It’s Not OITNB, But ‘Upper Bunkies Unite’ Goes Inside the Same Prison

Andrea James tackles mass incarceration incisively and with humor in her version of the federal prison camp for women in Danbury, Conn.

upper bunkies unite

At the Danbury federal prison camp. James is second from right. / Photo courtesy of Andrea James.

Are you experiencing withdrawal from the hit series Orange is the New Black? Maybe you’ll find some solace from Andrea James’s very readable and often funny new release, Upper Bunkies Unite: And Other Thoughts on the Politics of Mass Incarceration.

James, who hails from Roxbury and graduated from Milton Academy and Northeastern Law School, is a former attorney born into a family of “educator-activists.” She also has four children and a husband who visited her every single weekend during her 24-month sentence in FCI Danbury from 2009 to 2011.

Unlike Piper Kerman, author of OITNB, on which the series is loosely based and who was arrested for being a so-called drug mule, James got caught up in the real estate boom of the early 2000s. She took on closings in addition to her trial work as a defense attorney. Her well-intended but misguided efforts to help others pay off mortgages resulted in her illegally misusing funds in her dealings as a real estate lawyer. After the crash in 2006 when homes were foreclosed right and left, she turned herself in for mail and wire fraud.

James’s entry into prison life is where she saw the devastation of the drug war strike women and their families. In Upper Bunkies, a title drawn her preference for the top bed bunk because that’s where she felt less claustrophobic, she introduces her readers to some fascinating women as well as some little-known truths about incarceration. She writes of a 70-year–old woman called “Grandma,” who was dealt a 30-year sentence for selling cocaine. Grandma was like many prisoners, given long sentences for drugs: “312 months, 180 months, 120 months–the feds give it to you in months … to people who had never been arrested before, never so much as a parking ticket,” as James puts it.

She also takes her readers inside prison life, which often borders on the absurd. We learn how prisoners feared insubordination and repercussions like being locked down or having canteen privileges revoked—for cooking contraband vegetables. After microwaves were banned from the prison, a resourceful prisoner found a way to turn an iron and ironing board into a George Foreman grill. James shows us how women lined up to get chairs for movies, clean blankets, and what she calls “good” sturdy plastic bowls. “The things of least value on the street are most valuable in prison,” she writes.

James said a few things helped her get through her sentence: Reading, writing, running (like Kerman!), and an “amazing” amount of support from her fellow prisoners. She also details how class and race played out. When some white women from Southie found out she was from Boston, they brought her real soap and toothpaste; some Latino women from Jamaica Plain gave her necessities like a clean pair of underwear before she was able to get commissary; and a group of African-American women who thought she was Latina gave her extra clothing.

It was with these women in Danbury that she began her work with Familes for Justice as Healing, an advocacy organization that’s one of her passions today. She said the women would “sit out on the picnic tables in the yard, and [they] just started talking.” They decided they needed to support each other and educate themselves about social justice policies. Then they reached out to women who were getting out, needed GEDs, and wanted to work on changing drug sentencing. Families for Justice as Healing now lobbies for criminal justice reform.

James was behind bars when OITNB came out, but her mother and best friend attended the reading, and had a signed copy and sent to her. But James didn’t find Kerman’s story particularly close to her experience; she had been writing her own take on Danbury from the moment she arrived. On the day of her release, she said women “poured out on the hillside, waving and yelling … ‘Please don’t forget us. Please tell our story.’” With Upper Bunkies Unite, she’s done exactly that.