Justice in America Episode 6: The Faces of Mass Incarceration
Beyond the numbers of America’s incarceration crisis.
Often, when people talk about the criminal justice system, they talk in big numbers— the millions of people serving time, the billions of dollars mass incarceration costs each year, the hundreds of thousands in jail at any given moment. But talking in big numbers sometimes obscures the fact that we’re discussing real people on this show—human beings, not statistics. On this episode, we discuss who these people really are and how this system affects not only their lives but the lives of their friends and family, particularly their partners and children. In particular, we explore look at how mass incarceration hurts women with loved ones involved in the system.
Our guest this episode is Gina Clayton, the Executive Director of Essie Justice Group, who joins us to discuss the phenomenal organization she has built focused on women with incarcerated loved ones.
Essie Justice Group’s website is here. Please check out the incredible work they are doing. And you should absolutely spend some time looking at their new report, Because She’s Powerful.
This report from the Economic Policy Institute, Mass Incarceration and Children’s Outcomes, gives more information about how parental incarceration affects kids.
The story we discuss of the biological mother whose three children were taken from her and later killed by their adopted parents is here. Roxanna Asgarian, the journalist who covered the story for The Appeal, also appeared on The Appeal Podcast with Adam Johnson. You can hear that episode here.
The report “Who Pays?” looks at how the criminal justice system affects not only those incarcerated, but their family and loved ones. It was produced by Ella Baker for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design, with support and collaboration from many other organizations.
Justice in America is available on iTunes, Soundcloud, Sticher, GooglePlay Music, Spotify, and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Facebook and Twitter.
Our email is email@example.com
Gina Clayton: Imagine if like our sentencing laws and policies took into account the fact that every time you put someone behind bars, it means that women have to take on more jobs, have to do all of the childcare responsibilities, have to pay the phone calls, the visiting, the commissary bills and are also criminalized, are also rendered isolated and marginalized by the stigma that paints across families who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system.
Josie: Hi everyone. I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Clint: And I’m Clint Smith.
Josie: And this is Justice in America. Each show we discuss a topic in the American criminal justice system and try to explain what it is and how it works.
Clint: We appreciate everybody for joining us today. You can find us on Twitter @Justice_Podcast and like our Facebook page, you can find us at Justice in America and please subscribe and rate us on iTunes. We’d love to hear from you and it really helps.
Josie: So we started the show with a clip from our guest, Gina Clayton. Gina is the founder and executive director of Essie Justice Group, which is an organization focused on harnessing the collective power of women with incarcerated loved ones to end mass incarceration’s harm to women and communities. What Gina has done is pretty amazing. She’s brought together groups of women and given them tools to let them build communities, organize for change and fight for their rights. And she’ll be joining us later in the show to help us discuss today’s topic. So today we’re talking about the impact that this criminal justice system has on actual people.
Clint: This may sound silly because of course we’re always talking about people, but we know we also talk a lot in these big numbers. You know, numbers like 11.7 million, which is how many people cycle through jail each year. Or 94 percent, which is about the percentage of cases that are pled out, instead of going to trial. Or 80 billion, which is how much the criminal justice system costs each year.
Josie: But we know that these are big numbers and you know the saying, one person is a tragedy, a million people is just a statistic. And we know that the criminal justice system can be kind of abstract, especially when we’re talking in such big numbers. There are so many issues and so many moving parts and yeah, so many people. So today we really want to translate the impact and by impact we don’t just mean the impact on the economy or the philosophical impact, we mean the actual impact of this system on the individual and not only the person incarcerated but their families, particularly the impact that the system has on women.
Clint: And while we talk to you about impact, we’re also going to talk about a place called Ferguson, Missouri. For those who may not remember, about four years ago, Mike Brown, a young, black, unarmed teenager was shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Let’s listen to one of Mike Brown’s friends who was there the day that he was shot.
Young Man: It was around 1:40, 2:00. We’re walking down the street, an empty street. We were just walking down, minding our own business. We’re both headed home and the officer’s approaching us and as he pulled up on a side of us, he didn’t say freeze, halt or nothing like we were committing a crime, he said, ‘get the F on the sidewalk.’ I told the officer we were not but a minute away from the destination. His arm extended out the window, grabbed my friend around the neck. He didn’t say step back or anything like that. He still holding my friend with one arm and now with the other hand, he’s pointed his weapon. The second time he says, ‘I’ll shoot,’ it wasn’t even a second later before the gun just went off and the officer let go and that’s how we were able to run. At the same time, the first car I see, I duck behind for cover because I feared for my life. I’m scared. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t understand why this officer is shooting his weapon at us and I’m looking, I’m watching the officer, he was pursuing my friend now that he fired another shot, it struck my friend in the back. Then my friend stopped running, his hands immediately went in the air and he turned around towards the officer face to face. He started to tell the officer that he was unarmed and that you should stop shooting me before he can get his second sentence out, the officer fired seven more shots into his head and chest area and he fell dramatically in the fetal position. I did not hear once he yell freeze, stop or halt. It was just horrible to watch. It hurt him a lot.
Clint: That was a clip of the day that Mike Brown got shot.
Josie: Yeah, it was a big turning point, I think, in the criminal justice community. Obviously this had been happening forever, but Mike Brown’s death really stands out even now and what I remember most about his death was the way that they left his body in the street for hours and I remember watching as his whole community kind of surrounded, trying to bid him goodbye.
Clint: Yeah. I think it was a turning point for a lot of people and I think it was really the beginning of what became a seemingly cascading stream of events that really illuminated that our country was not where it purported to be with regard to race and racism and, and I think it politicized a lot of people and I think it, it made people pay attention to the criminal justice system at large, uh, especially as it relates to a poor people and people of color in a way that they hadn’t before. And in many ways, both of our own work is in part made possible by the sacrifice of Mike Brown’s family and so many of the protesters who made this such an important issue when he was killed in 2014.
Josie: Absolutely. And you know, Ferguson is now just deeply, deeply ingrained in our societal memory. Like we said, Mike Brown’s death was a turning point and the viciousness of the police and the days and weeks that followed against protesters, against the community, was yet sort of another indication that places like Ferguson, poor places, black places, like you said, continue to be disproportionately picked on by law enforcement. But before we get too far into Ferguson, let’s talk about some of the basics.
Clint: So as usual we’ll start with the facts. We’ll start with a big picture and then try to narrow down. And again, we know that these are big numbers, but we hope you’ll stick with us. You already know that on any given day there are about 2.2 million people in prison and jail in the United States. What’s more, about 12 million people cycle in and out of jails each year. And between 70 million and 100 million Americans or about one in three American adults have some type of criminal record.
Josie: So people who are incarcerated or are formerly incarcerated run the gamut across geography, race, age, class, gender identity. But one thing that’s been a common thread throughout mass incarceration has been the various ways that the system disproportionately impacts black people.
Clint: Again, the proportionality thing is important. And so this is specifically talking about black disparity first, minority disparity more generally. Black people are not the only people at a disadvantage in our criminal justice system, but they are certainly facing the most extreme imbalance.
Josie: Right. You know, some people might be surprised to learn that there are, very roughly speaking, about the same number of black and white people serving time in prison. So remember we’re talking prison now not jail, and the available numbers that we have are about 18 months old, they are from the very tail end of 2016. But they show that at the end of 2016 there were roughly about 487,000 black inmates in federal and state prisons and 440,000 white inmates. So 487,000 versus 440,000. Black people make up about 33 percent of those incarcerated while white people make up about 30 percent. There are still more black people in prison than white people, but all things considered that disparity is much smaller than it was in say 2009 when there were about a hundred thousand more black people than white people serving time in prison. But-
Clint: Yes, but, here’s where proportions matter. In 2016, white people accounted for 64 percent of America’s adult population, so damn near about two thirds, but they made up less than one third of the prison population. Meanwhile, there were more black people than white people in prison, despite the fact that black people make up just 12 percent of America. Just 12 percent. And they’re still the majority of people who are incarcerated. So even though there are relatively similar numbers of black people and white people serving prison sentences, black people are still drastically overrepresented in the system. In fact, in state prisons, black people are incarcerated per capita at a rate that’s five times higher than white people. Five times, and that’s the average. It’s not the highest. There are states, five states to be exact, where the disparity is twice that, where black people are incarcerated at ten times the rate of their white counterparts.
Josie: Depending on where you live, this may or may not surprise you, but there is not a single state in America that is majority black. The closest is Mississippi, which is just under 40 percent black, but in 12 states, about a quarter of the states in the country, more than half of the prison population is black. It’s especially bad in Maryland where black people make up about 72 percent of the prison population.
Clint: Now one common and kind of trollish response to this is that black people go to prison because they commit all the crimes. This, as we hope you know, is not the case and there’s plenty to criticize about that logic, but in the interest of time, let’s make one important point and this goes back to Ferguson. Many black communities like Ferguson are living under the weight of constant criminalization and surveillance and that criminalization is a cycle. You may remember that after Mike Brown was killed, the Department of Justice investigated Ferguson and released a report. And what it found was that in Ferguson, black people were 85 percent of the traffic stops and were issue 90 percent of the tickets even though they made up only 65 percent of the population and they were almost twice as likely to have their cars searched even though searches of white drivers were more likely to turn up drugs or other contraband. And black people were almost exclusively charged at a rate of 95 percent for tiny offenses like disturbing the peace and jaywalking. Which, as we’ve talked about, are crimes that really reflect the subjective nature of criminality because they are more reflective of a decision somebody is making rather than the objective notion of an actual crime being committed. And you can see this in that when white people were charged with these same quote unquote “crimes,” they were almost 70 percent more likely to have their cases dismissed. So these numbers highlight what we already know about black communities. What we learned after years of stop-and-frisk and the school to prison pipeline and so many other interactions with law enforcement, black people are over-criminalized and over-policed even in an era where crime is lower than it has been for almost 40 years, and this over-criminalization tends to coincide with other problems. At the time of Mike Brown’s death, the unemployment rate for black men in Ferguson was 47 percent. Here are clips of Ferguson residents from 2014 talking about the police, the protests, and the lack of opportunity.
Man #1: Mike Brown. It was time for a change.
Man #2: We’re tired of just being looked at as a, as a, as another species. Ain’t even like we human.
Man #3: To be honest I feel like if they don’t, if they don’t come and restore these neighborhoods for these people, like when you got to travel miles to go to Walmart and to get gas and stuff like that when they used to be right here, they don’t restore this community for, for, for people who stay here, there’s going to be hell to pay.
Man #4: That’s why people lose because they can’t get no job.
Man #5: Give us those jobs, set it up to where we can get those jobs.
Man #6: No jobs, no peace.
Man #7: No jobs, no peace. Period.
Josie: So there’s a lot to talk about, but I want to say one last thing about race. We should of course note that it is not only black people experiencing disparities in the criminal justice system. The Hispanic prison population is also disproportionately high. Hispanic people make up about 16 percent of America and yet account for about 23 percent of the prison population. It’s a less extreme difference than what black people face, but it’s still a major gap and a serious injustice. And what you should also know, if you don’t already, is that incarceration plagues Native communities in particularly profound ways. Native Americans are incarcerated at a rate almost forty percent higher than the national average, and America’s overreliance on punishment for Native people is long documented and continues to this day. So obviously race matters, but it is not the only thing that matters.
Clint: Let’s talk about class. Recent report found that, to no surprise, poverty is a major predictor of criminal justice involvement and it matters from the very beginning. Boys born into households that are in the bottom ten percent of earners are then twenty times more likely to be in prison in their thirties then children who were born in the top ten percent. Twenty times more likely. In fact, one of the main things that many of the incarcerated have in common is poverty. The same study which comes from the Brookings Institute found that less than half of incarcerated men were employed two full years before they went to prison, and those who were employed had depressed wages and made very little money. The median income of those men is literally less than $7,000 a year. In fact, barely more than ten percent of incarcerated men who were employed before they were sent to prison, made more than $15,000 a year. Now these numbers vary and other people estimate that the median income is around $17,000 a year, but as you can see, either way, we’re not talking about a lot of money.
Josie: Yeah and this puts the profit obsession of our criminal justice system in an even more sinister light. And once again it brings us back to Ferguson. What I found perhaps most infuriating about the aftermath of Mike Brown’s death and the DoJ investigation is that it became clear that Ferguson was basically forcing black poor people to fund the budget. Twenty percent of the municipal budget in Ferguson was coming from court fines for quote unquote “crimes” like putting your trash out on the wrong day or wearing saggy pants and it was mostly black and poor people who are forced to pay these fines. Sometimes these fees were, according to the Atlantic, more than triple the defendant’s income and if they couldn’t pay up, they’d be sent to jail. There are countless places like Ferguson where the black and brown population is largely low income and the city is broke and courts are finding anyone they can to keep the lights on. But in these places, in Ferguson and others, the racial bias and the over-criminalization means that the people struggling the most are forced to give everything they have over ridiculous charges and sometimes end up in jail just because they can’t pay these exorbitant amounts of money.
Clint: And there’s much more we could talk about on this subject. And at some point on this show, we are going to do a deep dive into how geography affects the likelihood of criminal justice involvement, but for now we should really look at one other major category and that’s gender. Now, as you may know, or may have figured, men are more likely to be incarcerated than women. In fact, more than 90 percent of people incarcerated are men as compared to less than ten percent of women. One in 56 women will spend time in prison at some point in their life. And for men, that number is one in nine. But, or and, I should say, women in the criminal justice system is its own very real epidemic with its own issues and idiosyncrasies.
Josie: Yep, that’s exactly right. So the number of incarcerated men is way, way higher than that of women, but it doesn’t mean that women are out of the woods. Over the past three or four decades, the number of women in prison has increased by 800 percent, 800. Almost a quarter of women serving time are in prison on drug charges compared to just 15 percent of men. And in addition to the women incarcerated in jails and prisons, there are about one million women who are under community supervision, so they’re either on parole or probation.
Clint: So like we said, the likelihood of incarceration at some point in their lifetime for men is one in nine. These are predictive numbers, but if trends continue, that’s one in three black men as compared to one in six Latino men and one in 17 white men. Meanwhile, one in 56 women will be incarcerated at some point, but that’s one in 18 black women compared to one in every 45 Latino women and one in every 111 white women and gender identity is also an important part of this conversation that’s sometimes overlooked. People in the LGBTQ community are criminalized disproportionately and the rate of incarceration for transgender women is astronomical, especially transgender women of color, 47 percent of all black transgender women will be incarcerated in their lifetime.
Josie: We’ve been trying to paint a picture for you of what incarceration looks like and who it affects disproportionately. Poor people, black people, queer people. But let’s zoom in even closer on something really important and that the family of incarcerated loved ones. You know, we’ve been talking about family separation a lot in this country over the past few months, and I think it’s fair to say that we all agree that what is happening to immigrants and families at the border is truly just unconscionable.
Clint: It’s devastating to see children taken from their parents, but it’s worth noting that family separation has a long tradition in our American criminal justice system. Of course, the jailing and caging of children and babies is a new level of hellishness that while, certainly not unprecedented, because of slavery, internment, has before now been uncommon for quite some time and it’s truly, truly depraved. But separating children and babies from their parents for years over relatively minor infractions, that’s something that happens every single day in this country. Experts estimate that over two thirds of women serving time in prison are mothers and over 90 percent of adult men incarcerated are also fathers. Here’s a clip of a recent video that’s made the rounds. Its of a young boy who is crying as his father is arrested and then taken to jail. And just a warning, even with only the audio, this is still a pretty horrifying clip as the police forcibly restrain the ten year old boy.
Child: (Crying and sobbing)
Policeman: Back off! Back off! Back off! Stop. (More crying) Stop resisting! Stop resisting. Calm down, calm down man. Calm down. You gotta calm down for a second. Put your hands up okay. You’re not going to jail.
Child: I don’t want to go to jail!
Josie: Hearing that as just, I mean, devastating. It really makes me want to cry. And, and you know, you and I both have sons, um, and the idea of being taken from them is just, it’s sickening. You think about the trauma of that moment for that baby. And think about just how heartbreaking that must be. And this is one of the things that we really want to emphasize to you all on the show. The people affected by mass incarceration are not just the individuals, who by the way are also people just like you and me who have families and responsibilities and they love their children and their mother and their friends, but it’s not just them, it’s the people around them. It’s their kids, it’s their families, it’s their partners and our guest, Gina Clayton, will talk about this more in just a little bit, but, but the devastation really has a ripple effect.
Clint: So let’s talk about exactly what that devastation looks like. Estimates vary widely, but a general consensus is that about 2.7 million kids in America at any given time have an incarcerated parent. Again, that’s just a snapshot number, but it doesn’t encompass the real volume of how many kids experience parental incarceration given how many people cycle in and out of jail each year. Again, estimates vary, but somewhere around 5 to 10 million children have had a parent incarcerated in their lifetime and over 30 million kids have a parent with a criminal record and as always the intersection of race, class status and education matter here as well. A black child whose father didn’t complete high school has approximately a 50 percent chance of seeing that parent incarcerated by the time the child is 14.
Josie: So what happens to these kids, these millions of kids, when one of their parents goes to prison or jail? Well, to some extent, what happens to a kid depends on which parent is incarcerated, so the vast majority of those kids whose father is serving time live with their mothers, around 90 percent. Dad goes to jail or prison, kids still live with mom. But when a child’s mother is incarcerated, most kids don’t live with their fathers. In fact, only about a quarter of children with incarcerated mothers live with their dads, but about half of kids with incarcerated mothers live with their grandmothers. So if your mother is in prison, you’re about twice as likely to live with your grandmother than your father.
Clint: The trauma of losing a parent isn’t just a momentary phenomenon. It’s permanent and it’s even generational. Having a parent in prison makes it six times more likely that the child themselves will be involved in the criminal justice system, and that’s just a truly heartbreaking statistic. And depending on which parent is in prison, a child is at risk of specific types of devastations. So for children with mothers who are locked up, they are drastically more likely to end up being in the foster care system and 40 percent of foster care children have been exposed to parental incarceration at some point in their lives. This is just another example of the instability that incarceration creates. When a mother is sent to jail, it doesn’t just uproot that kid’s relationship with their mom for a certain amount of time or even just the time that that parent is incarcerated. It impacts their entire lives and their entire life trajectory, often resulting in involvement in the child welfare system. This puts these kids at an even more significant disadvantage. Both kids in foster care and kids with incarcerated parents are more likely to end up involved in the juvenile justice system. So the cycle replicates and replicates and replicates, and unsurprisingly, there are racial disparities here as well. Black children are extremely over-represented in our child welfare system, even though they only represent 15 percent of our country’s kids, they represent 30 percent of the foster care population.
Josie: So because of strict laws around foster care, parents whose children end up in foster care often have a very difficult time getting them back. So you may have heard this story of the adoptive parents who drove their six children off of a cliff recently, killing both the mothers and all of the kids. It was just an incredibly, incredibly tragic story made even more tragic because of the story of Sherry Davis. So Sherry was the biological mother of three of the children. She lives in Houston and she had to hear about her children’s death from her sister who heard it from her lawyer. Nobody actually reached out to Sherry directly to tell her that her children had been killed. She lost custody of her kids 12 years ago because of her cocaine addiction that had her caught up in the criminal justice system and the family court system and her parental rights were terminated. She was hopeful that her sister was going to be able to adopt the kids. But one day a case worker stopped by unannounced and found Sherry babysitting her children while her sister was at work, which was just not permitted. So as a result, her kids were adopted by the Harts, a white couple in Minnesota. And there were allegations of abuse and neglect while the kids were in the Harts’ care far before the accident. You know the story of the heartbreaking deaths of these children got some media attention, but how these kids came to be adopted wasn’t covered at all in the beginning, and Sherry’s story wasn’t included in any of the reporting until it was covered in The Appeal by Roxanna Asgarian. And Roxanna was actually featured on The Appeal’s other podcast called, quite logically, The Appeal, which is hosted by Adam Johnson. So I recommend checking out Roxanna’s interview, which is Episode 10 of The Appeal Podcast. This is not, of course, a typical situation and the implication is not that we shouldn’t let people adopt children, but there are many women like Sherry who lose their kids over drug charges. They lose their children forever. And in this particular case, the adoptive parents were clearly not monitored when they should’ve been.
Clint: So we know that having an incarcerated mother is more significantly linked to a child’s involvement with the foster care system, but having an incarcerated father is more closely associated with something else that’s majorly destabilizing and that’s homelessness. Which is to say, paternal incarceration roughly doubles the chances of a child ending up homeless. And again, as we shouldn’t be surprised to know these effects are more concentrated among black children.
Josie: This goes back to what we were talking about earlier, which is poverty. As we know, poor people are more likely to be incarcerated, but criminal justice involvement will also keep you poor and I think it’s worth talking about a little more in the context of family. Politicians and experts and academics like to talk about the economic burden of our criminal justice system. You know, it’s expensive. It costs us about $80 billion a year and there’s really no question about the sheer amount of money the system costs all of us at every turn. But when people don’t talk about as often is what the system costs the incarcerated and what it costs the people around them, especially their families.
Clint: So this is another area of life where having an incarcerated family member significantly impacts your life. A few years ago, the Ella Baker Center released a report called “Who Pays?” And as part of their study they surveyed over a thousand formerly incarcerated people, their family members and their employers. They hosted focus groups and they really tried to look at who bears the burden of incarceration. And what they found basically was that defendants simply don’t suffer alone. The cost of incarceration are incurred by the entire family and often the entire community.
Josie: Exactly. The economic pain is felt directly through the costs of the system, and that means costs of lawyers, court fees and fines, phone charges, visitation charges and countless other costs. In fact almost half of the families in this survey were unable to afford the costs associated with a conviction and these costs often send families into significant debt. One in five of the families surveyed in this report across income levels reported that they had to take out a loan to pay for some of these costs. Again, this takes us back to Ferguson. Ferguson is really emblematic of America. Where an entire city was ravaged by the fines and fees that they were having to pay the local court system.
Clint: And it’s not just fines and fees, just keeping in touch is expensive. One in three families have to go into debt to pay for phone calls and visits alone, but you know the front end costs are not the only way the economic pain is felt. It’s felt in the back end too, often in lost opportunities. Of formerly incarcerated individuals, 67 percent are still unemployed or underemployed five years after they were released. And this is tied to something that Harvard sociologist Devah Pager has researched extensively, which is how difficult it is for someone to get a job after they have been released from prison. But not only that, it’s how the assumption of criminality plagues all black people who are looking for jobs, so much to the point that, as Pager previously found, a white person with a criminal record is more likely to be called back for a job interview than a black person without a criminal record, but we’ll get more into that in a future show. So overall, the impact is massive. The result found that two and three families had difficulty meeting basic needs as a result of their loved ones conviction and incarceration. 70 percent of these families were caring for children who were under the age of 18.
Josie: And there’s the emotional and mental impact on people as well. You know, research shows that incarceration increases the risk of divorce, it diminishes political participation, it increases the risk of homelessness and housing insecurity. But while most people in prison are men, a lot of the burden is carried by women at home. The childcare impact and the economic impact, it often falls on women.
Clint: You know, as we mentioned earlier, women do much of the child rearing when one parent is lost to the system and that’s not just when the father is locked up. Mothers raise children when the father is incarcerated and grandmothers often raise children when the mother is incarcerated.
Josie: And the data shows that it’s often the women who are paying the bail, dealing with the fees, getting a second job. 83 percent of family members paying for court related costs were women and according to a new report by the Essie Justice Group, which is our guest Gina Clayton’s organization, nearly 70 percent of women with incarcerated loved ones are their families only wage earner. Women have been bearing this burden for as long as mass incarceration has been happening.
Clint: This is just another example of how the criminal justice system traps people. Like we’ve talked about, most people in the system are men, but in reality it’s not as simple as saying ‘he’s in the criminal justice system’ or ‘she’s out of it.’ If you’re a , a wife, a parent, a girlfriend, a partner, you are also in many ways entrapped in the system, you are also suffering.
Josie: What Essie has found is that that experience has an impact on women’s health. 86 percent of women that Essie surveyed identified the impact of a loved one’s incarceration on their emotional and mental health as significant or extreme. And 63 percent of women said their physical health had been significantly or extremely affected by a loved one’s incarceration. And it’s isolating. It’s emotionally isolating. It’s socially isolating. So as we close out, here’s a clip from Mike Brown’s mother talking about the impact of Ferguson’s punishing criminal justice system, a system that eventually killed her son.
Lezley McSpadden: He was special to me. He was ours. He was peaceful, he was humble, he didn’t ask for that, he didn’t deserve that and it was wrong. aAd I’ma always love him just how he was and nothing they say can change the way I feel about him because they didn’t know him like we knew him. So nothing you can say is gonna ever make me understand what happened, ever.
Clint: To dig some more into this topic, particularly the impact that the system has on women we’ll be joined by Gina Clayton, the founder and executive director of Essie Justice Group, an organization focused on harnessing the collective power of women with incarcerated loved ones to end mass incarceration’s harm to women and communities. Stay tuned.
Josie: Today we’re talking to Gina Clayton, the founder and executive director of Essie Justice Group and I’m really excited that we have Gina on today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Gina Clayton: Thank you for having me.
Josie: So Gina, you’ve started this really incredible organization focused on women with incarcerated loved ones and I was hoping you could give us some background on Essie Justice, what it is and what you all do.
Gina Clayton: Sure. Um, so just by way of background, I come to this work from both a professional place but also from a deeply personal one. When I went to law school in my first year at Harvard, someone that I love was sentenced to 20 years in prison. And that experience completely changed my perspective. It changed my focus. It was so rattling for me, um, that there was kind of this daily irony of living in and amongst some of the most well connected, powerful people in the form of professors and other faculty members who had direct lines to judges and, and, and former presidents of the United States and all kinds of power. But I felt like there was really at the time no one that I could talk to or that I should talk to and I really kept it to myself. And I remember being in these crim law classes where we’re studying cases that had been, that were hypotheticals or had long since passed and just feeling the deep and really painful irony of like going home and writing letters to a sentencing judge in California pleading for leniency. Like it was such a bizarre experience, but it was an experience that really opened my eyes to the fact that incarceration was harming people, not just the people incarcerated, but also families and communities that I deeply care about and come from. And I, from that point on, um, began to get curious and then obsessed with what is massive incarceration doing to all of us and, and why, and how can we all be a part of doing something about it to make change. And so I ended up, um, from there graduating and I ended up at a public defender’s office in Harlem where I came to build a housing practice. So my, my work at the Neighborhood Defenders Service of Harlem, which is a holistic public defense office, um, with this beautiful vision in kind of a black-centered, black-lead space and tradition, uh, developed out kind of this holistic model of representation that then later on went, you know, to, uh, inspire places like Bronx Defenders and other offices that we know to do great holistic work and um, so I ended up there because they were noticing how many people were being evicted as the result of some sort of criminal matter. And so my job was to create a housing practice that would represent and provide eviction defense services for particularly women and families who were being evicted as a result of some sort of criminal matter. So I, my clients look like women like Sandrea, who was one of my very first clients when I was at the office. She was a grandmother, had been living in her apartment for 20 years when she came to me and I’ll never forget, you know, sat across from me in this intake office with paperwork saying that she, that her tendency was going to be terminated and the reason was because her grandson who was 17 years old at the time and who did not live with her, but definitely visited his grandmother, was arrested blocks away one night from her apartment. And um, you know, he wasn’t in the apartment, he wasn’t on the premises, he was in the neighborhood and he was arrested. And this 17 year old on this first arrest, when the police officer asks him, ‘what’s your address?’ He, his mind immediately goes to her. So he gives the officer that address and let me tell you that the case had not yet even been adjudicated. There was nothing, there was nothing that was determined. There was no final decision, nothing. He was not proven guilty of anything. And yet she, Sandrea, was already being processed for, for termination of her tenancy and eviction simply because, you know, what that triggered was immediately the housing authority received the paperwork from the police department, they moved to see her be put in these proceedings. And then, so for six months she ended up fighting for her home in a legal proceeding, um, which she had paid, you know, had a completely clean tendency record and paying her rent on time, etcetera. And we won that case. But only after like she had representation, which most people don’t. Um, and she, uh, and not most, by most, I mean 90 percent of mostly women who are in these positions don’t have representation in these cases. Um, and at the end of all of that, you know, and what would then come, you know, case after case after case, I just, they all started looking the same as, as they do in these situations, what I found was that in almost all of my cases, and this happened with Sandrea too, the very first question that I would get, um, in those intake meetings after they, you know, kind of explain what was going on was ‘Gina, how long do you think you can get me before I have to move out?’ And this was like the gut wrenching question because it, to me it was, you know, every one of the women that I represented at the very beginning of these cases, were preparing for a surrender, not for a fight. And what I saw was that if there’s anyone who needs to be fighting, um, and to be telling people what’s really going on in this age of mass criminalization, it is these women. And so that brought me to, I think this, this idea for Essie, uh, in its most, you know, kind of begetting form was this belief in this idea that women with incarcerated loved ones, women like Sandrea are not only being directly impacted but are also in such a phenomenal position that if organized, if connected, if put in positions where they could lead, um, could really change the game in criminal justice reform. And so that’s kind of where it all began.
Clint: Gina, I think the, the idea of, of having women who are impacted by mass incarceration being some of its most vocal advocates is really important. And I think they’re a group of people who are often sidelined unfortunately in the sort of public discourse of this conversation. And I really admire the way that your organization is trying to center center them and their stories. And I also read and am curious that part of the mission of the organization is not only to, to put these women at the center of the conversation around advocacy, but also to sort of build relationships with one another. And I read that you sort of began this almost in an informal context with having formerly incarcerated women have brunch with one another and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that started and, and the ways in which the bonds and relationships that these women form shape the sort of advocacy that they’re able to do.
Gina Clayton: Yeah, I really, I definitely really appreciate that question. You know, one thing that I noticed right from the beginning was that people would begin to ask me, you know, when I had this idea for building an organization of women with incarcerated loved ones, or like a loving and powerful community of women who are the mothers and the sisters and the daughters and girlfriends and wives and grandmothers of people behind bars. Um, was, uh, two things, well first, was that people wouldn’t necessarily know who I was talking about. Like one of the things that I realized early on was that the really important work that’s happened around gender and centering women in criminal justice conversations happened because of the really important leadership of formerly incarcerated and currently incarcerated women. Right? The people like Susan Burton and Kim Carter and Andrea James, who have really just been extraordinarily impactful in their work to demand that the way that we see incarceration is not so limited as to only be focusing on the experiences of men has been incredibly important. And yet when I would speak about what I was trying to do, most people assume very quickly that I was talking about incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people because our women, because literally no one was talking about women with incarcerated loved ones. In fact that term ‘women with incarcerated loved ones’ was a term that kind of we came up with. Like people would say, you know, prison wives are a thing and mothers of incarcerated sons like you have kind of these like break off groups and that they’re the big tent, the idea that like we were going to organize women because we want to talk about gender and women with incarcerated loved ones who by the way include incarcerated women who include formerly incarcerated women. About 30 percent of our membership is formerly incarcerated women. Um, was something that became a really important thing for us to, to be able to, to share, um, in order for us to be able to do our work. And I think it underscores the point that women like Sandrea live and toil within the context of mass incarceration daily without ever being seen or acknowledged and recognized. I mean, imagine if like our sentencing laws and policies took into account the fact that every time you put someone behind bars, it means that women have to take on more jobs, have to do all of the childcare responsibilities probably by themselves, have to pay the phone calls, the visiting, the commissary bills and have to, and are also criminalized, are also rendered isolated and marginalized by the stigma that comes and that paints across families, um, who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system. And so this was like point number one, right? Is that I needed to make sure that, that women with incarcerated loved ones were visible. And then number two was that we needed to bring them together. Like we, um, you know, mass incarceration is very good at isolating people, right? Like that’s the whole goal is to separate, is to contain and remove. Behind bars, through social kind of norms, through, through all kinds of all kinds of things. We remove people. That’s the whole idea. And so we become so good at that culturally that the idea of connection is actually really revolutionary. Like it’s actually quite difficult, particularly in the context of hate and punishment to reestablish bonds. And it turns out as well that like the reason why people are often silent is because they don’t feel connected. Like I knew that I needed to figure out a solution for this. And so it wasn’t until going into San Quentin and, um, strangely enough, on that trip, a man came up to me who was incarcerated at the time inside and he said, you know, ‘Gina, I know what you’re trying to do with Essie and this community that you’re trying to build and I really want to tell you about my daughter.’ And he goes on to tell me the most beautiful things about what his daughter is doing for him, that the reason why he is motivated to get up every single morning, why he is like not depressed, why he is committed to his program is because of her and that he knows that his incarceration is having an impact on her life and he wants her to have the support and community that he feels like she’s able to bring him inside when she comes to visit and through the phone calls out here. And um, and so I remember leaving the prison gates that day or walking out of the gates and thinking so much about, of course, wanting to be connected to her and wanting to be contacting her.But I also really thought about him and like how incredible it was, what he had just done in uplifting her and her work and her invisible work and love. And so out of that was born our nominations process. And so today we at Essie Justice Group receive letters from incarcerated people who are our most important referral source and partners and they write to us, long, sometimes they’re like pages long letters about their mothers and their wives and their sisters and daughters and girlfriends and grandmothers who are doing so much loving from outside in and working on the outside to hold everything together and what we do with every one of those letters from prison that we get, we open them up and you know, unfold the letter, read it and then pick up the phone. And that phone call is like, ‘hi, Miss Johnson, my name is Gina Clayton and I’m calling you. I know it’s a little out of the blue but I’m calling you because I’m holding a letter from your son and he’s written to us and he says that you are incredible. Um, and I am calling, hoping that maybe I can read to you some of what he said because his letter just moved us so, so deeply. Would that be all right?’ You know, and that, that is our very first isolation breaking programmatic touch at Essie Justice Group. And that’s where the conversation begins and that conversation ends with an invitation. And that invitation is um, ‘Miss Johnson, we have a loving and powerful community here at Essie Justice Group who would benefit from knowing you. Would you come?’ And that invitation is an invitation to leadership. It’s not some judge or some court told us that you were needy and depressed and alone and you know, would be helped by a program. Like that is absolutely not what we are saying. We are not a charity. We are building an organization of women leaders. And so that’s what the invitation is. From there, she comes to a info session where she learns about our nine week program, which is a commitment that we expect of anyone who’s interested in becoming a member of Essie Justice Group to go through our nine week program, which is weekly, you know, she would come and join a group of 10 to 12 other women who are, who were nominated just like she was in a peer facilitative process. By the end of our healing to advocacy program, she can graduate. And at that graduation she’s invited to take a pledge and that pledge transitions her into, into membership. And so we take really seriously this idea of community building, of connection because we believe that it is only by doing exactly the opposite of what the kind of carceral system is doing by restoring and creating opportunities for connection and for love that power comes, that voice comes, that confidence comes, that healing comes. And that’s exactly what has been, I think, critical to our success in our advocacy campaigns and our policy work. But it really all started from our organizing model and from the kind of success of that.
Josie: Excellent. I think that leads really nicely into our next question, which is about bail. So we’ve talked about bail on our podcast before and we know that Essie Justice has done some incredible organizing on this issue in California and also nationwide and I know that this organizing part, organizing around things that are happening in the community is part of the model as well. So I would love for you to tell us why you focused on bail and what that’s looked like?
Gina Clayton: Absolutely. The bail industry has for too long been targeting women, particularly black and brown women to draw profit off of incredibly desperate situations. What is, I think, you know, we have right now, we’re in the middle of a very exciting time for the bail reform movement where we’re seeing states, uh, district attorneys, judges, governors really take on this issue and prioritize reform in this area. And that’s because of women like the Venida Browder, whose son Kalief Browder was incarcerated pretrial as a teenager in Rikers Island where he spent over a thousand days right in a cage there, um, the majority of which was in solitary confinement, enduring torture and all kinds of brutality and left there only to have his case dismissed with so much harm done to him that he ended up taking his own life. His mother, uh, which I think is also an incredibly important part of that story. Papers would later say, you know, died of a broken heart. I mean, that’s exactly what it was attributed to. Her death was directly caused by the inability of her and her family and him to be able to pay what was, I think, like a $3,000 bail amount. That is what is happening to families across this country and in California where Essie is really based we see, you know, tonight 46,000 people are sleeping inside of a cell with families and things who they ought to be going back to, simply because they cannot afford their bail. Um, and at the beginning, you know, it was funny because we started, we started our bail campaign. We are cosponsors of legislation in California that would end, really effectively end the use of money bail in our state. This is part of a two year fight that we’ve been a part of and we’re kind of at the tail end of, in the final push. I think that we really believe that women with incarcerated loved ones and being able to kind of uplift the impact that is happening to, to us is not just a moral imperative, but it is good strategy. And we’ve seen like this opportunity with bail to prove our theory, our hypothesis that women with incarcerated loved ones can really game change in this area. There’s an entire community of black and brown women at Essie who have done reports, who have done surveys, who are consistently in the community bringing up stories and making sure that the record is correct on this issue and that’s been really effective. And I think it’s led to things like we had, at the very beginning of last year, we held a leadership retreat for women with incarcerated loved ones and invited a member of Google’s policy team to come and join us there to hear also about, um, the impact of bail on black and brown women. We later this year, at the beginning of the year, had another convening that another member of Google’s team we invited to come and in between both of those convenings had been invited by them to have more conversations about what the bail industry and particularly what the private sector was doing to harm and to further entrench this industry and this bail system into so much of our criminal justice spaces. And over the course of meetings and kind of behind the scenes, advocacy and storytelling and policy suggestions, collaboration Google made this decision to divest from the bail industry, disallowing any bail agents and agencies from placing or buying ads on their platform. And Facebook soon followed. And this is still today, you know, is the largest corporate divestment from the bail industry ever that we have seen. And uh, and that’s because of organizing. Although we are seeing some really exciting victories, we’re still very much in the middle of what I think is going to be a much longer fight and struggle to bring home our family members and to really end the systems like incarceration that are not working for anybody. So.
Josie: Gina, can you also tell us about Mother’s Day bailout? I know that that’s a major part of your bail work and so I’d love for you to just tell a little bit about that.
Gina Clayton: Last year, a group of black organizers from across the country came together to talk about bail and to talk about the impact of bail particularly on black communities. Um, this was in the, in the aftermath of Sandra Bland and her death and in a Texas jail. And, and of course Kalief and Venida Browder’s death. And we came together in Atlanta and had a series of conversations that began to feel really frustrating. You know, about the technicality, I mean we had longtime organizers, attorneys, I mean just folks who have really been in it in the trenches for years and years, trying to figure out like, how are we going to free our folks from this? And Mary Hooks, at that meeting, was inspired and she’s just one of the most brilliant organizers from Southerners On New Ground, I mean, if you don’t know Mary Hooks, you gotta look her up, like this is a person who everybody needs to know and learn from and listen to. And boy am I glad we listened because her idea was why don’t we just go free our people right now? Why don’t we just go and raise some money and bail some people out? Bail out black women, bail out black mothers who we know are just doing everything and when they are gone, like everything falls apart. Right? So, so from that, we began to enter into this months long process of really pulling together the kind of complicated backend of that, some of the most brilliant leaders and organizers in the work, Mabre Stahly-Butts from Law For Black Lives, uh, Arrissa Hall, uh, you know, Scott Roberts, Color of Change, like coming together to really move this thing forward. And so last year we had a bailout, it was super successful. We had another one this year and we brought home over 140 women across the country raising, over the last two years, raising millions of dollars to bring black people home from inside of jails. Um, what I think is really important about this work is that of course it’s beautiful storytelling and narrative shifting work, which is important, right? You need to have opportunities to talk about what’s really happening inside of our jails, what’s happening in our bail system and actions like this, provide that opportunity. But more than that, um, I want to take you into like a little bit of the nitty gritty because that I think is where it gets most exciting, which is that at Essie, what this looks like is community members, like a support team of women with incarcerated loved ones who have the experience, who know what it is to go inside of the jail to visit, um, to support someone who’s coming out, come together and collaborate. Bring together their expertise that they have because of experience, um, to brainstorm, to come up and strategize with ways that we can hold people outside of a cage who may need nothing more than just a reminder to get back to court or who may need a little more, who might need a program or might need, um, it might be an opportunity to provide some support around housing or job training or whatever it might be. And so it’s so much more than an action. It’s so much more than an opportunity to tell stories. It’s really an opportunity to build power in communities to give people a flavor and taste of like, you know what? We can liberate ourselves and each other and we can get hungry for wanting to do more of that, which is I think every organizers dream.
Josie: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.
Clint: And Gina, just as we sort of wrap up, I know you all released a report recently on how women with incarcerated loved ones, uh, experience trauma and, and the sort of specificities and empirical evidence around the types of unique trauma that are faced by this group of folks and I’m wondering if you could tell folks a little bit about that.
Gina Clayton: Sure. So one of the observations that we’ve made is that the criminal justice field has been really, it sometimes, has been very interested in making the connection between mass incarceration and gender in certain ways, particularly formerly incarcerated women, as I mentioned earlier, but has been, as I think honestly struggled to do so, um, you still see a predominantly male focused lens and narrative that prevails despite the fact that we know that mass incarceration is absolutely impacting women and harming women in huge numbers. Meanwhile, so while you have kind of this problem within the criminal justice space, not really knowing how to talk about women, um, and the harm and incorporate women as centers of this work, in the women’s rights space, there’s also not really a prioritization of mass incarceration. And really there’s a disconnect of seeing mass incarceration and mass criminalization as, as a key women’s rights issue. And so what we did was ask the question, you know, in the age of Me Too, and Time’s Up, is it possible that mass incarceration just might be the greatest barrier that we face to gender justice? Simply because what we have seen after years of organizing and hundreds of meetings with women with incarcerated loved ones across the country, we’ve conducted surveys and all of these other things and also just our, you know, our own organizing work, uh, we’ve seen that there are extraordinary impacts that women are experiencing in, in large number both to mental health and physical health and also economic stability. And so the report, um, which we just released “Because She’s Powerful,” is available at becauseshespowerful.org, talks about not just kind of the mental health and physical health impacts of incarceration on women with incarcerated loved ones, it builds on the studies like “Who Pays?” That
talk about the direct financial impacts and expands into things like opportunity cost of what, what is that women are foregoing when picking up the pieces of, of families and communities in the wake of criminal justice harm. Uh, it also goes into understanding and exploring this impact in light of isolation. One of the most important things I think that we found was really where we started this conversation is that like the through line, regardless of if you are a woman who has a child who’s incarcerated or who has sisters behind bars or who is a formerly incarcerated woman, the experience that we saw throughout was that women are isolated and that isolation was a real curiosity for us. Something that we were looking at because we had seen that in our own community led to things like suicide and extreme amounts of depression. And so we really wanted to understand this. And so there’s a lot that I could say kind of about this report. I think the findings that uplift the health impacts I think are really critical, but I’m excited about what we’ve discovered around isolation because to me that’s really where the hope is. It points to a solution. It points to a way in which we can build power, in which we can tap into our own resilience and tap into the things that we know because our history has told us so. I’ll just, you know, share that Essie Justice Group carries the name of my great grandmother who passed away a month after I took that case with Sandrea in Harlem. She lived an incredibly long life. She grew up on a sharecropping farm in Louisiana, moved from south to west in great migration to search for opportunities for her family and freedom from Jim Crow, from racism, from sexism, from poverty. And shortly after I transitioned my practice in Harlem, I went to my grandmother who lives today in southern California, in Venice, California to ask her like, how in the world did she do this? You know, my grandmother, my great grandmother I was talking about. How did, we called her Gra-mom not Essie, how did Gra-mom do this? How is it that she got through her days cleaning white people’s homes, holding multiple jobs, raising kids by herself. Like, what was it that worked for her? Um, because this, this actually just baffled me and my grandmother, I’ll never forget, she turns around from her, what she was doing, you know, I’m sitting at the kitchen table and she turns around, she’s like, looks at me like I just asked the most obvious question in the world and she said, ‘baby, she had sisters’ and it was just that, it was just that obvious that she had sisters who were, when there was more month than there was money, she had sisters to help pay the rent when there were kids that needed caring for, um, because someone had to take up an extra shift, she actually had like literal sisters, blood sisters who lived around the corner, um, four sisters in that community that they all collaborated and came together so that they could together overcome and thrive despite this terribly oppressive context. You know, I see that as our mandate. What we do at Essie Justice Group is to tap into our ancestral solutions to take on this very huge and seemingly impossible problem. I believe it is going to take things that feel maybe intuitive and obvious, but are so often overlooked, like the power of love, of connections, um, of being able to be in community with one another and think outside of the boxes that we are given to come up with new strategies for success and opportunity and wellness in our families and ourselves, but also for, for all of our society.
Josie: Oh, that’s great. So Gina, thank you so much. This has been an incredible conversation. We so admire what you’re doing at Essie Justice and are really glad you joined us.
Clint: Yeah Gina, this was all really great and, and we, as Josie said, we have such deep admiration and respect for the important work that you all are doing with Essie and I can imagine that many people listening are curious about how they can get involved and in what ways they can support or be directly involved in you alls work. And are there ways that people can contribute or volunteer with the organization themselves?
Gina Clayton: Absolutely. There are one in four women in the United States who have a family member in prison. And so most likely, if you are not a woman with an incarcerated loved one you know a woman with an incarcerated loved one and we want to know her. Um, if you go to essiejusticegroup.org, you can nominate a woman in your life or who you know and bring her into our loving and powerful community to shape all of our futures. So I really encourage people to go to our website, essiejusticegroup.org and also please check out our report and share it. Our report is found at becauseshespowerful.org, “Because She’s Powerful: The Political Isolation and Resistance of Women with Incarcerated Loved Ones” is a comprehensive report that compiles over 2,600 responses to a survey done from 46 states. So please go to becauseshespowerful.org and check out our findings.
Josie:Thank you so much Gina.
Gina Clayton: Thank you.
Josie: So that was Gina Clayton, the founder and executive director of Essie Justice Group and we are just so grateful that Gina took the time to join us today.
Clint: And thank you for listening to Justice in America. I’m Clint Smith.
Josie: I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Clint: You can find us on Twitter @Justice_Podcast, like our Facebook page at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on iTunes. Every review really helps.
Josie: Justice in America is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn with additional research support by Johanna Wald. Thank you and join us next week.