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Women in the Shadow of the Criminal Justice System

Women Incarceration: Tracy with her grandson, Joshia. Photo by Sara Bennett.
Tracy with her grandson, Joshia. Bergenfield, NJ (2015).
Photo by Sara Bennett. The “Life After Life in Prison” series is an examination of the lives of four women as they return to society after serving anywhere from 17 to 35 years in New York State’s maximum security prison for women.

Although men make up the vast majority of prison inmates, it is women who largely bear the brunt of the challenges and tragedies spurred by the mass incarceration crisis.

It was dinnertime one evening in March 2001, when Anita Wills was startled by a loud banging at the door of her Bay Area home. When she hurried to answer it, she was shocked to see a group of police officers demanding to know the whereabouts of her son, Kerry.

“I said, he’s not here, he doesn’t live here,” she recalls. “And they wouldn’t tell me why they were looking for him.”

Wills says that moment was the beginning of a series of events that quickly spun out of control, during which she and her family found themselves running up against systems that seemed to do nothing except marginalize them.

Kerry was accused of firing a bullet during a fight that accidentally killed a man who wasn’t involved. (He had, indeed, fired a gun after being shot at during the fight, but only hit the man he was fighting in the foot and didn’t seriously injure him. The murdered man, Wills says, was actually killed by a drive-by shooter two blocks away from the altercation in which Kerry was involved.)

Wills was able to find an attorney to represent her son—only to discover after the trial that he was being disbarred. During the case, evidence was presented to the jury regarding crimes Kerry, then in his early 30s, had committed as a teenager, as though they were recent incidents.

“They took it to trial with an all-white jury,” Wills says, “and said he was a thug, he was a drug dealer, and he was a gang member. I’m not saying it was right for him to have a gun or to shoot at anybody, but my son at the time was a working member of a carpenters’ union, he was taking care of his children, he was in a long-term relationship, and they made him into a stereotype of what scares middle-class white people.”

Wills’ son was found guilty and sentenced to 66 years to life in prison. In the 16 years that have passed since Kerry’s arrest, Wills has found solace in action. She started a blog during the trial to chronicle what had happened; she met others in her community whose families had been through the same thing.

“I was fighting with my truth. And I said to Kerry, ‘This is not the end. I’m going to be your ally, I’m on your side because this is not right.’”

I developed a laser focus on the impact that mass incarceration was having on black communities specifically, but also, I began to think about the impact that it was having on families.

Any experience within the criminal justice system is likely to feel isolating on some level, and the painful ordeal of seeing a loved one face criminal charges or be taken to prison, particularly after a wrongful conviction, is no exception. Despite the feeling of powerlessness that came with her son’s incarceration, however, Wills is far from alone. Nearly one in four American women is the daughter, sister, mother, grandmother, wife, or another relative of a prison inmate; for black women, the number is one in two. Although men make up about 90 percent of the 2.9 million Americans who are in prison, women today bear much of the burden—both financial and emotional—brought on by the mass incarceration crisis. A 2015 study by the Ella Baker Institute found that families rack up an average of $13,000 in court-related fees, with women making up 83 percent of the family members responsible for paying those costs.

Gina Clayton runs the Essie Justice Group, the organization that Wills eventually joined after years of working on her son’s behalf, and which she credits with helping her to make inroads in her fight for justice. Clayton comes from a boots-on-the-ground community organizing background. While still in college she worked with the NAACP in Los Angeles, registering voters and running campaigns that addressed campus policing and sentencing laws.

“I had so many experiences with the intersection of the ways systems were marginalizing communities that I cared about and came from, that I decided to go to law school,” she says. “And when I was in my first year of law school someone that I loved was sentenced to 20 years in prison … I developed a laser focus on the impact that mass incarceration was having on black communities specifically, but also, I began to think about the impact that it was having on families.”

I began to think about what could help shift women from preparing for surrender to preparing for a fight.

After law school, Clayton began to work directly with women like Wills, gaining firsthand experience with the findings of the Ella Baker Institute’s recent study. She represented women who were being evicted due to various criminal matters, and she found that more often than not, the crime in question hadn’t been committed by the woman who was losing her home. (In some cases, a family can be evicted if just one family member is arrested or convicted of certain crimes.)

“It was almost always a woman who was the tenant of record,” Clayton says. “And so she was the grandma or mother or girlfriend or wife of a person who was facing criminal charges. And as a result of that, she was finding herself in a place of being evicted. I met with clients over and over and over again who had these cases that were so unfair and so heartbreaking, [and] they also were doing everything to hold together their families and by extension hold together communities—taking care of children, taking on extra jobs to pay the costs that come with incarceration of a loved one … and, meanwhile, were completely socially isolated because the stigma is so immense.”

Clayton says many of her clients, upon learning they would be evicted, just wanted to obey their landlord’s orders—to make the problem go away.

“I began to think about what could help shift women from preparing for surrender to preparing for a fight,” she says. “The thing that I landed on that ended up being incredibly successful was telling women about each other. Saying, ‘You are not alone; I have cases all throughout your building that you might not even know about. People who you see every day are dealing with the exact same thing and are not talking about it.’ And that would often unlock the desire, the courage, the ambition to want to fight those cases.”

Today, the Essie Justice Group is deeply entrenched in the fight against mass incarceration and the cascade of injustices that can hit after an arrest—not just for the accused, but also for his or her loved ones. Clayton says she believes that those left on the outside when a convicted person goes to prison are themselves an underused weapon against an often unjust justice system. Women who join Essie learn each other’s stories and support each other, but Clayton stresses that the organization is not a support group. Participants are given practical tools to bring about meaningful change—in many cases, like Anita Wills’—building on grassroots activism work they’ve already begun on their own.

What we do to women who have been abused is neglect their ability to access resources that would help them to positively deal with it.

“At the end of the day,” Clayton says, “we’re coming together to make social change happen and we do that through a healing lens and an advocacy lens.”

New members of the group take part in a nine-week “Healing Through Advocacy” program. Upon graduation, says Clayton, women “take a pledge to break the invisibility and isolation of women with incarcerated loved ones, starting with [themselves].” With the pledge comes the expectation that the women will guide new members and strategize with other women to end mass incarceration through advocacy. Those who have successfully completed the program have gone on to work alongside legislators to end the use of bail bonds in California.

The bail system offers perhaps the clearest illustration of just how severely the families of those accused of crimes are penalized. In California alone, 46,000 people are currently behind bars awaiting trial or sentencing. Their families can ostensibly bail them out so they can continue their lives while they wait to go to court. But the most common amount set for bail is $50,000— a sum that is out of reach for most Americans.

The bail bond industry offers a solution—for a price. Families can pay a bail agent a non-refundable fee of $5,000 in exchange for the release of a relative—still a steep fee for many American families to raise on short notice. Essie Justice Group and other bail-reform advocates argue that the real money-makers in the business are insurance companies, which bail agents pay to insure the inmate’s release, making the agent responsible if the accused leaves the area to avoid court.

Wills was one of several Essie members who testified in support of a bill that would require judges to release a person accused of a crime within a certain number of hours, after assessing the risk that the accused will flee the area (restrictions would apply for those accused of some crimes). If passed, the law would put the task of supervising people facing criminal charges in the hands of the court, rather than a for-profit bail bond agency.

Cheryl Diston has also worked with Essie to advocate for bail reform. She once sat in a jail cell for 10 months before her case went to trial, during which time she missed her son’s wedding and couldn’t be with her family when her grandmother died and her nephew was murdered. She describes the bail system as a vicious cycle in which people who can’t afford release languish in prison cells with little sense of when they’ll be free, with their families powerless to help.

“People lose custody of their children, they can’t hold onto their jobs when they can’t make bail,” says Diston. “Mental health declines, relationships are broken down. Not being able to bail out causes harm. And [when people] feel they can’t get out, [they say], ‘Let me adapt to [prison].’ That right there has catastrophic casualties.”

Susan Burton’s experience within the criminal justice system, occurring over a 20-year period, was also one marked by feelings of powerlessness and the sense of inevitability that can build up as a result of years of trauma. Today she is the director of A New Way of Life, a program she founded in 1998 to help women rejoin their communities after being released from prison, as well as the author of “Becoming Ms. Burton,” the story of her experience behind bars.

“I went through a lot of abuse as a child and as a young woman,” Burton says, “and my child was killed by an LAPD detective. After that, I began to drink and use. It was as if I couldn’t take any more pain and trauma.”

Burton was imprisoned for drug possession and cycled in and out of jail six times without ever being offered counseling or treatment to address the underlying issue of her trauma.

“What we do to women who have been abused is neglect their ability to access resources that would help them to positively deal with it. And we abuse women through the criminal justice system. We criminalize women who have been abused.”

In 2014, the ACLU of Michigan sued the Muskegon County Jail for its “inhumane and degrading policies,” arguing that the jail’s pattern of denying female inmates feminine hygiene products, toilet paper, and clean underwear was a violation of constitutional rights.

The Vera Institute of Justice found in a 2016 report that while the number of women in prison is growing at a faster rate than any other group, they are a historically overlooked demographic. Like Burton, the majority of women in prison have faced some type of trauma in their lifetimes, including 86 percent who have survived sexual abuse. Yet, the widespread use of searches, restraints, and solitary confinement in prisons housing women take none of these facts into consideration.

And despite the rapidly rising number of women in prisons across the nation—the figure now stands at 110,000—there’s been little research on how a women’s prison should actually serve its inmates, resulting in basic needs often going unmet.

In 2014, the ACLU of Michigan sued the Muskegon County Jail for its “inhumane and degrading policies,” arguing that the jail’s pattern of denying female inmates feminine hygiene products, toilet paper, and clean underwear was a violation of constitutional rights. In recent years, New York and Wisconsin have mandated that correctional facilities make such items readily available to female inmates, but the fact that such policies needed to be spelled out so recently illustrates the lack of interest the prison system has in fulfilling women’s basic quality-of-life needs.

Burton has now been out of the prison system for as long as she was in it, and as the head of her own nonprofit, her work directly impacts the wellbeing of women who have been incarcerated. A New Way of Life works alongside the Essie Justice Group to recognize and correct injustices that face women both behind prison bars and those supporting their loved ones from the outside. Both groups participate in #StandWithHer, a campaign dedicated to mobilizing women with personal experiences in the justice system to fight for massive reforms.

Clayton stands firm in her conviction that women who have experienced injustice are in the best position to fight it.

“Women have more than stories—they have strategies,” says Clayton. “They are brilliant at solution-building and they’re incredibly resourceful and know systems better than anybody—whether that’s the foster-care system, the benefits systems in states and counties. They understand the healthcare system, the mental health care system, the criminal justice system, because they have experiences with all these areas. They can tell you what needs to change.”

Anita Wills has seen much of the effort she’s put into freeing her son deliver results. In the coming months, Kerry’s case will be appealed on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. She credits Essie Justice Group with energizing her fight to bring her son home.

“I feel like it’s grown into something that’s really going to make a difference,” says Wills. “And we’re organized as women. We’re fighting together for the same purpose, and that’s what’s so beautiful to me.”