Beatrice Codianni and Susan Rosenberg, who were formerly incarcerated at FCI in Danbury ()
The popular Netflix drama “Orange Is The New Black” might offer a somewhat stylized version of life at Danbury’s Federal Correctional Institution, the prison on which the series is based.
But the drama has accomplished one thing, according to those who have served time in Danbury — it’s raised awareness of issues facing incarcerated women. “That is a good thing,” said former inmate Beatrice Codianni, who spent about 15 years in Danbury on a racketeering charge and now lives in New Haven.
Now Codianni and others are banding together to try to change how the criminal justice system deals with women. About 1,000 former women inmates, most of whom had served time in Danbury, rallied on June 21 in Washington, D.C.
On signs and in chants, they called for Congress to end minimum mandatory sentences and reinstate federal parole. They also called for the U.S. Justice Deparment to provide more women who are convicted of federal crimes access to mental health or substance abuse programs as an alternative to prison.
“It was very emotional,” Codianni said of the rally. “I immediately saw two old friends from Danbury who now live in D.C. and we hugged and greeted each other. That was the scene that played out as more and more people arrived, most by bus, some by car.
“We’d scan the crowd to see if we knew anyone, and more often than not we did. Hugs, laughs, tears. Happy to see each other again, but sad when we remembered those who are still locked up after all these years.”
According to the most recent data available, the Federal Bureau of Prisons says the number of women incarcerated nationwide has climbed sharply since mandatory minimum sentencing laws were enacted in the mid-1980s. Those laws sent thousands of men and women — most of whom committed non-violent drug offenses — to prison for 10, 20 or 30 years.
And so the numbers of women in federal prisons jumped from 1,400 in 1986 to 9,000 in 1998 to 13,476 in June 2009. Those latest numbers include nearly 1,200 people in Connecticut.
This is the second time in a year that the Danbury prison has been in the news. In 2013, the Federal Bureau of Prisons considered changing the facility to a men’s prison and shipping the women to other locations. Advocates for inmates, students and professors at Yale Law School and even federal judges in the region fought the proposal, saying it would move most of the women far away from their families and children, limiting opportunities for visits. About 56 percent of incarcerated women nationwide have children.
In November, federal officials relented. The prison is moving men into the women’s prison, but building a new area to house women inmates. Now Codianni and other former inmates seem determined to take the lead in such lobbying efforts. “There’s a lot more that can be done to reduce the number of women in prison,” she said.
Codianni, who lives in New Haven and works as an editor for Reentry Central, a website that focuses on criminal justice and ex-offender reentry after prison, said she and other former Danbury inmates consider themselves now at the forefront of a criminal justice sentencing reform movement that is being led by formerly incarcerated women.
“Who better than us?,” Codianni asked. “We have first-hand knowledge of why prison should be the last resort for a majority of those who committed a crime.”
Federal prosecutors in Connecticut declined to comment or respond to the concerns raised by those who attended the rally. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in June that federal prosecutors might be well advised at times to not pursue charges that could lead to mandatory minimum sentences. In April, the Justice Department issued new guidelines allowing certain prisoners who already have served at least 10 years to apply for clemency. To be eligible, inmates must have no significant criminal history and no strong ties to major gangs.
Chris Burke, a Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman, said it is up to Congress and the courts, not his agency, to decide on sentences. “The Bureau of Prisons’ mission involves only those individuals sentenced to a term of incarceration,” he said. “We don’t play a role in the decision to use non-prison alternatives.”
Former lawyer Andrea James also served time at FCI. She started the group Families for Justice As Healing in 2010 while in the prison yard in Danbury. Since her release, she runs the group from Boston. She was the primary organizer of the D.C. rally.
James said that incarcerating women who are involved in non-violent drug crimes is bad policy. “We’ve criminalized poverty and we’ve criminalized drug addiction,” James said. “For the most part, the sentences are too harsh.”
“Ninety percent of the prison population is poor, black and brown people,” she said, adding that most of those who are in prison have committed non-violent crimes and are first-time offenders. “All this incarceration has not put a dent in the drug wars.”
J. Patten Brown, a West Hartford solo who represents defendants facing federal charges, has seen a growing percentage of women among his clients in recent years.
Brown said has had some success, “luck” as he put it, arguing for sentence reductions on behalf of women charged crimes if they have children or other family members who need their support. But when it comes to mandatory minimum sentences, there is often little a lawyer can do. He is fully supportive of the reforms being sought by formerly incarcerated women.
“I think they should let people leave prison after serving half of their sentences,” he said. “Many of them are non-violent, and I think parole would be a good thing for non-violent defendants.”
Megan Quattlebaum, a lawyer and visiting lecturer at Yale Law School and member of the group that voiced support last year for keeping a women’s prison in Danbury, said more can be done to reduce or limit the number of women who are locked up in federal prisons. Her suggestions extend beyond ending mandatory minimum sentences.
“On the federal level, even though the Bureau of Prisons doesn’t make the sentencing laws, it can take steps to mitigate overincarceration of women,” Quattlebaum said. “For example, the BOP has the power under the Second Chance Act to release individuals to halfway houses for the last year of their sentences, or to home confinement for the last six months.”
But the bureau routinely refuses to give women the full year of halfway house time, and rarely permits home confinement, Quattlebaum said. “These are money-saving measures that would help ease women’s transition back into communities,” she said. acknowledging that such a move would not be the kind of “comprehensive sentencing reform” that the formerly incarcerated women are seeking from Congress. “But it would be a very helpful step,” Quattlebaum said.
Another law professor, Sarah Russell of Quinnipiac University School of Law and a former federal public defender in New Haven, said she’s been following the developments “around Danbury” women inmates, including the plan to close the women’s prison and the recent rally.
Russell agreed that the mandatory minimum sentencing drove up the number of women in federal prisons. She said there have been some changes in recent years that benefit female offenders. The federal government has stopped handing out more severe penalties for crack posession and sale than it has for similar offenses for powder cocaine. Further, Russell said, federal judges have been given some leeway to consider family circumstances in sentencing defendants.
But mandatory minimum sentences remain on the books for drug offenses. As a result, Russell said, “some women are in prison despite having minor roles” in drug cases. Also, she said, “women are more likely to be involved in criminal activity under some level of threat or duress” from their husbands or boyfriends.
Lawyers who practice criminal defense in federal court have been watching the sentencing reform movement develop in the state. Among them is Alan Sobol, a Pullman & Comley partner who represents clients in white collar criminal defense matters, as well as corporate investigations.
But every year, Sobol also handles, for small fees or on a pro bono basis, criminal cases in federal court for people who can’t afford a lawyer. Sobol said there are steps that attorneys for both women and men can take to try to minimize sentences. If a case ends in a guilty plea, he argues as often as he can that a convicted person’s family circumstances should be considered. For a woman, that can mean noting that she’s needed as a mother for her children.
Sobol also looks for character witnesses to show the person has never been in trouble before. “A good lawyer can mine the story to show a person’s background reveals that the crime they were involved with was aberrant behavior,” he said.
Sobol said he thinks the federal court system is “coming around” to the idea of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences in general and in particular reducing sentences for women convicted as non-violent drug offenders.
James, the former lawyer and D.C. rally organizer, hopes that’s the case. She sees the recent Justice Department policies allowing clemency as a step in the right direction.
“We had no idea that we’d have this wind beneath our wings right before our rally,” she said, adding: “It was a coming together of women who are working on these issues throughout the country. It helped us discover each other and really to say to the rest of the world we want to create change.”•