Keeping Tabs is a Q&A series that follows alumni on their careers after graduation, the lasting impacts of their clinical and pro bono experiences at HLS, and their experiences in a variety of sectors of law.

Gina Clayton-Johnson ’10 is the Executive Director and Founder of Essie Justice Group, a nonprofit organization of women with incarcerated loved ones taking on the rampant injustices created by mass incarceration. Clayton-Johnson is an experienced organizer and civil rights activist, and she worked as an Equal Justice Works Fellow at Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem upon her graduation from HLS. In 2014, seeing the need for direct support for women impacted by mass incarceration, she founded Essie Justice Group with support from the Harvard Public Service Venture Fund Seed Grant. Since then, the organization has only continued to grow, reaching hundreds of women across California.

We caught up with Clayton-Johnson to learn more about Essie Justice Group’s work, her formative clinical experiences, and the importance of building community.

GINA CLAYTON-JOHNSON ’10

Please tell us about your organization, Essie Justice Group. What is your mission? What motivated you to create the organization?  

I founded Essie Justice Group in May of 2014 with the mission to harness the collective power of women with incarcerated loved ones to end mass incarceration’s harm to women and communities. Today, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 2 Black women in the US has a family member in prison. We utilize a 9-week Healing to Advocacy program to organize women impacted by incarceration, connect them to a loving and powerful community, and run policy campaigns with women’s vision for safety and justice at the forefront. We’ve graduated 39 cohorts across California–a state second only to Texas for the country’s highest prison population–and waged several campaigns including one which secured the largest corporate divestment from the bail industry to date.

My work is deeply personal. While a student at Harvard Law, someone I love was sentenced to 20 years in prison. This eye-opening experience sparked my decision to dedicate my career to addressing the harms of mass incarceration. After I graduated, I worked as an attorney at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. My clients were women–mostly mothers and grandmothers–who were facing eviction due to a family member’s arrest or criminal charge. Through these cases and my own experience, I began to identify the patterned and systemic ways in which women take on unseen but significant financial and health burdens due to mass incarceration policy.

En route to starting Essie, I did a lot of research and interviewed in-field experts, attorneys, and non-profit leaders–in hopes of understanding who may be focusing on this community. I spent about a year in this learning phase–mainly because I’d hoped to work for someone who had identified the same need, rather than start my own organization! Ultimately, that process generated a lot of support and encouragement, and eventually, resources, to found an independent non-profit dedicated to women with incarcerated loved ones.

Essie Justice Group supports women with incarcerated loved ones in a variety of ways, on individual and systemic levels. Can you please give a few examples of the organization’s projects/initiatives, and the impact these have had on the women you work with?

When I think about what Essie does for women with incarcerated loved ones, I think about Shamika, whom I met while she was married to an incarcerated person in California. She was one of the members of our third cohort of our Healing to Advocacy Program which I facilitated. At first, unsurprisingly, she was hard to convince to come to the nine-week program; she was a single mom doing everything from raising kids to putting food on the table. She had her hands full. But because her kids enjoyed our childcare program so much, they begged her to come back every week. By the fifth session, many of her walls came down. She began to feel less isolated and ashamed, and that translated into courage. Before her cohort even made it through the nine weeks, she signed up to testify in Sacramento at a public safety committee hearing of the California legislature in support of an elder parole bill. Her testimony was so powerful that legislators cited her as a reason they voted to pass it through the committee. The strength of her testimony was not a surprise to me. Indeed, I built the organization on a settled conclusion I’d made long before that the narrative power of women with incarcerated loved ones carries incredible persuasive potential. The “ah-ha” moment came for me after her testimony. That evening I told her on the phone that she didn’t need to make the long drive to cohort that day, given her work in Sacramento. She replied, “Gina, are you kidding me? I will be there!” When she walked into the cohort meeting that night, it all made sense–the group greeted her with so much love, awe, and support. Shamika’s shame and sadness had become a source of confidence.

The pride felt among the women that evening was important because for so many women who have loved ones behind bars the experience is shame-provoking and deeply sad. Our own research has demonstrated the extent of the impact. Moreover, the isolation produced by these feelings is a direct impediment to positive social change. That’s because confronting the criminal justice system and demanding change is scary – the system is retaliatory, punishing, and often functions in manners that are extrajudicial against people and families who dare to speak up. It takes courage to make change, and courage comes from the kind of community that Shamika was able to find in Essie.

Our programming creates opportunities for women with incarcerated loved ones, who are largely Black, Brown, and low income, to pursue leadership and political development to propel change in our communities and our society. We have now run 39 iterations of our Healing to Advocacy cohorts for women across California, and just last year expanded our reach to women in 14 new states. Our additional leadership training programs – such as our Facilitator’s Training Program and our Campaign School – impart invaluable skills that our members translate into job opportunities, mutual aid projects, and policy work. For example, to meet an increase in food insecurity in their communities during the pandemic, our members began a mutual-aid partnership with Feed Black Futures to deliver 2,589 boxes of produce to 175 families impacted by incarceration. We are facilitating connections that build courage, providing trainings that create confidence, and uplifting opportunities to push for systemic change.

Can you share an example of what becomes possible when we organize and build the leadership of women with incarcerated loved ones?

Every Mother’s Day, we bail Black mothers out of jail. This national organizing effort began in 2017 when we joined other Black-led organizations from across the country to co-found the National Bail Out Collective.

We founded this collective because Black women are exploited by the bail industry. 80 percent of women in jail are mothers. Additionally, when an incarcerated person is freed, they most often come home to a woman who cares for that person’s needs and co-pilots their reentry process. Importantly, women frequently pay bail fees and take on outstanding debt in the process. In California, the average bail amount is $50,000. That is five times the national average. Mothers who are unable to pay bail are forced to await trial behind bars, away from their children and families. Family separation is devastating and traumatizing for incarcerated mothers and their children. It is a gross injustice that rich people have an avenue to pretrial liberty while poor families do not – the consequences of which barrel down on women.

There’s a woman that we bailed out, whom I won’t soon forget. She was houseless and living in her car when a neighbor–maybe thinking that they were helping–called the police. As a result, she was taken away from her child, put into jail, and her child was placed in foster care. This woman did not need cuffs, a cell, and a traumatic experience. What she needed was housing. As our prison and policing systems have grown in size and budget, we’ve seen social supports (like affordable housing and mental health care) diminish. Where an obvious solution such as housing would do the trick, people are instead met with punishment. Our bail-out actions are highly visible storytelling opportunities to capture the attention of policymakers and support our campaign work at county and state levels. For the last several years they have brought together our members and built connections of support within communities.

While a student at Harvard Law School, you participated in the Criminal Justice Institute and the Housing Law Clinic. What did your clinical experiences working in direct client representation teach you? Have they informed anything about how you approach your current work at Essie Justice Group? When you reflect on your clinical experiences at HLS, are there any particular memories that have stuck with you?

The clinical experiences at the Housing Clinic were some of the most important educational touchpoints I had as a student at Harvard Law School. I remember marveling at the combination of heart and legal strategy Maureen McDonagh, Soffiyah Elijah, and Deliah Umuna applied as my clinical professors in overseeing the cases assigned to me. They connected me with the practice of law in a way that provided an opportunity to reflect on the bigger picture while engaging in the nuances of civil and criminal procedure, client-centered representation, and motion drafting. Their teaching and mentorship helped sharpen my skills and greatly solidified my dedication to the long-term work of social justice. As part of the Housing Clinic, I would leave campus to get on the T to visit clients or the properties at the center of the eviction dispute. I remember visiting a client’s home and being shocked to find that my client had been living in a tent inside of an apartment that had been so poorly maintained that there was water seeping through the roof. That client was using a plug-in stove to boil water – the only source of heated water. As important as reading case law and class time were for me, it was these kinds of experiences that reminded me why I was motivated to earn my degree in the first place. In the midst of attractive recruitment dinners from some very high-paying law firms, the clinical work helpfully focused my attention.

The clinical experiences at the Housing Clinic were some of the most important educational touchpoints I had as a student at Harvard Law School.  [My clinical professors] connected me with the practice of law in a way that provided an opportunity to reflect on the bigger picture while engaging in the nuances of civil and criminal procedure, client-centered representation, and motion drafting.

The Housing Clinic also introduced me to tenant rights meetings. I would recommend that every clinical experience has a community organizing component attached. It was the witnessing of tenants being developed as community leaders by organizers, building and waging systemic campaigns, and bringing community together around issues that reminded me of the limitations of direct representation and even impact litigation as a mechanism for bringing about lasting, meaningful social change without the involvement and leadership of directly impacted people.

How has your legal education equipped you for your current work?

Legal training helped me value detail and precision, particularly in drawing logical connections. This skill has served me well—particularly today—when there’s so much false attribution for why things are the way they are. For example, it is inaccurate to say that we have mass incarceration because we have mass crime or that more policing means more safety.

My legal education helped me to think critically and be careful with the logical or causal connections we uplift in advocacy settings. It has helped me make the harmful and confusing circumstances of incarceration clearer for women with incarcerated loved ones because I can share with them grounded, data-driven understandings that do not place blame at their feet.

I have also been shaped by the confidence that a legal education gave me. One of the tragedies of our legal infrastructure is that law is often really intimidating and makes people feel belittled rather than empowered to speak for themselves or their community. Sometimes legal processes are intimidating because of their complexity or the obnoxious way in which they are presented. Ironically, I have often used my legal education to convince those without one that they have as much or more at their disposal to leverage in their advocacy for themselves, their families, and our communities.

What would you tell current law students who are interested in working to support incarcerated populations and their loved ones?

This hard and important work is going to require a community that keeps you grounded in your intentions for this work. You do not need to do it alone. Find other like-minded people during your law school experience and make promises to hold each other accountable to your commitments. If you see them straying from their intentions, pull them back, and if you stray, they’ll pull you back. I’ve done the same, and it has been incredibly helpful.

Second, spend time with organizers, whose central purpose and skill is to develop the capacities of directly impacted people to be leaders of social change. It’s so important to recognize that it will not be lawyers who end mass incarceration and heal the harm that has been inflicted upon Black, Brown and low-income communities. Create structures in your work and life that ensure that you will not lose connection to the people who are at the center of the harm. Personal relationships are not enough. This looks like an ongoing relationship with an organized community of directly impacted people. Go to membership meetings, volunteer, join a Board, whatever it is ensure you’ve formalized the mechanisms by which you stay connected and listen to the community you must seek to support.

How can people get involved with Essie Justice Group and support the organization’s work?

Give, build, and learn:

  • Give to organizations run by directly-impacted Black and Brown women. You can donate to ours and so many others.
  • Learn more about this work and why it matters:
    • Read our report Because She’s Powerful: The Political Isolation and Resistance of Women with Incarcerated Loved Ones at act.becauseshespowerful.org.
    • Essie is the central architect of the Movement for Black Lives’ BREATHE Act — Read The Breathe Act at breatheact.org.

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