Women whose lives have been impacted by having incarcerated loved ones banded together as a sisterhood called Essie Justice Group. During a visit to San Quentin State Prison, they talked about how they support each other without judgment and advocate for changing the system and the community.
“64% of California’s jail population is awaiting trial or sentencing as of December 2016.” Most remain in pretrial custody because they cannot afford bail. Jail Profile Survey, http://www.bscc.ca.gov/
“Essie Justice Group is a loving, powerful community of women with incarcerated loved ones,” said spokesperson Marie Levin.
Taina Vargas-Edmond, founder of Initiate Justice, added, “Women with incarcerated loved ones are the ones who experience the harm firsthand, so we are the experts on it. We have a unique experience to share. Therefore, we should be at the center of advocacy change. We already have to fight to visit them, fight to keep money on the phone, so we are ready-made advocates.”
Attorney Gina Clayton, a Harvard graduate, founded Essie Justice Group after seeing firsthand how women are harmed by the criminal justice system because of their connection to an incarcerated person.
While Clayton couldn’t make the visit to San Quentin, four women who embodied the meaning of sisterhood and strength did. The guests included Levin, Vargas-Edmond, Zoe Willmott and Natasha Terry-Robinson.
Levin, as part of Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSSC), helped change how California determines who goes to security housing units (SHU), where her older brother Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa spent 31 years.
“What Marie brings to the movement is the kind of leadership that takes power from the system and gives it back to the people,” Willmott said. “What we saw with the hunger strike was a movement on the inside and on the outside. Without each other and without Marie, we wouldn’t have won.”
“…We already have to fight to visit them, fight to keep money on the phone so we are ready-made advocates”
Levin started visiting her brother consistently after her sister died and her mother, who died in 2014, wasn’t able to visit him anymore. For the first few years, those visits took place through a glass window with phone receivers on each side.
“It’s inhuman; it’s painful. You strain trying to hear through a phone,” Levin said. “When my brother came out of the SHU and we hugged for the first time, everybody who had passed away flashed through his mind. It was painful.”
Levin plans to further help incarcerated people by expanding her Momm’s Pastries business with the goal of hiring the formerly incarcerated.
Vargas-Edmond and Terry-Robinson are married to men serving time.
Vargas-Edmond uses a background of a political science degree and former employment of a California Assemblyperson to advocate and guide women through dealing with the system. A friend told her that marrying a man in prison was the stupidest thing in the world.
Vargas-Edmond said, “I think people can’t wrap their heads around why we would make the sacrifice we make to love somebody in prison. They think that anyone is better than someone in prison, but when you find the right person, you find the right person.”
Her husband Richard Edmond-Vargas, who took her last name too, teaches financial literacy. He’s serving 10 years.
Terry-Robinson’s husband, Silas Robinson, is serving 25 years to life. He counsels his household using skills learned in groups like the Prison Outreach Program and Restorative Justice. However, Terry-Robinson’s minister thought she shouldn’t marry the incarcerated man.
“It’s really hard to be without my husband, showing up to events, concerts alone, watching your friends all booed up and I’m going home by myself,” Terry-Robinson said. “It’s challenging, but my husband is worth it.”
Essie Justice Group helps both women stay strong.
“Essie helps me, I think for the most part, just to have somebody in the room listening to you, instead of judging you,” Terry-Robinson said. “Whatever feedback you get is coming from a genuine place, and the sisters want to see you win.”
Terry-Robinson also uses poetry to cope and advocate. She wrote a poem right on the spot during their May 22 visit called Essie Was Here, that started,
As I walked through the lower yard, I saw human beings,
The system said they’re criminals but their polite character intrigued me.
These men were humble, respectful and kind.
All deserving of leaving their crime behind.
The women constantly complimented each other and displayed a camaraderie that dispelled the myth behind the old saying, “Two women can’t cook in the same kitchen.”
“It’s actually proven that women are better collaborators and more efficient than men; it’s science,” Vargas-Edmond said. “That’s why women get more bills passed.”
Willmott, the behind-the-scenes organizer for Essie, said they are working on fixing the bail system that leaves poor people in prison defending against, sometimes minor, criminal charges. Also, Essie is seeking to expand its membership.
Nominees come together over nine weeks to learn advocating for self, advocating for family and advocating for the community.
To nominate a female for membership, write a letter with the name of the female nominee, your relationship to her, why you are nominating her, and her contact information, then mail it to:
Essie Justice Group
300 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Suite 420
Oakland, CA 94612
Women can also nominate themselves.