Natasha Terry-Robinson visits her husband in prison every weekend. She's been his support system and devoted partner—but until Terry-Robinson found Essie Justice Group, a California-based network for women with incarcerated loved ones, she didn't realize that she needed support herself. With her husband behind bars, the burden was solely on her to run her household, take care of her kids, and earn an income. On top of that, there was the added stress of partially living in secret, fearing how her coworkers would perceive her if she told them that she was married to someone who was incarcerated.
"I really didn't pay attention to how I go to a full-time job, I take care of five children, I visit my husband in prison on the weekends, and I still manage to get it done," Terry-Robinson told me over the phone. "As a parent and a wife, you just kind of think that's just what you're supposed to do, and you never give yourself credit. You're doing the job of 10 people and there's only one of you. Essie helped me to see my worth. They pointed out how strong I was as a woman with an incarcerated loved one. I kept my life a secret because I didn't want the stigma or the judgement that people would have toward me, but now I live out loud."
Through the organization's Healing to Advocacy program, Essie strives to help women recognize the ways in which mass incarceration has shaped their lives, and to heal from the wounds it's inflicted on them. "What Natasha described is what women across this country are experiencing, but they are alone. The impact of the age of mass incarceration that's not paid attention to is that 2.3 million people are incarcerated, leaving one in two black women with a family member in prison," Gina Clayton, the Essie's founder and executive director, explained.
"We know that there is a 54 percent decrease in assets associated with having a family member behind bars," she continued. "That is not a surprise when you know that there are tremendous amounts of financial costs that come at you—whether that's paying the bail bond agents, paying attorney's court fees, gas money and money on hotels and motels to visit your loved one who is hundreds of miles away oftentimes, paying for phone calls, putting money toward commissary, and not to mention the loss of income that comes from having so many people in our communities locked up."
I kept my life a secret because I didn't want the stigma or the judgement that people would have toward me, but now I live out loud.
Essie also aims to reframe the hardship associated with having someone you love locked up as a societal failure, not a personal one, and to give back to the women the tools—confidence, love, support, and knowledge—to fight to dismantle the oppressive system. In the status quo of isolation, women with incarcerated loved ones are left to privately deal with the perceived shame and stigma of incarceration. Together, they can see through the fog of neoliberal policies that have at once shaped their lives and depoliticized their struggles, and take back their power.
As Terry-Robinson puts it, "Usually, when you're a poor person or a person of color you feel like you don't have a voice. But then you come into this body with people who have the same challenges as you, you're like, Wait a minute—we have a voice, and if we put our voices together we can make a lot of noise."
The organization finds participants by visiting prisons and talking to inmates, each of whom is able to nominate a woman in their life who's been there for them. The group's founder, Gina Clayton, a former public defender, says she wanted to create a space where women could use the power of sisterhood to change polices that have impacted all of their lives. She named the organization after her great-grandmother, who grew up in the Jim Crow south, held down three jobs, and raised a family, which she was only able to do because she "had her sisters."
For Mother's Day, the women of Essie participated in the National Black Mamas Bail Out, which brought jailed mothers home in honor of the holiday; their focus is now on passing a bill in the California legislature that would end money bail there. The state has the highest pre-trial bail rates in the country, which means poor people of color who haven't been charged with a crime, and who are deemed safe to go back into the community before their hearing, often end up stuck in jail simply because they can't afford to get out. The 2017 California Bail Act recently passed the first legislative hurdle, but it is facing tough opposition.
At one hearing for the bill, the reality TV bondsman Dog the Bounty Hunter showed up alongside dozens of other lobbyists for the bail bond agencies. "They see their livelihood at stake because they're making billions of dollars off of the incarceration of poor people," Clayton said. But they're not going to give up easily. "The women of Essie and their families have really had to show up, dig deep, and declare that we are in this for as long as it takes. We're fighting to change a system that is against us just because we're black, brown, and poor. We're really excited to see it through."
Photo via Essie Justice Group by Malik Hardcastle