A Black woman with braids sauntering down a grass-covered path. She wears a white shirt and a black, long skirt. Her back is turned to the camera.
Image Credit: Aidi Tanndy from pexels.com

This past Mother’s Day, a group of activists, most of them women, gathered outside the Alameda Courthouse in Oakland, Ca. to “call attention to the harm of mass incarceration on generations of Black women, families, and communities,” according to a press release by the California nonprofit Essie Justice Group, which organized the rally.

“The Essie Justice Group is a loving and powerful community of women with incarcerated loved ones,” describes Essie Justice Group founder and executive director Gina Clayton-Johnson. 

“We are the mothers and sisters, daughters, wives, girlfriends, grandmothers of people who are behind bars. We’re black-led, black-centered, multicultural organizers that believe that a black feminist future in which we end mass incarceration is to everyone’s benefit. And so we are fighting on multiple levels for that reality.”

“The Essie Justice Group is a loving and powerful community of women with incarcerated loved ones.”

The Oakland event was part of the “#FreeBlackMamas” annual National Bailout Campaign by the National Bail Out Collective, which coordinates “Mama’s Day Bail Outs,” for Black women incarcerated in pre-trial detention around the country, and of which the Essie Justice Group is a founding member. 

The Essie Justice Group has bailed out over a dozen California women at the cost of a whopping $1.9 million—money the group raises itself through large and small donations, and recoups once a case is resolved, allowing them to fund the next bailout. (The National Bail Out campaign has bailed out more than 400 women incarcerated across the country.) 

It’s a model that very intentionally cuts out the usual profiteers of the bail system: bail bondsmen.

But providing bail for incarcerated women is just one facet of the group’s work in advocating for the rights, well-being, and dignity of the women it serves and who comprise its membership.

“Women are the reentry system of this country.”

Building Sisterhood

The Essie Justice Group’s work is centered around a nine-week “Healing to Advocacy” program, in which a cohort of women come together to share their stories, support one another, and explore how their own experiences could inform a shift to action.

One in four American women have a family member in prison, says Clayton-Johnson—and the figure is a staggering nearly one in two for Black women, according to one 2015 study. 

“Women are the reentry system of this country,” says Clayton-Johnson. “When someone comes home from jail or prison, it is a woman who is there on the other end: receiving them into a home, providing food, providing emotional support, being on the front line of an anxiety attack or moments of insecurity; editing resumes, driving people to their court dates, taking time off work. You know, it is women who are doing all of this work.”

“The unifying feature of this experience for so many was just this incredibly, incredibly harmful isolation.”

And yet it is by the very nature of that (unpaid) work, says Clayton-Johnson, that many women with incarcerated loved ones find themselves isolated and without support. 

“There’s a lot of different kinds of circumstances. But what we found was the unifying feature of this experience for so many was just this incredibly, incredibly harmful isolation,” says Clayton-Johnson. “There’s this awful impact of mass incarceration that looks like mass isolation,”—not just for incarcerated people but especially for the women on the outside who love them.

The Healing to Advocacy program is focused on breaking that isolation by bringing women together into a community of sisterhood, advocacy, and action. 

“Building power looks like multiple things,” says Clayton-Johnson, including that “it looks like building power within an individual…and it also looks like interpersonal power. That, if you are having a bad day, I can step in and support you, and vice-versa.” 

Participants in the group’s nine-week Healing to Justice program join a cohort of women touched deeply, and often very painfully, by incarceration. 

“The very first thing that happens is that a woman who may not even know or have thought about the words ‘mass incarceration,’ but has lived the impacts of that every single day, comes into a space where all of a sudden she is able to tell her story to a group of people who she does not know but very quickly become like sisters to her,” says Clayton-Johnson.

“For many women, the storytelling component of what it is that we do is the very beginning of the journey towards advocacy. It is trusting a group of people with what is happening in your life, but it is also it is also an opportunity for you to listen to what other people share in terms of your own experience and to be able to start to go from ‘I’ to ‘we.’”

In graduating from the program, participants are asked to take a pledge—“The pledge is twofold: to break the isolation of myself and other sisters; and also to break the invisibility, which is both the healing and the advocacy.”

Graduates are then invited to become Essie Justice Group members and participate in the group’s advocacy—and many do.  

From Power to Action

If the Essie Justice Group’s work begins with healing, it culminates in action. 

Clayton-Johnson cites the example of Amber, a member whose own journey with the Essie Justice Group began after they bailed her out of jail.

“Women with incarcerated loved ones, who stood outside that jail for hours and hours waiting for her to come out, brought her into their literal and physical embrace and have been going to court dates with her,” says Clayton-Johnson. 

Meanwhile, Amber, who graduated from the Healing to Advocacy program last year, was elected to help run the group’s campaign team and has been advocating for the depopulation of the Lynwood women’s jail near Los Angeles and has been a featured speaker at related actions.

“Just this past Mother’s Day, she was back at Lynwood jail, but this time not as an incarcerated person but as a member of Essie Justice Group coming in to bail out another Black woman,” notes Clayton-Johnson. 

The group was instrumental in organizing support for Imani Turner, a Georgia woman charged with murder after killing her husband in what supporters said was self-defense when her husband threatened Turner and her children at gunpoint. A Georgia magistrate ruled in Turner’s favor, finding the prosecution lacked sufficient evidence for the murder charge.

Sitting beside Turner in the courthouse for the ruling were women mobilized by the Essie Justice Group. 

Still, the favorable outcome doesn’t mean the work of healing is done, says Clayton-Johnson.

“What’s real is that that’s not the end for somebody, right? That’s not the end for a community that has experienced harm and trauma and loss. It’s the beginning of hopefully a whole lot of healing work.”

It’s that healing work that has empowered the Essie Justice Group to build community and, through community, political power. 

“Building power looks like multiple things,” says Clayton-Johnson. “It looks like building power within an individual, reconnecting somebody with their sense of self-worth and value, reminding that they are loved and part and a needed part of a community that’s counting on them and that believes in them. And it also looks like interpersonal power. That like if you are having a bad day, I can step in and support you and we can vice versa.”