Gina Clayton-Johnson

Essie Justice Group (CA)

While working with low-income tenants in Harlem, lawyer Gina Clayton-Johnson was struck by how many mothers, wives, partners and grandmothers faced eviction because a family member living with them had been charged with criminal activity.

“One in four women in this country has a loved one who is incarcerated, and many of them are sole heads of households,” she says. “These women experience devastating mental health implications that accompany the isolation, marginalization, shame and guilt they experience.” Seeking resources that addressed the particular emotional, social and economic issues facing these women, she was stunned to learn that none existed. 

Inspired by her great-grandmother Essie Bailey, the daughter of a Louisiana sharecropper who raised three children while working three jobs, Clayton-Johnson founded Essie Justice Group, the first national support and advocacy group for and of women, gender non-conforming people, and trans women with incarcerated loved ones. Since then, Essie has joined with dozens of other organizations that provide resources and support for individuals and communities impacted by mass incarceration, while advocating for the dismantling of the systems that perpetuate (and benefit from) the racial injustice baked into this country’s political and legal power structures.

Essie works in three areas: Ending the crippling money bail system through corporate divestment, legislation, and actions; advancing gender justice; and by supporting and empowering women affected by mass incarceration through its nine-week Healing to Advocacy initiative. The Healing to Advocacy program begins with nurturing individual self-love, and provides the tools, resources and sisterhood for those women to become advocates for themselves, their families and their communities. Program graduates return to share their own strength and experiences with subsequent cohorts, creating a powerful matrilineal network that is gaining momentum and visibility.

“Women tell us that were it not for Essie, the depths of sadness and isolation would have been too much,” says Clayton-Johnson. “And now our graduates are leading advocacy efforts in their communities. That’s an affirming and catalytic testament to the power of sisterhood to create positive and lasting change.”