“Having my son in prison has turned my life upside down,” says Irene Soto, a single mother of four adult children living in San Jose, California. “I worry every day for his safety and his well being. I feel lost and lonely without him.” Soto’s son, now 36 years old, was sentenced to 35 years to life in prison in December 2008.“My world crumbled,” adds Soto, who didn’t disclose her son’s crime. 

While the extremely high rates of incarceration of men of color, particularly black men, get increasing attention, fewer talk about the impact that this has on the families and communities they leave behind. “One in four women have a family member behind bars due to the mass incarceration crisis in the United States,” says Gina Clayton, founder of Essie Justice Group, an organization that supports women with incarcerated loved ones. “For black women, almost half of us have family members in prison.”

Women in particular—mothers, daughters, siblings, partners, grandmothers—often face a large burden when their relatives or loved ones are incarcerated. Not only do they take added responsibility for caregiving and maintaining their households, they also hold the emotional weight. Additionally, they must grapple with what it takes to support someone who is incarcerated. Costly phone calls and lengthy commutes to far-away prisons are every day facts of life for these women

“Once a month I wait to hear his voice,” says Soto. “[Our monthly phone call] allows me to be at peace for that one moment knowing that he is surviving prison life. I drive 1,128 miles to visit him so I can hold my son in my arms and encourage him to have faith in God that one day he will be home with his family, to never give up hope.”

Recently Soto was part of Essie Justice Group’s nine-week cohort of women who met weekly in the Bay Area. Soto, who learned of the group through Facebook, drove an hour each way to attend the meetings in Oakland. “I was looking for a support group that could relate to what I was going through without being judged, looked down on or embarrassed to speak about my son’s ordeal,” says Soto about what motivated her to join the group.

Essie’s Clayton, who has a loved one who was incarcerated during her first year at Harvard Law School, started Essie in 2014. Her work as an attorney had showed her the struggles facing women with incarcerated loved ones. “Women who had lost loved ones to the criminal justice system were grieving, were struggling financially, were isolated from one another, and were left to cope alone. After meeting hundreds of women, I saw the pattern and I became convinced that mass incarceration was the most significant barrier standing before millions of women—articularly low-income women and women of color—today.”

The nine-week group that Soto participated in, says Clayton, uses “a curriculum that focuses on trauma healing, crisis money-management and advocacy.” 

It’s been a meaningful experience for Soto: “Meeting with the group for the first time was such a relief for me knowing that I was surrounded by women who were going through the same experience as I was. I felt so comfortable and relaxed sharing my story with the group, creating a sisterhood based on support, help and understanding for one another.”

Anita Wills, another member of the group with a son in a state prison 300 miles away from her home, has also had a positive experience with Essie. “I feel empowered as a member of the Essie Justice Group,” says Wills, who didn’t disclose her son’s crime and the duration of his sentence. ”I have met some amazing women who are fighting for their families’ dignity and rights.”

When I ask both women about what most people don’t understand about having an incarcerated child, Wills responds, “They do not understand that we grieve the loss of our child. Not only is the child in prison, but you are vilified for supporting them.”

Soto says that people don’t understand how moms on the outside share the burden with their incarcerated childen. “I love my son unconditionally,” Soto says. “[I] will continue to support him throughout his incarceration as long as there is life in me. I am a mother of an incarcerated son living and feeling like a prison inmate as well.”