Mass incarceration. We’ve heard the data on disparities so much that many of us can recite the statistics from memory. We know that the lifetime chance of incarceration for Black men and women is astonishingly high. But we also (should) know, statistics should serve as a point of entry to understanding an issue, particularly one as complex as criminalization and incarceration. Knowing that the U.S. produces 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners gives us an indication of how significant a problem incarceration has become, but it still does not the reflect the full spectrum of impact.
For example, this statistic does not include the millions of women who are impacted by incarceration, but who are not behind bars themselves. I’m referring to the women whose children are behind bars—the mothers, who often remain nameless and faceless in a movement to end mass incarceration, but who experience tremendous emotional and economic hardship as a result of the prison industrial complex.
Motherhood can be a tremendous challenge for these women, whose own stories and experiences with the criminal legal system are often cast aside as our rally cry for justice focuses almost exclusively on the men who are immobilized by incarceration. In fact, our collective consciousness barely remembers the names of women who have themselves become casualties of the mass criminalization, let alone those women who bear the brunt of economic and emotional hardship as a result of a loved one’s incarceration.
In response to this glaring gap, Gina Clayton launched the Essie Justice Group one year ago to center the needs of women who are affected by incarceration, and to harness their “collective power” toward the elevation of sisterhood and safety. The Essie Justice Group provides a communal, healing-informed space to advocate for women affected by incarceration, respond to the trauma of incarceration, and reduce its economic consequences.
Clayton tells EBONY “We have mothers, daughters, and surrogate mothers in our group…we try to reweave the fabric of our mothering by filling in empty spaces whenever we can.”
Though being a woman affected by the incarceration of a loved one can be lonely, Clayton is encouraged by the inclusive nature of comments made by celebrity efforts to dismantle the nation’s addiction to incarceration. At a recent conference with survivors, where Clayton was present, John Legend announced a campaign that will seek to end mass incarceration, and acknowledged the plight of mothers who have been otherwise marginalized in this conversation.
“He talked about mothers!” Clayton shared. “He acknowledged that it is often the same mother who is at the grave in the morning and at a prison in the afternoon, mourning the loss of her children…We all wanted to stand up. It was like he was at our house. We knew that he understood the reality of the situation that doesn’t get told. We can say the names of the women he was talking about. This was not a rhetorical flourish; it is a day in the life of the women of Essie.”
This is a daily condition that we can help to change.
To support the Essie Justice Group or nominate a woman (including yourself) to join the Essie community, please visit their website.
Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. is a social justice scholar and the author of Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-First Century. For more information, visit moniquewmorris.com and follow Dr. Morris on Twitter @MoniqueWMorris.