As a teenager, Andrea James went to a Roxbury courthouse with a friend whose brother was on trial there. The scene—the mostly young black men in shackles; the families gathered to support their loved one—conveyed to her “a sense of suffering that I wanted to be a part of fixing,” inspiring her to become a criminal defense attorney.
A quarter-century later, it was James herself who was the defendant. In 2010, James—now a married real estate attorney and mom—went to a federal women’s prison in Danbury, Conn., for misappropriating $1.2 million belonging to the lenders for which she worked. In a self-published memoir, Upper Bunkies Unite, And Other Thoughts on the Politics of Mass Incarceration (Goode Book Press), James uses her story to tell the stories of the more than 2 million Americans behind bars, often serving long (and costly) sentences for non-violent crimes, and to challenge policies such as mandatory-minimum drug sentencing that have led to an explosion in the U.S. prison population. She’s also helped found Families for Justice as Healing, a Boston organization that advocates for alternatives to incarceration and other reforms.
The prison where James served her time has seen its share of celebrities; her fellow inmates included Patrice Tierney, the wife of U.S. Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), there for federal tax fraud, and former Mass. state senator Dianne Wilkerson, convicted of accepting bribes. James’ sentence did not overlap, however, with that of Danbury’s most famous alumna: Piper Kerman, the Smith College grad who chronicled her time in prison on a drug trafficking conviction in the popular 2010 book Orange is the New Black (now an equally popular series on Netflix).
While the two books cover some of the same ground—from describing the monotony of daily prison life to questioning the societal purpose of mass incarceration—there are significant differences. The biggest: while Kerman’s book has the polish of a big-publisher release, James’ is decidedly rougher around the edges. And that works to its advantage and disadvantage both.
While James’ writing is spotty (the book suffers from a distracting proofreading deficiency), it has a passion and authenticity that’s not always apparent in the Kerman book, which at times veers into a concerned-social-worker tone. James is filled with anger, starting with anger over her conviction. While she writes about her “deep regret” for her crime, she clearly, on some level, felt her actions were justified because they were against “predatory lenders” who “lured homeowners into criminal and nefarious make-believe mortgage products that eventually financially devastated working families.”
James makes her case most powerfully when she unleashes her anger on the larger criminal justice system: anger over politically motivated policies that have driven up the prison population; over the costs of those policies to both taxpayers and prisoners’ families and communities; over economic and educational disparities that contribute to, and are reinforced by, the jailing of so many poor people and people of color. “[I]nstead of a system created to address the root causes of behavior we have spiraled into a system created to address the need and greed of politics and a prison industry built to serve political aspirations with a hard-on-crime platform that has perpetuated misplaced fear among voters,” she writes.•