The Oakland, California–based Essie Justice Group was founded to address an astonishing impact of mass incarceration in America: one in four women and nearly one in two Black women has a family member in prison. These women consequently suffer from dwindling economic mobility due to financial stresses, child-rearing demands, and other strains that sap economic security. In response, Essie’s peer-support initiative offers a “healing to advocacy” agenda that empowers women with incarcerated loved ones to push for social and policy reform, while boosting their economic resilience. With cohorts in an expanding number of California cities—including Los Angeles, Fresno, San Jose, and Sacramento—Essie offers women participation in nine-week, in-person groups that provide counseling in trauma healing, managing money through crisis, and other topics. At the same time, the initiative’s focus on the financial impact of incarceration shines a path-breaking light on the poverty entrapment affecting millions of mothers, wives, and daughters of those caught in America’s prison crisis. Through their journey of collective healing, participants become part of Essie’s broader work to support legislative action, advocating for an end to money bail and other critical campaigns. This bottom-up, collaborative strategy is creating a membership of fierce advocates for race and gender justice—including Black and Latinx women, formerly and currently incarcerated women, and gender non-conforming people—to fight for criminal-justice reform.
In the United States, 2.4 million people are behind bars. With 90 percent of the incarcerated consisting of men, millions of women must manage alone, a consequence of mass incarceration that is generally overlooked. To care for and remain connected to incarcerated children, partners, and parents, women pay for court fees, prison visits, phone calls, and commissary bills. Women also subsidize re-entry when family members returning from prison cannot find work. They put their educations and careers on hold to combat the family and community consequences of mass incarceration.
During my first year as a student at Harvard Law, someone I love was sentenced to 20 years in prison. It was this experience that forced me to confront the impact incarceration can have on family, women, and children. After graduating, I moved to Harlem in New York City to represent women with incarcerated loved ones. I soon discovered systemic patterns linking suffering women, weakened communities, and America’s criminal justice system.
The stigma associated with criminal justice system involvement has led to a scarcity of funders to support the work that we do. That stigma also impacts our recruitment efforts. Women must feel safe to engage without fearing further social marginalization. We address this through our loving nominations process and strong organizational culture. Moreover, we do not operate from a deficiency model, which views constituents as needy recipients. We value women as leaders.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is in many ways our organizational role model. MADD began through the support and engagement of women grieving due to the loss of a loved one, and grew to become the largest crime victim assistance organization in the world. MADD’s impact shaping criminal law, policy, and attitudes toward driving under the influence through the voices and experiences of women is precisely the scale of success and strategy for which Essie is aiming.
We receive letters like this every day: “My husband is currently in prison on a parole revocation which occurred after we were married and I became pregnant. I was an established office professional making a good living, and after dealing with the system, the stress that goes with that, and severe depression, I lost my job and have become another social poverty statistic. It’s all I can do to get out of bed and feed myself and our one-year-old each day.”
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