The following article was written by Lois Ahrens, Founder of The Real Cost of Prisons Project, who is instrumental in the creation of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women.
December 8, 2015
On December 5, seventeen smart, clear-thinking, funny and beautiful women from across the country joined together at the Open Society Foundations in New York City, either in person or via teleconferencing at the inaugural meeting of the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women (NCIFW). “What was inspiring was the conversation and energy!” said Carol Soto summing up the excitement in the room.
The meeting was organized by Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice as Healing and a 2015 Soros Justice Fellow. James a visionary leader was instrumental in forming NCIFW as a way to expand the momentum created from the Free Her Rally she organized in Washington, D,C, in June 2014, and the ground-breaking Free Her Justice Advocacy Conference she directed at Harvard Law School in August 21015. Many participants at the December 5th convening were also involved in both events.
The purpose of the meeting was to determine how to include the powerful voices of the women most affected by current criminal legal policies, women who know firsthand the realities of incarceration, the thousands of hurdles women face after returning home, and the harm done to families and communities by the carceral state and to organize to create a new, more effective, and just system.
The decision was made to produce a Declaration of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women.
During the four-hour meeting hundreds of ideas were shared and the following were included in the Declaration:
- To form a National Council with state representation with the leadership and direction from formerly and currently incarcerated women who are or were incarcerated in the Federal system, in state prisons and jails.
- To provisionally name the organization The National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women.
- To declare that no policies, laws, practices, organizing and services should be made about women who are or were incarcerated without including them at the table.
- To declare that incarcerated women’s lives and needs are different than men in relation to “health care,” sexual abuse by guards, controlled and limited visitation and more. Currently and formerly incarcerated women face challenges as caregivers and also as survivors of violence, sexual abuse, and substance abuse disorder. The stigma and state control that women who have been incarcerated face is exacerbated by the sexism and racism women of color and poor women face. Women need a living wage and rewarding work, affordable decent housing, access to education, quality health and mental health care and childcare.
- To declare that we will not perpetuate the false and divisive distinctions between so-called “non-violent offences” and “violent offenses.”
- To work to end conspiracy prosecutions as a driver for long, unjust sentences.
- To work to end the use and expansion of criminal history as a driver for making sentences even longer.
- To build leadership of current and formerly incarcerated women to expand our reach and power.
- To incorporate “The Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents” into our work.
- To work to breakdown the walls between incarcerated women and their children built by prisons, jails and the correctional empire.
The NCIFW is planning another meeting to be held in New Jersey in January. In the meantime, it was agreed that the NCIFIW would do the following:
- Finalize and circulate the draft of the Declaration.
- Expand the Council throughout the country.
- Invite more formerly incarcerated women to join the discussion in New Jersey either in person or by phone.
- Send Andrea James (firstname.lastname@example.org or Families for Justice as Healing, P.O. Box 14 Boston, MA 02121) the names and addresses of incarcerated women who are interested in contributing to issues in the Declaration, in addition to becoming a Council representative for the prison/jail they are in.
The meeting ended with an even stronger sense of solidarity with women and girls who are locked up and a renewed desire to support them. Said Andrea James, “This is the beginning. We need to reach out to our sisters to build a powerful movement that will be heard.”