When Gina Clayton founded Essie Justice Group with the mission to harness the collective power of women with incarcerated loved ones in 2014, she had one critical challenge. While the number of women with a family member in prison suggests prevalence—one in four women and nearly half of Black women have a loved one behind bars—isolation and the stigma made affected women hard to find. But a conversation with a man inside a prison sparked the idea for Essie’s most innovative and promising movement building strategy yet.
Gina Clayton, a recent Harvard Law School graduate in 2010, was working as a housing attorney in Harlem. She met with clients every day, women who were supporting whole communities and, at the same time, facing evictions as a result of criminal matters. Clayton recalled one client, a model tenant who faced losing her home of 20 years. Her client’s grandson, who didn’t live with her, was arrested blocks from her apartment and gave her client’s address to his arresting officer.
“Here she is, this matriarch, this pillar of her community and family and she was under attack,” Clayton said. “It broke my heart, the idea that this lynchpin, who offers an important refuge for her family in turmoil and crisis, would be rendered homeless. To me, it was unconscionable, a violation of human rights.”
Since 1980, draconian criminal justice policies more than quadrupled the number of people in our prisons, jails and detention centers. The statistics would suggest this era of mass incarceration is a men’s issue. After all, more than 90 percent of people behind bars in the United States are men.
But Clayton recognized “the 90 percent” was just part of the story. Mass incarceration also had a devastating impact on women with incarcerated loves ones—the mothers, daughters, wives, sisters and girlfriends of people behind bars. But there was almost no recognition of this fact.
“We already know mass incarceration is a human rights issue, an economic justice issue, and a race issue,” Clayton said. “But it’s also a women’s issue.”
Clayton understood this first hand: In 2007, one of Clayton’s loved ones was handed a 20-year prison sentence in California. As she dug into the issue, she saw she wasn’t alone. In fact, more than two million people behind bars translated into many millions of women reeling from their absence.
One in four women in the United States has a family member in prison. For Black women, the number is even more disturbing: nearly one in two.
When a family member is locked up, women often are left behind to pick up the pieces of tragedy, scraping together money not only for their households, but for attorney bills, court payments, prison phone calls, visitation fees and re-entry costs. Research shows more than a third of women surveyed have been pushed into debt from costs associated with incarceration.
Clayton decided to move back to her home state of California with a singular purpose: to end the harm on women caused by mass incarceration. In 2014, Clayton founded Essie Justice Group (Essie). Her vision is to ignite a movement to end mass incarceration by empowering and engaging a ready, but overlooked, force for change—women with loved ones behind bars. With the support of dedicated volunteers and mentors, Clayton set out to build a nationwide network of loving and powerful groups of these women.
The Women’s Foundation of California became Essie’s fiscal sponsor and provided office space for the budding organization. And the Foundation’s Race, Gender and Human Rights Giving Circle awarded a $10,000 grant.
“Loving Hard From Outside, In”
While there are millions of women with incarcerated loved ones, Clayton knew reaching them wouldn’t be easy. They face tremendous shame and stigma as a result of mainstream stereotypes of “criminals” and “prison wives.” Despite their prevalence and the significant harm they face, women with incarcerated loved ones are seen as “collateral consequences,” their lives and experiences made invisible from public discourse.
With the barrier of stigma, and without a collective identity, women are isolated even from each other.
On a visit to San Quentin, Clayton spoke with a man doing time.
“He told me, ‘I need you to know my daughter, she’s incredible, she’s my motivation, she’s my whole life, and she needs a community,’” explained Clayton. In that very moment, Clayton found her answer on how to reach the women she knew could build a powerful sisterhood for justice.
She would invite the men and women who were incarcerated to nominate their loved ones. Today, Essie receives letters every month from men and women inside prisons nominating women to Essie’s program. These letters recognize the struggles and the strength of women supporting incarcerated people by “loving hard from outside, in” as Clayton says. Each letter is a highly personal, specific and loving testimony that provides the opportunity for a woman to access a community of support through Essie’s nine-week Healing to Advocacy program. Every nomination is answered with a letter in response to the nominator and a call to the nominee inviting her to join the Essie Justice Group sisterhood.
“We tell each nominee there is a community of women who would benefit from knowing her,” said Clayton. “Women come with ample leadership capabilities and tremendous expertise.” Essie works to bring them together, ending their isolation and reducing barriers so they can access their collective power to “advocate for self, for family, and for community”—and end mass incarceration.
In its first two years, Essie reached women from Los Angeles to Florida. For many, being connected to an “Essie Sister”—another woman in the program—is transformative. It is often the first time they can talk freely about their loved one being incarcerated. They are supported without being judged and they learn they are part of a loving and powerful community.
Power & Prevalence: Reaching the 1 in 4
Now Clayton, her small staff team, and an active group of Essie Sisters are on a mission to bring in 1,000 nominations for women with incarcerated loved ones to launch their Bay Area flagship network before expanding nationwide.
Two years have passed since Clayton’s visit to San Quentin that gave rise to the Essie nominations process. The Essie team recently went back there to meet with a leadership group of men serving long and life sentences as part of Essie’s 1,000 nomination campaign. When the group was asked about who supported them and whether they would be interested in nominating someone to Essie, the gentlemen responded with enthusiasm.
“My love is unconditional for her, that’s definitely true,” said one man about his elderly mother. “But what I’m concerned about is there’s no one to support her.”
If Clayton has her way, that won’t be true for long. “We plan to be everywhere there’s a woman with an incarcerated loved one,” said Clayton.
“These are the women who will build a movement that will challenge the state of mass incarceration. They’ll do it by placing women, their communities and their loved ones at the forefront of the conversation,” said Clayton.
Nominate a Woman Today
“At Essie, we get what we need, we share, and we lead,” explained one Essie sister. If you or someone you know is a woman with an incarcerated loved one, end her isolation and invisibility today by nominating her to a loving and powerful community of women.