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Every Mother’s Day, far too many Black mothers and caregivers are needlessly separated from their children. Helping to free them and easing them through the difficult re-entry process are other Black women with incarcerated loved ones, who intimately understand the system. Together they are confronting mass incarceration’s harm as a unified, loving, and powerful group.
Amber, a California-based Black mother of four daughters, was arrested for violating probation. Due to housing insecurity, she was unable to report for probation. Instead of giving her housing resources or conducting a needs assessment, police handcuffed Amber in front of her three-year-old daughter and locked her up. Amber was not allowed to call a family member to pick up her child, and her daughter was taken to Child Protective Services, where she was placed with strangers. The judge set Amber’s bail at $50,000, an insurmountable amount for a mother already struggling to meet her family’s basic needs.
That meant she spent two weeks behind bars while legally innocent. Last May, in time for Mother’s Day, women with incarcerated loved ones from the nonprofit Oakland, California–based organization Essie Justice Group bailed Amber out of jail as part of the national #FreeBlackMamas campaign. Our community of women and gender-nonconforming people raised the money and paid the bail, yet still had to spend hours fighting for Amber’s freedom at Lynwood Women’s Jail in Los Angeles. Amber was eventually released into the loving arms of women—but they were not just any women; they were women with incarcerated loved ones who, because of their experiences, understand the system intimately and are skilled in supporting individuals and families through the re-entry process.
Amber’s story is not uncommon; 80% of jailed women are mothers, and most of them are primary caretakers of their children. The costs are devastating. Our families and communities suffer when our loved ones languish in jail pretrial because of money-bail requirements. Furthermore, people often face enormous collateral consequences, such as losing jobs, housing, and even children, only to be found innocent later on.
Avoiding pretrial detention is particularly challenging for women. Incarcerated women, who have lower incomes because of the systemic challenges of finding employment, have an even harder time affording money bail. With a median bail amount of $50,000, California has a particularly problematic system, with bail amounts set at five times the national average.
Amber’s story is also a reminder that women, especially Black women, are doing the work that larger society is not, serving as an invisible re-entry system. Around 610,000 people are released from federal prisons each year. This number doesn’t even include the number of people released from state prisons. That’s hundreds of thousands of individuals, each one deserving of support in complex ways—support that they generally don’t get except through organizations like the Essie Justice Group.
When someone comes home from jail or prison, it is generally a mother, sister, grandmother, daughter—almost always a woman—who provides the necessary support to formerly incarcerated loved ones. I have witnessed women at Essie Justice Group paying for housing, food, and clothing; editing resumes; and driving family members to work, medical appointments, and mandatory check-ins with parole officers.
Women facilitate healing conversations, picking up the phone during a recently released loved one’s anxiety attacks and responding to other mental health needs that arise after periods of traumatic confinement. Women are also leaders in repairing trust and mediating strained family relationships and supporting the experiences of the children affected by incarceration. Women are often the ones with the inherent wisdom and lived experience in navigating the system, problem-solving to meet needs, and building a powerful community. For us, bailing out Black mothers like Amber is only the first step in using all these experiences as the blueprint for how compassionate and effective criminal justice policy should look.
In Amber’s case, not only were Essie Justice Group members able to post her bail, they also made sure she didn’t have to navigate re-entry alone. We connected Amber to services she needed—such as housing support and mental health treatment—and welcomed her into a loving and powerful community of women with incarcerated loved ones or who had been incarcerated themselves; as many as 30% of Essie Justice Group members are formerly incarcerated women like Amber.
We also accompanied Amber to her court hearing with letters of support in hand. The judge, citing the community of women who supported her, ended her probation.
Stories like Amber’s are why I started Essie Justice Group almost 10 years ago—to create space for women to connect with others like them, to break out of the crisis of loneliness caused by incarceration, and to heal. Since 2017, as founding members of National Bail Out, Essie Justice Group has led the campaign Black Mama’s Bail Out in California, joining others in cities across the country to immediately secure the freedom of Black mothers who are caged pretrial simply because they cannot afford their bail. To date, we have bailed out 14 Black mothers in northern and southern California and posted a total of $1.9 million in bail.
And that money comes back into the community. When a case like Amber’s ends, the money is returned, and we use it to free another incarcerated Black mother, ensuring that not a penny goes to the predatory bail industry.
Amber’s story is not only a beacon of hope, it’s also a road map that guides society in the direction of care, compassion, and community. On May 6, 2023, a week before Mother’s Day, Essie Justice Group members bailed out another Black mother from Lynwood Women’s Jail. This time Amber was with us on the outside, helping us greet the mother with welcome-home signs, a care basket, and an abundance of love. Amber and her infectious smile led the way, and her hug and supportive words made all the difference. Wrapping her arms around the freed Black mother—who was able to spend this Mother’s Day with her family—Amber said, “You’re okay. We got you now.”
Gina Clayton-Johnson is the Executive Director of Essie Justice Group, which she founded (named after her great grandmother Essie Bailey) in 2014 to harness the collective power of women with incarcerated loved ones to end mass incarceration’s harm to women and communities.