Gina Clayton-Johnson is executive director of the Essie Justice Group, which she founded (and named after her great grandmother) in 2014 to harness the collective power of women with incarcerated loved ones to end mass incarceration’s harm to women and communities. She wrote this piece after seeing Annapurna’s If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel that is up for three Oscars on February 24 — for Jenkins’ screenplay, supporting actress for Regina King and Nicholas Britell’s original score.
I have looked through a glass at someone I love. I know what it’s like to have to learn the prison system inside and out, to give of my time, heart and resources, and to say “I am with you.” Just like Tish in the film If Beale Street Could Talk, I am one of the 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 2 black women, in the U.S. who has an incarcerated loved one.
In Barry Jenkins’ acclaimed and award-winning adaptation of James Baldwin’s book, we witness the raw, beautifully poignant and genuine love between two people, Tish and Fonny, as they navigate the racist systems and societal realities of 1970s Harlem. Their future and dreams are suddenly put on hold when Fonny is falsely accused and imprisoned for rape. Looking at him through a glass, Tish joyfully reveals she is pregnant with their child, and promises she “will get him out of there.” ‘She’ takes the form of Tish, her mom and sister as they battle through a legal system that continues to fail them, struggle to come up with financial resources, and prepare for the imminent arrival of an addition to their family.
Through the film, we gain a glimpse into the relentless fight, unconditional love, and advocacy shown by women fighting the criminal legal system on behalf of their loved ones in the United States. Even though the film is set in the 1970s, it reflects a reality that millions of women know all too well today: In the age of mass incarceration, it is women who are directly bearing the consequences of 40 years of bad criminal justice policy — carrying heavy financial, mental and physical health burdens as a result. In fact, the prospects of all women, and black and brown women in particular, continue to be undermined by mass incarceration — a patriarchal system of punishment and control that violently enforces white supremacy. It is long overdue that we ask ourselves: is our attachment to cages, surveillance and state-inflicted harm one of the greatest barriers to gender justice today?
Even as the country’s overall incarceration rate declines, the women’s incarceration rate remains at a record high, far outpacing men’s. Today, the United States accounts for over 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women, despite the fact that only 4 percent of the world’s female population lives in the U.S. One in 18 black women will be incarcerated in her lifetime, and a staggering 47 percent of all black transgender women will be incarcerated. While incarcerated, women experience gender-specific forms of violence and trauma that can include denial of necessary medical care, shackling while giving birth, and sexual violence. In innumerable ways — from the rapidly increasing incarceration of women, to the gendered violence and criminalization that trans women, queer women, and gender non-conforming people face — we are witnessing mass incarceration’s full-frontal attack on women’s lives.
The Essie Justice Group’s recent report reveals the direct and dire consequences of mass incarceration on women with incarcerated loved ones who, like Tish, are left to bear the physical, emotional, and financial toll of the criminal legal system. Through our research, we now know that over 63 percent of women feel their physical health impacted due to a loved one’s incarceration, with 86 percent describing the emotional toll as “significant” or “extreme.” Of the women we surveyed, nearly 70 percent with an incarcerated loved one are their family’s only wage earner. And, we know that while trying to advocate for and protect those that we love, it is women who continue to feel a great sense of social isolation, with compounding mental, physical and economic health impacts.
Tish is one woman, but she represents hundreds of thousands of women that have had our voices silenced, our spirits beaten down, and our will tested. As Tish takes us through the facts of Fonny’s arrest and whereabouts during the alleged rape, her testimony falls on deaf ears — the only word that matters is that of a white police officer, the face of the unjust and biased system. While taking care of herself during her pregnancy, and being the primary source of emotional support for Fonny, she works at a perfume counter to feed the very legal system that thrives on putting black bodies in cages. Even through these moments, Tish is one of the lucky ones and is not alone; she is supported by family and women who grieve with her, hold her up, and fight alongside her.
If Beale Street Could Talk also brings forth the harsh reality that the truth does not set you free. As Tish and her family continue to fight for Fonny’s release, his case keeps getting moved and delayed. Running out of options, Fonny has no choice but to take a plea deal and remain in prison. To this day, millions more like him continue to be confined to a life behind bars while watching their children grow up from across the table in a visiting room. Over 2.2 million people today remain incarcerated and nearly 7 million controlled by the criminal legal system due to mass incarceration policies that prioritize corrections budgets, private prisons, surveillance, and policing over healthcare, education, rehabilitation and community programs.
As the United States continues to uphold the highest incarceration rate in the world, we cannot forget the women who are fighting, supporting, and loving the millions of people that are impacted daily. We cannot leave their voices, experiences, and leadership out of the process to bring about real social and political change. We cannot overlook those like Tish and her family that continue to give everything they have to a system that has forced itself into the essence of their daily lives. And we cannot stop fighting for a future without mass incarceration, a system that so deeply devastates and undermines the kind of fierce love depicted in this story. As Tish’s father poignantly reminds Fonny’s, “These are our children, and we’ve got to set them free.”
At Essie Justice Group, we believe we have the power to build a better future by taking action together. By exposing mass incarceration’s harm to women, taking on oppressive forms of state contro with a gender justice lens, and supporting grassroots campaigns led by formerly-incarcerated women and women with incarcerated loved ones, we can build a future where we and our loved ones are truly free.