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Grinnell Prize winner Gina Clayton works with women to end mass incarceration

Gina Clayton accepted the Grinnell Prize last week and spoke about her work with Essie Justice Group. Photo by Andrew Tucker.

Gina Clayton was awarded the Grinnell Prize on Oct. 3, 2017 for her social justice work in founding the Essie Justice Group, an organization Clayton started that supports women with incarcerated loved ones and assists them in mobilizing to reform the criminal justice system. Clayton founded Essie Justice Group in May of 2014.

The $100,000 Grinnell Prize is the largest award given by any college in the United States in recognition of social justice.   

One in four women have a family member in prison, meaning that they are on their own raising children and supporting themselves while facing stigma. This number is even higher for minorities; one in two black women has a loved one in prison. 

“What we know is that women are not just incredibly hard-hit financially, but hard-hit socially and emotionally, and that has led to the isolation and silencing of millions and millions of black women,” Clayton said. 

The origins of the Essie Justice Group arose from Clayton’s personal experience having a loved one who is incarcerated. She also worked in New York where she helped women who faced eviction due to family members or guests being involved in criminal matters, whether that be an accusation or a conviction. These two experiences inspired her to make a difference. 

“I was taking on these cases and began to see my own experience in the lives of women who came through my office door every day. I began to develop a real passion and love for the potential of this collective community,” Clayton said in an interview with Iowa Public Radio. 

“I saw just how powerful these women were. They were expert navigators of the complex systems of oppression, they were fierce advocates for family members and they were deeply invested in seeing the criminal justice system changed, so what better group to engage as we work to build movements of directly impacted people than women with incarcerated loved ones,” Clayton said. 

Gina Clayton accepted the Grinnell Prize last week and spoke about her work with Essie Justice Group. Photo by Andrew Tucker.

The Essie Justice Group uses a healing-to-advocacy model in its nine-week program. The process starts with letters received from incarcerated men who nominate their family members to become part of this organization.   The Essie Justice Group calls the nominated women and reads them the letter over the phone and invites the women to an information session where they can learn about the three pillars of the program: advocating for self, family and community. 

At the completion of the nine-week program, there is a graduation. Women are introduced to a wider community and also invited to take a pledge that allows graduates to become part of the Essie Sisterhood, the membership base. 

“The pledge is to break isolation and invisibility of women with incarcerated loved ones, starting with myself,” Clayton said. 

The isolation-breaking component of the pledge involves women speaking to men and women in prisons and jails about their experiences, doing peer support or helping to run another Essie group. For the invisibility-breaking component, women can speak with politicians and advocate for policy change or reform, publish their experiences or simply share their stories by word of mouth. 

Clayton has created the five Essie Essentials to help foster a strong community: “we show up for sisterhood,” “my language not the system’s,” “my story is my story; her story is her story,” “I belong here and so does she” and “I know what I carry.” 

“We use those to acculturate a course of values into our community so that when you come into our space it looks and feels different. It looks and feels loving. … It looks like intimate relationships with other people that form bonds of trust from which you can go and take risks,” Clayton said. 

Clayton hopes to expand her organization to other states. “Social change requires that large numbers of people put themselves and their resources on the line, and it’s an incredibly unfair thing to ask women with incarcerated loved ones to do that … The only way that will happen … is by providing community, by providing a support system,” Clayton said.

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