How Mass Incarceration Shapes the Lives of Black Women

Gina Clayton founded and runs the Essie Justice Group, which creates 'sister circles' for black women with incarcerated loved ones.  (Essie Justice Group)

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Terryon Cross says it’s like vampires.

“I’m serious. It’s like vampires.”

Cross is talking about what it means to love someone who is incarcerated. She says it’s like loving the undead.

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“You can’t come into the light at all. If you come into the light, you burn and turn into ashes. So we have to keep this dark little secret.”

She was 7 years old when she began keeping the secret. She was barely old enough to understand why her father seemed to disappear.

“It was like, ‘So … where’s daddy? What’s going on?’ ”


Her mother told her that her father wasn’t coming back. He was in prison for killing someone. He’s been there ever since.

Shortly after he went to prison, her mother remarried. Cross thinks her mom wanted to erase her father’s memory.

There is a stigma that comes with having an incarcerated loved one, Cross says.

She tries to explain how the shame weighs on families. “We have to only come in the wee hours where there’s nobody watching and converse with you, talk to you, and hopefully you don’t bring us into this dark hole any further.”

Like loving a vampire.

'I Have a Hole Right in My Heart' 

Cross is, and always has been, a daddy’s girl. She’s trying to get her father out of prison, but the possibility of parole is years away.

“I need him back sooner,” she says. There is too much he missed out on, too much of her life he wasn’t there to witness.  

“Like prom for one,” she says. “Which is, very very huge.”

The 22-year-old has the joyous laugh of a big kid. She talks to her father, like a child would an imaginary friend.

“Can’t have you miss my wedding. Like, that’s a necessity, whether we have to go to the prison and have my wedding ceremony there, that’s what we’re going to have to do. But you’re not missing another important portion of my life. Just like how,” she pauses, “with the birth of my son.”

Cross’ son, Yancy, is now 5. Much like his mother, he has grown up with a father who has been in and out of jail and prison. It’s not quite the same she says -- her ex, Jesse, is trying. He went to rehab, and he is out now. But his arrests, the time he has missed, have affected his son.

The last time Jesse was arrested, he was on his way to Yancy’s third birthday party.

Cross says he had presents in the car when he was pulled over for driving with an expired registration. A parole violation. He spent the night in jail.

“It was a heartbreak -- where you can see even in a 3-year-old, like, ‘Where’s daddy?’  Daddy’s on his way. The party’s over. Daddy still didn’t show up.”

At the end of that day, Yancy declared he never wanted to see his father again.

Cross says she can feel a hard shell forming around her son, a veneer of anger that worries her.

“He’s a tough one,” she says. “I kinda wish he would cry just a little bit more. Being told so many times, boys aren’t supposed to cry. Well, boys aren’t supposed to be this tough either.

“Like give me some of the burden that you’re feeling so I can carry it … 'cause that’s mommy’s job. I need to be carrying this burden,” she says, sighing. “Not you.”

Cross wants desperately for her son not to live with the absence that she knows all too well.

“I have a hole right in my heart, that needs to be filled with something, not sure what it is, but I need to fill it,” Cross says.  

Cross has found one solution: Talking with other women who are in the same position.

She’s part of a group called the Essie Justice Group, a support group for women who have loved ones behind bars. Cross says sharing her story with other women has made her feel less alone.

“No matter who it is that’s missing right now -- you feeling exactly what I’m feeling, and we need each other. Because if we try to do this separately, we might fill that hole with alcohol, toxic people, drugs, or just let that hole get bigger.”

'The Data Is Not Yet There'

Last year, the New York Times reported that 1.5 million African-American men between the ages of 25 and 54 were missing from everyday life -- the result of incarceration and premature death, among other causes.

The Times called them “Missing Men.”

Gina Clayton remembers the story well.

“When that New York Times article came out, I had like taken a picture of like the hard copy, and put a Facebook post up. OK, like where’s the other half of this story?”

She wanted to know what happened to the women.

Clayton founded Essie to support and bring attention to the struggles of black women affected by incarceration.

Clayton got her start as a lawyer after graduating from Harvard Law School. During her first year there, someone she loved went to prison. She was frustrated by how powerless that made her feel.

“I was sitting in kind of the mecca of legal abundance to power, and resources and answers and solutions,” she says. “Yet I felt that there was nothing that I could do.”

After graduating, Clayton went to Harlem and worked on housing law. While working with women facing eviction, the specter of mass incarceration loomed.

She says she now believes that “mass incarceration poses the largest barrier to gender equality that we are facing as a nation today.”

But Clayton says she needs data to prove that theory, and “we haven’t had the studies to show, we haven’t had enough research attention on this to really be able to show that this is the case.”

Hedwig Lee, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Washington, agrees. “Women are often ignored in research,” she says.

Anecdotally, there is evidence suggesting that mass incarceration places huge emotional and financial burdens on women, especially women of color. “But the data is not yet there,” says Lee.

Lee’s work focuses on the health effects of mass incarceration, especially on the women who are left behind. She conducted a study last year that found that one in four women has a loved one in prison. For black women, it is one in two.

She says there has been an increased focus on the impact of mass incarceration for men, which has led to policy changes, such as the Obama administration’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative. She says those kind of programs are necessary, but adds that the plight of women has not received the same spotlight.

Both she and Clayton are adamant that women get the attention they deserve.

'It’s a Never-Ending Cycle'

Sholonda Jackson-Jasper knows life from both sides of the prison bars.  

“I’ve been to every prison in California for women,” she says, listing off the names of women’s prisons. “Live Oaks, CIW, Chowchilla, VSPW, all around and back and forth, I get out, they give you $200, say, ‘OK bye! See you next time!’ ”

She calls the cycle a “vicious revolving door.” 

Sholonda Jackson-Jasper protesting against jail expansion in Alameda County.
Sholonda Jackson-Jasper protesting against jail expansion in Alameda County. (PICO National Network )

Jackson-Jasper is 46 and grew up in Sacramento. She never knew her father. She was not raised by her birth mother either.

That’s why she refers to her mother as Linda.

“Linda took me to my mama’s house when I was 6 weeks old, and said, ‘Could you baby-sit my baby?’ And my mom was like ‘OK, I’ll baby-sit.’ And then Linda came back two years later.”

Linda was an addict, swept up in the epidemic of crack cocaine. She would sometimes come to check in on her daughter, but Jackson was mostly embarrassed.

“I was happy to see her come, and then happy to see her go,” she says.

Jackson-Jasper says she grew up sheltered and protected by her foster parents. But when her foster father took off with another woman, Jackson-Jasper was lost.

“That was the only daddy I knew,” she says. “So he ran off. And I got wild.”

Her life tumbled downhill rapidly. “I was pregnant at 15, and by 18, I was in jail.”  

In jail for possession of crack cocaine. The addiction that afflicted her mother had caught up with her.

“The funny thing is that my biological mother, Linda, is the person who introduced me to crack cocaine.”

Jackson-Jasper says at that time she started using crack, she was depressed. Not only had her foster father run off and left her, her foster mother was sick.

In a perverse act of motherly love, Linda offered her daughter the only medicine she knew.

“She didn’t mean any harm, I know she didn’t mean any harm. And I had to do a lot of work to get to that,” she says.

While Jackson-Jasper battled her addiction and cycled in and out of jail, she lost her son.

“I was actually just high all the time,” she says. Her son’s father and his mom -- her son’s grandmother -- sued for custody and won.

“I was really a kid, and didn’t know what that meant. There were just no adults that could, you know, kind of guide me. That’ll will always be a regret that I have, that I didn’t fight for that child.”

Instead of visiting him, as Linda had done, Jackson-Jasper moved away. She thought, “If I just go away, he won’t miss me. And I didn’t see that child between 3 to 13. I just left Sacramento, because I didn’t want him to grow up and people say, ‘Oh, your mama smoke crack.’ I didn’t want to be that person in his life.”

But her son suffered for it, she says. His grandmother died, and his father ended up in jail.

“It’s a never-ending cycle,” she says. “He’s out in the street. He’s a gangbanger. He ends up going to jail -- he got sentenced to 26 years."

Eventually, she reconnected with her son. “We had started to develop on our relationship before he went away. And now we’re just as thick as thieves,” she laughs and winks. “I don’t know if that’s the right phrase to use.”

Jackson-Jasper is clean now, an activist and a caseworker for homeless veterans. She uses her painful past as a resource to help others.

She got married and gave birth to another son, who is now 9. “He says he is going to be a Supreme Court justice,” she says, beaming with pride.

'We All Need to Do Something About It' 

Jackson-Jasper credits Narcotics Anonymous with helping to get her life back on track.

Programs like NA and Alcoholics Anonymous are the model for the Essie Justice Project that Gina Clayton started.

Clayton believes that the same kind of group therapy and support should be available to women who have loved ones behind bars.

“Our vision is for sister circles to be available in as many places as you see and can find an AA meeting,” she says.

She sees those “sister circles” as having political clout as well. She envisions them with “the power and the impact that an organization like Mothers Against Drunk Driving has had, in making that issue salient and relevant to the masses in the mainstream.”

Clayton says that for too many women, too many black women especially, incarceration and loss are just a part of life. She wants them to hear a different message: “This loss that I’ve experienced is not OK, and we all need to do something about it.”

Terryon Cross still pines for her father, still aches for his love and support. But she’s working hard to make sure her son has a connection with his father, one that is not overshadowed by loss and hurt.

The last time Sholonda Jackson-Jasper saw her eldest was at his wedding last year.

“He got married to his sweetheart. You know, if you’re not a lifer, they still let you get married. I did go to his wedding.” She pauses. “If that’s what you call it, right?”

Life goes on, even with a loved one in jail. But both women say some part of them feels like it’s locked up.

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Because it’s not just men who are incarcerated. The women on the outside, they are doing time, too.

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