of incarceration does not get to the root issue of why people are having transgressions.
This is what the system does not do, and this is why we’re never going to get to a state of ending incarceration of people because we’re not getting to the root issue of the problem. As individuals, we need to walk without passing judgement. We need to understand that things happen. People cause harm to other people. And harm is going to be done to you. But, we have never been taught how to respond to harm. We’ve only just internalized it or passed judgement. We are punishing people without really understanding why we’re punishing them.
People are not born angry. They have had to go through cycles of life to get to where they are, to end up inside of that prison. And if we had a diversion or if we had resources in our community that can really get people to another pathway, we wouldn’t have to figure out why people are sitting on a prison bunk because of what they did.
This is why our work around reimagining communities is so critical. We have to give the community members that are under resourced and over incarcerated the tools that they need to never end up incarcerated in the first place. That when they walk through the door, people see them as human beings because if they were never viewed as a human before they went into prison, they are never going to be viewed as a human.
We don’t realize that the words that we use can cause further harm, and it really dehumanizes people. That’s what this system wants us to do to each other, whether we are incarcerated or not. We have to get away from those labels and really start to put the people first.
Listen to other episodes of Less Seen/Less Heard: Stories from the Margins here.
Comments & Discussion
Boston University moderates comments to facilitate an informed, substantive, civil conversation. Abusive, profane, self-promotional, misleading, incoherent or off-topic comments will be rejected. Moderators are staffed during regular business hours (EST) and can only accept comments written in English. Statistics or facts must include a citation or a link to the citation.