Updated: Mar 12, 2021
The founder of the Been Down Project was sentenced to federal prison for mail fraud and now wants to use her platform to be an advocate for other women
I recently sat down with Amber Crowder, founder of Been Down Project, mother of a five-year-old, former special education administrator, Howard University graduate, and entrepreneur. Amber was also sentenced to 13 months in federal prison and charged with mail fraud. She has been recently released and has founded the Been Down Project, a returning citizen’s brutally honest, yet comedic, account of how she went to federal prison for an email.
Her vulnerable and transparent account highlights the inequities and flaws of the federal criminal justice system and the hardships for women in the industrial prison complex. Amber intends to use her platform to be a voice, a resource, and an advocate for women with recent federal indictments, women currently incarcerated, and women reentering society.
Christina Greer: You have been out for under a year, what motivated you to start this particular project?
Amber Crowder: I was stunned when I was sentenced to prison. It was my first time getting in trouble, I didn’t even jaywalk! So now I’m thinking, “What can I do with this experience.?” I thought of advocacy after meeting so many women in prison who didn’t have the same resources I had: an attorney or even a place to go to once they were released post-prison. The way the system is set up, so many women were unjustly incarcerated and need additional assistance during and post-prison.
Having experienced this process first hand has made me really think about the purpose of incarceration since there were so few rehabilitation services or therapeutic services provided to incarcerated women. There were no education classes, just an all-around horrible experience where it was so difficult. This project is to help women who are touched by the carceral state directly or if they have a loved one experiencing it. I also want to highlight the long-lasting harms of how prison and its labels dehumanize people.
CG: What exactly is the Been Down Project (BDP)?
AC: The BDP is me sharing my personal experience dealing with the federal government, the indictment process, incarceration, and reentry. Through the BDP I’ll also discuss the racial inequities in everything associated with mass incarceration and how it affects women: that is, mothers, grandmothers, wives and how it relates to gender justice because even if you haven’t been incarcerated, one in four women is close to someone who has been touched by the system. The term “Been down” is a term used in prison. I had to learn the lingo. “Been down” refers to how many months you’re inside, that’s how you keep track of your time because you’re sentenced in months and that’s how you keep track of your time.
CG: Why did you want to use this format to communicate with other returning citizens, their families, and anyone close to someone who has been incarcerated?
AC: Humor is a natural part of personality. I’m not doing this for people to feel sorry for me. It’s the worst experience of my life, but I’ve grown from it and I have a new outlook on life. I also have a new perspective on how the rug can be ripped from underneath you in an instant. You never know what someone is going through. Humor helps as a relatable process. Some people who won’t necessarily understand prison or the stigma of prison, humor may help break the stigma. Because at one point, I too thought of prison as a place for people who do bad things. Therefore, sharing my story of a regular woman in her 40s who had to go to prison will hopefully help someone who is going through something similar themselves or with a loved one.
Also, I’m still on probation and I can’t even speak to other “felons” or address them directly, so social media is a great way to reach people without jeopardizing my probation. Mass monitoring and urine tests and hyper surveillance even once I was released prison is so much of the incarceration process. Even when you are out, you’re still under the thumb of the federal government. It’s the over monitoring that sets people up for failure and sets the stage for them to return to prison over minor violations. I want to talk about all of the ways prison and the post prison process need to be destigmatized.
CG: What questions do people ask that are either misguided or not productive?
AC: Prison has such a stigma. They want to know if Orange is the New Black is accurate. No one wants to go to prison, but everyone wants to know all the specifics as to what goes on inside of a prison. “So tell me about prison?!” as if this was a vacation. While inside I learned a lot of life hacks and the resourcefulness of inmates is truly amazing. I’ll be discussing some of those life hacks on social media. Another reason I started this project is because I went into this process blindly. I didn’t have anyone I could call to tell me how to get money on my books, whether I could wear jewelry if I could accept gifts and generosity from other inmates, or even share some of the items I had. I just didn’t have a prison support system before I went in and it would have been so helpful to me before I went in. What many people need is someone to help and serve as a sort of “prison transition specialist”. There is a fine line one has to walk in prison.
CG: What can our Grio readers do to assist you in this new endeavor?
AC: A lot of social justice advocates have reached out and given great advice. I am not interested in creating a nonprofit, at the end of the day I want my story to be shared. I want to be sure to build a community where I can get my voice out there to support other women and families who have gone through this and who are currently going through this. I want to reach as many people as possible. Telling my story has been cathartic to release some of the shame and stigma and help people understand the larger role of the federal government in our lives, especially as Black people. But if people want to support they can follow me at @thebeendownproject on Instagram and @beendown on Twitter. The key is breaking the stigma of incarceration. That is the key takeaway.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University, political editor at The Grio, the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream”, and the co-host of the podcast FAQ-NYC. You can find her at @Dr_CMGreer on Twitter.