June 6, 2016

Women living in the shadows of mass incarceration have a champion

Gina Clayton empowers the 'invisible' women standing in for their loved ones in prison

The founder of the Essie Justice Group wants to help women with loved ones behind bars escape the stigma, shame, and self-inflicted isolation to become advocates for ending mass incarceration. Photo courtesy of Gina Clayton

Gina Clayton walks among shadows.

Her life is inextricably intertwined with the lives of women trapped by the emotional and societal labyrinth of mass incarceration. These women are left behind to shoulder the burden of loved ones, partners and even children in prison. They live nearly invisible lives that sit at the intersection of the criminal justice system and social inaction. They suffer with shame, stigma and self-inflicted isolation.

Clayton, 33, founded the Essie Justice Group, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit, in May of 2014, to help women affected by incarceration by tapping into their collective power in a communal space that encourages self-awareness and advocacy. Through its intensive nine-week program, Essie seeks to “reweave the fabric of our mothering by filling the empty spaces whenever we can,” says Clayton. “We can’t possibly fill spaces completely, but we can create ways in which communities come together and hold each other in non-traditional ways that look like love and support … that look like family.”

Clayton traces the beginning of the Essie Justice Group to Essie Bailey, her great grandmother and the organization’s namesake. Essie grew up in the Deep South as the daughter of a Louisiana sharecropper. She moved west during the first Great Migration with young children in tow in search of opportunity as well as freedom from racism and poverty. Landing in southern California, Essie worked three jobs, raised three kids and “built a foundation on which I and so many of my other family members stand on today,” Clayton says. All of that was possible, Clayton notes, because Essie developed a tightly woven network of “sisters” that came to the aid of one another, at any time, for anything.

The organization’s namesake, Essie Bailey, left, grew up in the Deep South as the daughter of a Louisiana sharecropper. Photo courtesy of Gina Clayton

For Clayton, the work is personal. During her first year at Harvard Law School she got a call that a loved one was facing a long jail sentence. Studying criminal law during the day and spending her nights writing a sentencing judge in California to plead for leniency, she felt wholly inadequate. It was a “horrible irony,” she says, being in law school for the express purpose of helping her community navigate the justice system and not yet able to fully deliver on that dream. “I felt like I could do nothing and it was this experience that really set me on a path of wanting to learn and wanting to understand what mass incarceration was doing to communities of color that I care about,” she says.

"My entire life has been lived at the intersections of race, culture, language difference, and I've seen the way in which people can come together despite their differences." -- Gina Clayton

Clayton grew up in a biracial home. Born in Holland (she speaks Dutch and Spanish) to a Dutch white mother and a black American jazz musician father from Venice Beach, California. “My entire life has been lived at the intersections of race, culture, language difference, and I’ve seen the way in which people can come together despite their differences,” she says.

The passion and rhythm of her speech sounds like free form jazz, syncopated by anecdotal success stories, which always returns to a constant theme: the need for a social justice solution to mass incarceration.

As a result of mass incarceration, about one in four American women have a family member in prison—and that’s not counting those in jail, boyfriends, girlfriends or unmarried partners, Clayton says.

Women trapped in the aftermath of a loved one’s incarceration become isolated and tend to opt out of the very social support systems they need most, Clayton says. “This [isolation] creates devastating ripple effects throughout the individual’s life and their family’s life,” she says.

“To bring [women] back together and bring them into sisterhood, is what we do,” Clayton says. “So we’re building a social justice sisterhood,” that rebuilds and empowers lives and creates advocates to help fuel a movement aimed at ending mass incarceration in the U.S., says Clayton, who earned her law degree from Harvard in 2010.

In large part, much of Clayton’s work has been “re-branding and dispelling the myths” that surround women with incarcerated loved ones. These women aren’t all on public benefits nor are they sitting idly around waiting for a loved one in prison, but those are the stereotypes.

“Essie women, many of them, have degrees and are in school or are working multiple jobs or one great job or raising kids,” Clayton says. “And knowing that 1 in 4 statistic should tell you, too, that your bank teller is a woman with an incarcerated loved one. So is your accountant, your professor or your landlady. We’re everywhere.”

Essie Looks to Spread ‘Sisterhood’ Nationwide

Clayton she sees Essie driving the same path that Mothers Against Drunk Driving has taken, “gathering voices of women who have lost and who have said, ‘Enough is enough.’” As a result, through storytelling, MADD changed the way society thinks about the issue of drunk driving and has put some 2,500 laws on the books across the country. “I see the same trajectory for Essie,” she says.

The other model is Alcoholics Anonymous, which she wants to emulate in terms of scope. “AA is everywhere you go,” Clayton says, “and it’s so accessible to the community.” Essie has women across the country in New York, Massachusetts, Florida and Texas. “Purposely, we’ve been really national from the beginning because we wanted to make sure that we’re thinking about this in ways that can be flexible to meet national and local concerns. Our aim is to build a national organization that can push in a unified direction.”

Clayton says she went into this pursuit with eyes wide open, thanks to some insightfully blunt words from her father: “If you follow your passion, that’s a luxury, but in exchange you have to work yourself to the bone.”

Ten years from now she’ll still be at the helm of Essie “as long as Essie needs me,” Clayton says. “I believe that if we organize, if we move together and fight for that small ‘d’ democracy, that democratic path forward, we can build a future that we all want to see,” she says. “One that is equal, one that is just, and one where everyone can partner.”

Brock N Meeks

Brock N Meeks is a contributor to The Renewal Project.