Before Mother's Day each year, incarcerated Black women are released from jail to the open arms of Gina Clayton-Johnson and the rest of the advocates of the California-based Essie Justice Group.
"It's one of the most moving experiences that I've ever been a part of," said Clayton-Johnson, the executive director of Essie Justice Group. "Black incarcerated women, in particular, are among the most kind of unseen, untended to and uncared for group in our society and there's something really important about saying 'we see you' and 'you are part of us,' and 'we love you.'"
Her activist group is part of the National Bail Out Collective, with organizations from across the country that raise money to bail out Black mothers and caretakers before the holiday if they can't afford to pay for bail themselves. The women are reunited with their families and showered with care packages.
The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged jails and prisons across the country. A report from the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that a lack of social distancing, proper facility ventilation, and lack of personal protective equipment has made the spread of the virus run rampant in the close quarters of these facilities.
More than 525,000 incarcerated people have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 2,700 incarcerated people have died in custody, according to The New York Times.
The National Bail Out Collective also expanded its yearly efforts to the COVID-19 pandemic, demanding lawmakers to "free people from jails, prisons and detention centers," " end the criminalization, arrest and detention of our people during this pandemic," and "have access to safe, non-punitive health care and housing," according to a statement on their website.
Clayton-Johnson said these women are often scared for their health and safety while they await trial in close quarters facilities. Getting these women out of jails and safely back into their homes and communities is a priority for these organizations, she said.
"A number of the people who are incarcerated, especially women, are already suffering from health conditions or are disabled," said Clayton-Johnson. "We're dealing with an incredibly vulnerable population, which makes the exposure to COVID-19 and these conditions even more dire."
Roughly 80% of the women who are jailed each year are mothers, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. There are more than 231,000 women behind bars across the United States, the organization's website states, and Black women are disproportionately represented. Activists like Andrea James, the executive director at National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, believes that the disproportionate detention of Black women harms the communities and families from which they are removed.
James said women are often the main caretakers of families, and when they're detained, there is a ripple effect of trauma, financial hardship and pain in their families.
"Black women have been holding our communities together since slavery," James said. "We are painted as bad mothers simply because we land ourselves in a prison bunk somehow. But women are doing some incredible work under some of the most incredibly oppressive situations."
Women in jails and prisons have to work hard to maintain the relationships with their families, James said, and the financial toll of family travel for visitation, attorney's fees, and bail can quickly add up.
James said that efforts moving forward should not only be on bailing mothers out of jail while they await trial, but ending the incarceration of women and redistributing resources back to communities.
"The trauma, the terrorism against black people and families has been in existence since slavery," James said. "The current criminal legal system is the next iteration of that, it's just an extension of that … We're tired of black women not being considered as valuable as worthy, and only to be thrown into a jail where nobody is paying attention to the fact that this is wrong."