You’ve never heard from the women in the video above. Until recently, no one even knew how many there were. They’ve had few support networks, no group identity, no political movement. But it turns out their numbers are staggering. They are the mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and girlfriends of people incarcerated in the United States. About one of every four women in this country has a family member behind bars, according to startling recent research.
The story of America’s criminal justice system typically begins and ends with the incarcerated population, 90 percent of whom are men. But their imprisonment in turn sentences their loved ones ― to far-away prison visits, to costly legal fees, to depression, shame and social isolation. “You have millions and millions of women who are going through the exact same thing ― not just going through it, but it is defining us,” said Gina Clayton, whose loved one was sentenced to a lengthy prison term. “It is so defining of what we can and cannot do every day, yet it’s not something that we can talk about with anybody.”
We spoke with Clayton for Sophia, a project to collect life lessons from fascinating people (get updates directly via Facebook here). A graduate of Harvard Law, Clayton left her work as a public defender to create Essie Justice Group in 2014. She and her team are now finding and organizing fellow women with incarcerated loved ones, connecting them to each other, and challenging the system of mass incarceration that’s gripped their lives.
You’ve been building Essie for a few years now. What have you learned?
When we started, we didn’t know was that it was social isolation that we would be solving for. I had no idea.
In the video, the part that always moves me is to see Natasha talk about feeling so alone. This is consistent with almost all the stories of the women that we hear from, that they feel incredibly isolated. And that seems impossible to imagine. You have millions and millions of women who are going through the exact same thing ― not just going through it, but it is defining us, it is defining our day-to-day experience. We’re going on long prison visits, we’re paying for the phone calls, we’re writing letters to incarcerated people, we are maintaining family connections between children, we’re holding things together by ourselves because we’re missing critical people in our family units.
“There is tremendous stigma. No one’s gonna raise their hand and say, “Oh, this is me.” There is shame and humiliation that comes with having someone you love in prison or jail or an immigration detention center.”
It is so defining of what we can and cannot do every day, yet it’s not something that we can talk about with anybody. And this was the thing we noticed, that women would come back after going through our program and say, “Oh my goodness, I’m not alone. I have this community. Oh my goodness, because of this community, I feel like I can be more present at work, I can get up and take the kids to school and not just feel completely weighed down with depression and sadness. I feel like I can talk about what’s going on and actually demand that things be different because I know it’s not just me. And it’s more than just a statistic telling me that ― I actually have friendships and sisters who have my back against all of the external stigma and judgment.”
One of the biggest challenges was, you can’t just look on the internet and find women with incarcerated loved ones. It’s not a thing. Well, of course, it is a thing, it’s a thing that millions of women live, but it hadn’t been a defined group. At the time we started Essie, even formerly incarcerated people were a defined group, while women with incarcerated loved ones weren’t. There were no numbers, there was no data. There was no identification with this identity among the people that were living this experience.
Secondly, there is tremendous stigma. No one’s gonna raise their hand and say, “Oh, this is me.” There is shame and humiliation that comes with having someone you love in prison or jail or an immigration detention center. It’s something that you hide away, you shield yourself from all of the blame, and women will oftentimes incur a tremendous amount of isolation as a result.
So the idea of organizing and creating a mobilizable, strong, powerful, loving community from this constituency that didn’t have a name, that no one had done any research about, and for whom there was a stigma that prevented women themselves from opting into that identity ― that was a huge and scary question.
How have you ended up identifying women who’d benefit from Essie?
I am really interested in finding the isolated woman. Finding the woman who’s not already connected to movement work, who doesn’t know what “mass incarceration” is or hasn’t necessarily heard the phrase, because she’s not poring over the New York Times and not on HuffPost all the time. She’s raising the kids and trying to figure out the day-to-day.
So the question was, how do we get to those women? And at some point I was visiting a prison and there was a man there who knew about the work we were trying to do. He came up to me, and he’s incarcerated in San Quentin, and he said, “I need to tell you about my daughter.” It was with so much heart and intensity. “You need to know her. She is the reason why I am motivated every single day to do right, to get up, to get out, and I want her to have the community, the support, the love on the outside that she gives me in here.”
Walking out of that prison that day, I was like, “Okay, this is it. This is how we find those women.” So we set up a nominations process where mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, girlfriends of people who are behind bars can be nominated by incarcerated men and women. We also accept nominations from women themselves, if they’ve heard about the program ― it’s however you want, they come from many different places.
“Women have told us, I have never been nominated to anything before in my life. When they graduate, they say, I’ve never graduated from anything before in my life. We are creating a way for their efforts in this system to be uplifted and to be honored and to be appreciated.”
But the ones that we get from incarcerated people are very powerful, in that they almost always lead us to somebody who was not already involved in the work, who’s incredibly in need of resources. And when they come in, they stay. They’re in it.
Now, what happens when we get a nomination: every woman is called by another woman who has an incarcerated loved one or who has been there before. That is immediately made clear. We’ll say, “Ms. Mitchell, I’m holding a letter from your son. My name is Gina Clayton and I’m from Essie Justice Group, and your son, in this letter, he says that you are incredible. And I don’t know if now is a good time, but if it’s okay with you, I’d love to read you more of what he said. Would that be okay with you?” And of course, then it’s… you can imagine the kind of conversation that happens thereafter.
And then we end every call by saying, “There is a community of women here at Essie who would benefit from knowing you. Would you come to our info session?” We tell them about the meeting coming up ― there’s child care, food and transportation ― and we get people there. And women have told us, I have never been nominated to anything before in my life. When they graduate, they say, I’ve never graduated from anything before in my life. We are legitimizing the work that they are doing, creating a way for their efforts in this system to be uplifted and to be honored and to be appreciated. Women are feeling seen because of just that one phone call.
It’s also really powerful for the relationship between the incarcerated person who nominates and the woman. As you can imagine, that act of, “Wow, not only does he or she who’s incarcerated appreciate that I am coming to visits, that I am raising the kids, that I am doing all these things, but this person went out of their way to tell an organization about me.” It affirms the bond that we believe is very important to preserve, because once the person comes out, they need support to make good on that second chance.
I was sitting two days ago in a meeting with one of our program graduates. She’s so amazing. I had never ever, till that day, seen her without her four kids in tow. Never. So I looked at her, and I was like, “Oh my, this is a confusing sight!” Not to see her kids! The reason was because her husband had just gotten released from a federal sentence that he was serving four days before.
“Women so deeply love their partners, they love their sons and daughters who are incarcerated, but they aren’t allowed to say so. In our community, they’re allowed to love. They’re allowed to be proud.”
She looked ― I mean, she was lighter. And she had this whole testimony. She said, “One of the first things we did together as a family was to watch the Essie promotional video, and his response was, ‘Wow, you love me.’ And he said, ‘If you have to go to those meetings, I will take care of the kids, I will make dinner, I will iron, I will drive you there! Go do that!’” He saw that she was walking with him through this. And that is so important, because again, could you imagine being in a relationship and your partner is going through something that you can barely imagine, but you also know that you’re going through something that they could barely imagine? That is isolating you from one of your most important life relationships.
These women so deeply love their partners, they love their sons and daughters who are incarcerated, but they aren’t allowed to say so. In our community, they’re allowed to love. They’re allowed to be proud, and to celebrate the small and large victories. Ordinarily, the conversation would begin and end with, “Well, he’s in prison, so why are we even talking about the fact that got his GED?” That’s not even allowed to be part of the conversation. In this community, it can be shared. That revolutionary love infrastructure that we’re creating is incredibly important, and it starts with a nomination.
Below, women with incarcerated loved ones share stories of pain and resilience during an Essie policy summit.
With your education, you had such an array of options, but you chose social justice. What put you on that path?
My dad is a black American jazz musician from California. He married my mom ― she might be mad at me for saying this (laughs) ― she was a Dutch farm girl. She grew up in a really small farming community in Holland. Her parents would have been a little freaked out if she had married a Protestant from Amsterdam, but she married a black Baptist from Venice Beach! It was a big deal for everybody. All of the things that you can imagine were in front of them in terms of barriers and navigating these complex intersections of race and culture.
I found myself literally birthed into that. And from the beginning there was this commitment to love that looks outside of the expected, that looks revolutionary. I felt committed to that from a very early age. I feel like a product of revolutionary love.
My father’s a musician, and so his emphasis was not on academic success, it was on being creative and putting yourself into everything 100 percent. Hard work was an ethos that was right next to love. It was like, in order to love, you must work hard. You work hard in order to love well, in order to show your gratitude for the gift of life and family and all the things that you have. And that was not divorced from creativity, so everything that we did as kids ― I mean, it was just a normal childhood in some ways, but there was a real intentional desire among my parents to see me and my brother embrace difference and dissonance and to feel like that was where the harmony would lie.
“From the beginning there was this commitment to love that looks outside of the expected, that looks revolutionary. I feel like a product of revolutionary love.”
There’s woefully little data about these Essie women and families. What do we not understand well enough right now?
We know that one in four women has a family member in prison, but it doesn’t begin to describe what those numbers really look like. What does that number look like when you take into account jails (rather than just prisons), and when you take into account unmarried partners?
I also think that data would show a connection between supporting women and public safety, that supporting these women is in everybody’s best interest. Because women are the actual prison reentry system in this country ― they’re the ones who are visiting incarcerated people, talking them through what to expect when they come home, preparing the home, making sure things are ready in a physical way, in an emotional, spiritual way. Women are doing the reentry work. And a woman who is stable, strong and supported, who has a community like the one that we’re providing ― when her loved one comes out of prison, she is prepared. That family’s experience that is much more likely to end up successfully, and for the family to stay whole. But when she is stressed out, when she’s depressed, when she feels burdened, when she feels unsupported, that reentry experience is, I believe, much less likely to go well. So we want to understand the connection between that and recidivism outcomes.
I’d love to drill down on the mental health impacts of being so isolated. And the opportunity cost numbers would be amazing. We constantly hear women say, “I thought I was going to use this money to pursue my educational goals but instead I have to pay this court cost or this attorney.” What are women not able to do, or their kids not able to participate in, because of the huge amounts of money that families are pouring into a broken criminal justice system?
What are some books that had a major impact on your intellectual development?
Octavia Butler is brilliant. The Parable series is required reading. It’s actually a little frightening how real this sci-fi post-apocalyptic world that she’s created is in terms of what we’re seeing unfold today. There’s even a presidential candidate in one of her books whose slogan is “Make America great again.” It gives me chills to read. It’s unreal how predictive the world that she creates is, but her work also gets taught in advocate circles because it is visionary. So often we spend our time thinking about things that we don’t want to see, but we’re not spending time on the building work ― on building community, on creating revolutionary love infrastructures. What really does that mean and look like? I’m attracted to solutions. At bottom I’m an optimist, and those books in particular challenge me to keep thinking: What is the beauty that we want to create with the time that we have, with all of our time collectively that we have here on this planet? Those books inspire you to think that way.
The other book, “The New Jim Crow,” I mean, I can in some ways say that Michelle Alexander caused me to quit my job! (Laughs) She really did! I remember where I was when I read it, and where I was when I read it the second time, and then going to hear her speak. I was in New York, working these cases in the public defense office, representing mostly women who were being evicted from their homes. I was at a moment in my work where I was like, I see all of this stuff and it’s horrible and I feel like we’re making a dent, but the system feels so big and so weighty and so complicated.
What Michelle did was point out things that we already knew but tied them together in a way that was profound, and then pointed out what needed to happen. That allowance for us to be able to talk about the fact that the criminal justice system was operating in a racially-discriminatory fashion, that it was hurting black and brown people, was a conversation that I hadn’t felt allowed to have. And I had been doing civil rights work, and I had had mentors in black organizing and civil rights. They would say, “Gina, they just started listening to us. Why in the world would we want to tell them about our uncle who is doing time and that that’s a problem? Why in the world would we want to start to tell the stories about violence and hurt and trauma and addiction and pain in our communities? Why in the world would we want leave ourselves open and vulnerable to all of what may come if we really have honest conversations about what needs to change in the criminal justice context?”
So instead we focused on other issues. And it was Michelle saying, as a civil rights attorney, “This is a civil rights issue. And come on black people, let’s get courageous. Let’s really talk about what we already know about and say it loudly.” That all of a sudden just opened everything up. Her call to action was movement-building and engaging directly-impacted people and ensuring that they are leading the way, and it became clear to me that that was the solution. It just made so much sense. And it wasn’t going to be easy but it was like, alright then, that’s what we do. And so I quit my job, and now Essie is on a path to do just that.
This interview transcript has been edited and condensed.