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The Untold, Real-Life Story of the Prison in “Orange Is the New Black“

Families for Justice has grown into an increasingly powerful force for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women to shape the laws and policies that affect them most.

(Image: Lionsgate Television)

The Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn., is the prison made famous by Piper Kerman’s memoir-turned-Netflix-show “Orange is the New Black.” It’s also where the real-life group Families for Justice as Healing got its start.

In the fall of 2010, at a table in Danbury’s prison yard, five women decided that incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women needed to be part of the process of drafting and advocating for legislation that affects their lives and freedom. They decided to start to form such a group, modeling it after a very effective — if otherwise utterly opposite — organization: the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC brings together state legislators and corporations to draft model legislation, such as Arizona’s infamous anti-immigrant legislation SB1070 and Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.

“I couldn’t think of an existing organization like this that mass-produced legislation working on the side of the people,” wrote Families for Justice as Healing co-founder Andrea James in her prison memoir Upper Bunkies Unite. In a phone interview, she elaborated, “We wanted to be a legislative advocacy group on the left, to be a clearinghouse of information from states that have been doing better [in terms of criminal justice policies] for states that aren’t.”

Thus, Families for Justice as Healing was born. And over the last four years, it has grown into an increasingly powerful force for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women to shape the laws and policies that affect them most.

When James was released in July 2011, she brought the organization with her to Boston. While on home confinement, she collected information on policies and practices in other states and began working to build the organization. In October 2011, shortly after being taken off home confinement, James attended a hearing hosted by Families Against Mandatory Minimums at the Massachusetts Statehouse. Suddenly, during the middle of the hearing, law enforcement arrived and co-opted the event.

“A parade of sheriffs came in and put all the proceedings on hold, interrupting the family that had been testifying,” she recalled. “They asked for the committee’s support for building new jails.” These new jails included a pre-trial jail for women unable to afford bail.

Shocked, James and other members of Families for Justice as Healing began organizingto oppose the jail’s construction.

“We are formerly incarcerated women,” James explained. “We know that the majority of women in prison don’t need to be in prison or jail. And we were outraged that these meetings were happening without any formerly incarcerated women at the table.”

As James explained, their goal was not only to stop the jail, but also to ensure that women like herself were part of this decision-making process. “We have to change not just legislation and policy, but also how things are done,” she explained.

The group began speaking out against the jail at conferences, forums, churches and other community events. James recalled the process of finding common ground with audiences that had not been directly affected by incarceration. Often, she learned, that bridge was addiction.

“We found that many are struggling — silently — with addiction, so we’re able to make the connections,” she reflected. “A lot of these families are desperate to help their kids with addiction issues.”

With both addiction and incarceration, the underlying mentality of punishment is the same — and shifting these ideas about safety, public health and community is part of Familes’ mission. “The concept of locking people up is so entrenched that even when we’re talking about community wellness alternatives, it comes up,” she said.

Families for Justice as Healing is part of the Pretrial Working Group, a statewide coalition of organizations and individuals advocating for alternatives to pretrial incarceration. Pointing to places like Washington, D.C., which rely on risk assessment rather than bail, the Pretrial Working Group is advocating for using similar assessments. It is also organizing a roundtable to bring together people from the Massachusetts Trial Court, the Commission of Probation, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, the public defenders’ office, the district attorney’s office and the Massachusetts Department of Correction with people from the National Institute of Corrections and organizations from states that have reduced their pretrial populations.

“We want to get them together to map out a model of what this could look like in Massachusetts,” James said. “When we have conversations, people ask, ‘What else is possible?’ We want to give them a very concrete plan and have them ask their legislators, ‘Why isn’t this being done?’”

While Families continues the fight for alternatives to pre-trial incarceration, the group has also campaigned against inhumane conditions women face behind bars, such as the ongoing practice of shackling incarcerated women during childbirth in Massachusetts. Shackling refers to the practice of restraining people in jail or prison. A woman who is shackled is bound by handcuffs and ankle cuffs, which attach to a heavy chain wrapped around her waist. Only 18 states have legislation that prohibits or limits shackling incarcerated women during labor and delivery. Massachusetts is not one of those states.

In efforts to change this reality, Families helped push an anti-shackling bill that was introduced in the state’s Senate. James testified at a hearing in December 2013. While they were unable to attend the hearing, a number of women currently incarcerated in Massachusetts shared their stories with the Prison Birth Project, a group that provides support for pregnant women in a Massachusetts jail. Their stories were incorporated into the testimony presented by Marianne Bullock, the co-founder and lead doula — a non-medical birthing coach — of the project.

When the anti-shackling bill was proposed, women at the jail decided to get involved in advocating for the legislation, even at the risk of having the jail retaliate by barring the Prison Birth Project from being able to provide services for the women inside. Days before the Massachusetts Senate voted on the legislation, S.2012, Bullock brought a draft of the bill to the jail.

“There was a lot of workshopping — sitting in a circle and talking about our experiences,” Bullock recalled. As a result, women asked that the bill include a provision for transporting them in a car with seat belts rather than a paddy wagon. They also wanted an end to the practice of placing postpartum women in solitary confinement when they returned from the hospital.

At a meeting of the Massachusetts Antishackling Coalition, the Prison Birth Project passed along the feedback. The bill unanimously passed by the Massachusetts Senate later that month included both provisions. The following week, the House unanimously passed the bill, and it is now in the process of being reconciled into a final piece of legislation. The governor has already stated that he will sign the bill once it reaches his desk.

Hours after the Senate voted to pass the bill, Kenzie, who gave birth while incarcerated and was shackled to the bed shortly after delivery, said, “I’m excited knowing that my story helped make a difference. I never want another woman to go through what I had to go through.”

Now, Families for Justice as Healing is looking beyond Massachusetts to the mass incarceration of women nationwide. On June 21, the group is organizing a FREE HER rally in Washington, D.C., an idea that emerged during those very first meetings in the prison yard at Danbury.

“We wanted to have a huge public event to raise our voices and raise awareness of all the women inside who are separated from their families and their communities,” said James. “We want people to think about what happens to children and communities when a woman is incarcerated. We also want to let the legislative and executive branches know that people are paying attention. These are people we care about. These are people who are part of our families and communities.”

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