OAKLAND, Calif. — Two Black women who would have otherwise been behind bars due to a lack of money get to spend Mother’s Day with their children and families this year, thanks to the Essie Justice Group, which bailed them out earlier this week.
As part of the 7th annual Black Mama’s Bail Out in California, the group successfully secured the release of one woman from Alameda County and another from Los Angeles County, both of whom were held in county jails before their trials because they couldn’t afford bail. During a rally at the Rene C. Davidson Alameda County Courthouse on Thursday, Gina Clayton-Johnson, the founder and executive director of the Essie Justice Group, stressed the need to raise awareness about the criminalization of Black women and poverty, especially given how, in the midst of a housing crisis, public policy has created a situation where the most vulnerable are provided with “a cage instead of a home.”
“I have never seen this level of community need and crisis in all of days organizing,” Clayton-Johnson said. “This year feels different.”
Since 2017, the Essie Justice Group has partnered with the National Bail Out Collective to bail out 13 Black mothers through the Black Mama’s Bail Out initiative in California, with a total cost of $1.9 million to date. The efforts aim to shed light on the harmful impact of mass incarceration on Black mothers and caregivers across the state and the nation. So far, the collective has freed 473 mothers and caregivers nationwide.
Among them is Shaundrika Price, who the Essie Justice Group bailed out of Lynwood Women’s Jail in Los Angeles last year. Price shared her observations of the other women in pretrial detention, who were suffering the aftermath of childhood trauma and abuse, only to have their needs met with cruelty and punishment instead of empathy and support.
“As I built relationships with the women on the inside, it was clear to me that none of us needed to be locked up,” Price said. “What we all need is community-based care and access to healing and supportive services.”
Price finally received the services and support she needed when the Essie Justice Group entered her life. The group helped her get therapy, a job, stable housing and reunited her with her children, in addition to serving as a supportive community. But she pointed out so many women are still languishing in jail, some waiting years for their cases to be heard, causing untold harm to their families and communities in the process.
“I consider myself lucky I got bailed out,” Price said. “I get to be in stable housing with my children and see my family. Every day, I think about how much worse off I would be locked away in a cage while waiting for my case to be resolved.”
Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods and Assemblymember Mia Bonta (D-District 18), both actively involved in advocating for pretrial justice reforms, joined the rally and shared their ongoing efforts at the county and state levels to reform the legal and reentry systems. Their goals encompass reducing incarceration rates, alleviating the financial burden on families so they’re not spending thousands of dollars on necessities like toothpaste and food for their loved ones, and facilitating successful reintegration into society for those who have completed their sentences.
“Our Black mamas do not belong behind jail doors,” Bonta said. “Our Black mamas belong home.”
Woods and Bonta have been strong advocates for securing additional funding for public defenders. Public defenders play a crucial role in representing individuals who have been charged with crimes but are unable to afford legal representation. The current system rewards those who have the money to buy their freedom and punishes those who do not regardless of guilt or innocence, Woods said.
“What that means is that those people who can’t afford to buy their freedom are coerced into taking a plea bargain to secure their freedom,” Woods said. “That is not justice.”