Women and families bear the brunt of the costs of their incarcerated loved ones.


                Women: made up more than 80% of family members primarily responsible for covering court-related costs and the average family paid over $13,000

                Women: made up almost 90% of family members responsible for call and visitation costs, and more than a third of families went into debt to cover those costs

                Families: had difficulty meeting basic needs as a result of a loved one’s conviction and incarceration

September 15th, 2015: Oakland, Calif. — Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families, a new report from The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design in collaboration with Essie Justice Group and other community organizations, reveals that women bear the brunt of the costs of their incarcerated loved ones.

Researchers interviewed nearly 1,500 formerly incarcerated people, their family members, and employers on the impacts of incarceration. The report found that families struggled to cover basic expenses like rent and food, but endured these sacrifices because failure to pay fees and fines can send loved ones back to prison or jail.

Each year, the United States spends $80 billion to incarcerate more than 2.4 million people. When individuals are locked up, families and communities are broken apart, leaving women with incarcerated loved ones struggling to meet economic burdens often feeling isolated and alone. The report found that financial burdens were found to disproportionately fall to women in the family who also had children living at home. Almost half of the family members primarily responsible for paying court-related costs were mothers, and one in ten were grandmothers.

The report reinforces the stories of women like Essie Justice Member Shamika Wilson, who is working towards a Master’s Degree in Education at San Francisco State University, while supporting her family during her husband’s incarceration.

“I feel like I’ve been locked up along with my husband for the past 30 years,” said Wilson. “I return home to more than $45,000 worth of college loans, court fees, and seemingly unnecessary fines, on top of rent to pay and children to support. I work day in and day out to support my husband and to keep my family from falling within the same cycles of abuse, poverty, and negativity that have loomed so heavily over our lives,” said Wilson.

Wilson, who participated in Essie’s San Francisco 2015 program – which through a 9-week curriculum provides opportunities for women to foster support, resources, and advocacy skills to break the cycle of incarceration - says that support has been key to empowering her and others to call for change: “Essie connects me to powerful women like me, and together, we advocate for ourselves and for our loved ones. Together we aim to change the way people think about what it means to have an incarcerated loved one. I am not a prison wife, I am not married to the prison; I’m married to someone who is in prison. I am educated. I am a mother, a friend, an aunt, and a community leader.”

“Our participation in this study was motivated by the desire to see stories like Shamika’s brought to light.” Says Gina Clayton, Founder and Executive Director of Essie Justice Group. “For too long the efforts of women with incarcerated loved ones have been overlooked. We believe mass incarceration is a woman’s rights issue and that it is unacceptable that mothers like Shamika and millions more women are left paying the bills for years of failed social criminal justice policy. We are proud to be launching a report that represents such an important step towards an end in the isolation and invisibility of women with incarcerated loved ones.”


The situation may seem dire, but Essie along with other community organizations, are working on helping families get back on their feet. Who Pays? suggests three critical and achievable family-centered reforms. Policy changes like these coupled with community based, women-inclusive groups like Essie, can help achieve the safe communities we all want.

                Restructure sentences to focus more on accountability and safety, rather than just punishment, thereby saving funds that can be shifted to programs and services proven to reduce crime and enable families to help their loved ones stay out of prison or jail.

                Remove barriers so people with past convictions have a fair shot at obtaining economic opportunities to work and support themselves and their families.

                Restore opportunities so people who have completed their sentences can secure good jobs and housing. Savings from criminal justice reforms should be invested in job training and subsidized employment services.

“The answer lies with adopting policies that come directly from communities hardest hit. Ask me what my kids really need, and I’ll tell you. My kids need police that protect them, schools that prepare them, and a justice system that doesn’t lock up so many of our loved ones, especially not for so so long.” said Anita Wills Essie member who became caretaker for her grandson when her son was sentenced to 66 years in prison. “Our loved ones should not be sent to prisons hundreds of miles away. The cost of calling and visiting makes it impossible to stay connected. The state is engaging in punishing families along with the person who is imprisoned.”

Essie Justice Group members featured in the Who Pays report and our Executive Director & Founder Gina Clayton are available for interviews. To download a copy of the full report visit


Essie Justice Group harnesses the collective power of women with incarcerated loved ones because doing so will lead to a safer society and the empowerment of women from traditionally marginalized communities.  Our dream is to turn pain to power for the millions who live silently struggling beneath the stigma and sadness of a loved one's incarceration. Using an innovative curriculum designed by and for women, we seed groups for women to give and receive support and to access their collective power as caretakers, leaders, and advocates. Our curriculum focuses on trauma healing, managing money through crisis, and advocacy.  Contact us, if you are interested in helping us start a loving and powerful group for women in your community.

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights advances racial and economic justice to ensure dignity and opportunity for low-income people and people of color. We are building a people-powered movement to end mass incarceration, criminalization, and state violence by moving resources and funding away from prisons and punishment and toward family-driven solutions that improve public health, safety, and prosperity for all communities. For more info visit:

Forward Together builds relationships across lines of race, gender, and sexuality to connect marginalized people and catalyze social change. Our work influences culture and policy to ensure that every person, family and community has the power and resources they need to reach their full potential. For more info visit: and

For comment on the report from Essie Executive Director & Founder Gina Clayton, one of Essie’s members, or collaborating organizations please contact us.


Executive Director & Founder

Gina Clayton O: (510) 740-2502 C: (213) 369-5678

Director of Strategy

Lily Mandlin O: (510) 740-2508 C: (917) 566-5421

Communications Program Team

Vanessa Reid C: (781) 801-5577

Communications Program Team

Harriet Taylor O: (818) 684-4141 C: (201) 414-2409




New Study Shows Stunning Number of Women with Incarcerated Loved Ones in the U.S.

The Harvard Du Bois Review has just published Racial Inequalities in Connectedness to Imprisoned Individuals in the United States,[1] a groundbreaking new article exposing the devastating effects of mass incarceration on women in the United States.

Key Data:

·      One in four women in the US has an imprisoned family member.

·      More than six million black women in the US have an incarcerated relative.

·      44 percent of black women have an incarcerated family member.

·      There are more than 2.2 million incarcerated people in the US.

The article reports that one in four women in the United States currently has an imprisoned family member.[2] Forty-four percent of black women – or just over one in two and a half – have an incarcerated family member, compared to 12 percent of white women. Black women have over 11 times as many imprisoned family members as white women, and are more likely to be connected to multiple people in prison. More than six million black women in the United States have a family member currently imprisoned.

While the racial inequalities are striking, the number of women overall affected by the incarceration of family members and loved ones is also staggering. The study makes clear that—thanks to record rates of incarceration—women in the United States face unprecedented levels of connectedness to people in prison. With men making up 90 percent of the 2.2 million people currently incarcerated, women who have incarcerated loved ones are often left raising children, managing family finances, and facing stigma in their communities and workplaces. As a result, these women are at greater risk for a whole host of harmful health and economic outcomes, from depression to loss of employment and housing to stigma and isolation in their communities.

Essie Justice Group is a new organization founded to help address some of the specific challenges facing these women.

As Anita Wills, a member of Essie Justice Group, explains, “In 2003, when my son Kerry was sentenced to 66 years in prison, I was devastated. I had to keep it together for my son and grandsons. I am now 68 years old and raising my 17-year-old grandson. This is not how I envisioned living my retirement years.”

Terryon Cross, whose father is in prison, says, “I’ve grown up with incarceration all around me. When my son was born, I was 16 years old. I want more than anything for my four-year-old to grow up without me having to drive to prison to see and hug our family. I don’t want him to think this is normal, even though it is happening all around us.”

Essie founder Gina Clayton explains, “Our goal is to harness the collective power of women who have family members behind bars. We need the voices of these women in policy making spaces to help bring about change to the criminal justice system and challenge the false perceptions people carry about families who have been hardest hit by mass incarceration. That is why we are at work building a nationwide network of women who together can heal communities and push for change.”

This trailblazing article sheds light on the scope of mass incarceration’s effect on families and loved ones—particularly women—and alerts us to the fact that women with incarcerated loved ones have been often ignored. It helps lay the groundwork for a better understanding of the consequences of mass imprisonment in the United States and its particularly devastating impact on women.

 Clayton concludes, “I have been asking for a long time ‘why we do not have these numbers?’. It seems like millions of women experiencing the same thing are rendered invisible. Rarely do we hear about the family members who are affected by mass incarceration policies. Even rarer is looking at mass incarceration through the perspective of women, as a women’s rights issue. With this new and important research, we are finally able to bring awareness to this unduly overlooked group who are hard at work holding together some of our country’s most critical communities.”

Essie Justice Group is an organization that works directly with women with incarcerated loved ones. To speak to us for comment on the report from Founder Gina Clayton or one of our members, or to be put in touch with the authors of the article, please email

[1] The article was co-authored by Hedwig Lee and Tyler McCormick of the University of Washington, Seattle; Margaret T. Hicken of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and Christopher Wildeman of Cornell University.

[2] “Family members” include male and female relatives such as aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as children, partners, and parents. It is important to note that this analysis focuses only on people serving sentences in prison, and not those in jail. Had the article included people in jail, the number of women affected by family member incarceration would be much higher.