The Vendeur Profile: Ebony Underwood

Images: We Got Us Now

Ebony is the Founder of We Got Us Now, an npo advocating for over incarcerated parents and their children in the US. We take a deep dive into her work and why it’s more important than ever to address the pandemic of mass and over incarceration.

Ebony Underwood We Got Us Now

“Whatever day our dad comes home is fathers day,” Ebony Underwood told me via a Zoom call from New York. Our conversation is taking place before the inevitable election that would mean the demise of Donald Trump as POTUS and after my conversation with her sister Miko. (Read Fashion Crush: Miko Underwood.) As I write this, President Elect Joe Biden is transitioning his party into Office. However it was Senator Biden who was key to pushing through a bill in 1994 which he affectionately termed, ‘Biden’s Crime Bill.’ The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, as it is officially termed has been roundly condemned as being a driver of mass and over incarceration in the USA. As the prison population increases, so do the profits of private companies which employ prison labour. It was this bill, Ebony tells me that was to actuate a life sentence (without parole) for her Father.

Ebony doesn’t work in fashion, she’s a Content Creator, and story teller. An artist just like her Fashion Designer sister Miko. It was through Miko that I learned about Ebony. Miko’s sustainable denim label Oak and Acorn is an up and coming player on the New York Fashion scene. We spoke about her love for the fabric and it’s cultural and sometimes painful history for Black Indigenious Americans earlier this month. Oak and Acorn was also inspired by William Underwood. Miko’s Father had always encouraged her to be creative, to start her own business and be an entrepreneur. After a successful career designing for large fashion brands, Miko struck out on her own, inspired by her Father but also by her sister’s tireless advocacy for his release.

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Founding We Got Us Now

“In 2014, I found out that President Obama’s administration wanted to right the wrongs caused by the crime bills that led to mass incarceration,” Ebony told me. By this point her father had been incarcerated for 25 years in the federal prison system for a non violent crime. For William Underwood, this meant a life sentence, with no opportunity to appeal, and no parole. “For most of my life I never spoke about it,” she says. Now, with hope on the horizon, she felt renewed to bring her Father’s story into the spotlight in order to try to win a pardon for him. She began researching and discovered a name for her and her sibling’s situation. ‘Children of incarcerated parents’ – of which there are 10 million in the US. Finding no specific organisation that supported children of Federal inmates, she began We Got Us Now. The not for profit organisation is the first of it’s kind and aims to support children of incarcerated parents holistically and advocate for their release. “Research made me realise that there are more people, that this is bigger than me. There are 23 million people incarcerated in the US , 50% are parents.” The maths is staggering. “2.7 million children under the age of 18 have a parent that is currently incarcerated,” Ebony explains. “This population is greater than the states of Maine and New Hampshire combined!”

Ebony Underwood We Got Us Now Children Of Incarcerated Parents Rally Miko Underwood

Image: Ebony & Miko Underwood

Mass Incarceration and Big Business

It’s impossible to dispute the Government’s role in mass incarceration, something that Biden now refutes. However at an NAACP annual meeting in support of his wife’s Presidential campaign in 2015, former President Bill Clinton admitted the bill did exactly that. “I signed a bill that made the problem worse, and I want to admit that.” The bill earmarked $8.7 billion to build new prisons, demonstrating an expectation of a drastically inflated prison population. “{then} Senator Biden incentivised states to fill these prisons. They gave incentive to incarcerate people. Many prisons and jails were built during the 1990s to house all of the people sentenced under the new laws,” says Ebony. It seems odd to think that money can be made in this situation but it absolutely is. She tells me that many prisoners are employed in the prison to work for as little as 50 cents a day. Ebony learnt through her advocacy work that “somedays (inmates) have to make the decision between whether to buy soap, toiletries, or call to their children.”

Ebony Underwood We Got Us Now Mothers In Prison

Federal Prison labour and the Fashion Industry

The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, created by Congress under a 1979 law, allows private companies to enter into contracts with corrections agencies to use inmate labor. Inmates are employed to make provisions for the Government like military equipment as well as for private companies. Anything from household appliances, electrical equipment and clothing is made in prisons. In the 90’s after Biden’s Crime Bill passed, there was a huge increase in the prison population, and subsequently of private companies employing said inmates. Fashion companies such as JC Penney and Victoria Secret, although now no longer have contracts with prisons, were among a long list of companies employing prison labour. In 2016, this labour earned $500 million dollars for the companies involved. 

While the Department of Justice claims that inmates receive a fair local wage, 80% is deducted by the prison for costs such as room and board, taxes, family support and victims compensation funds. Ebony however admits that, while she and her family are tax paying citizens, they have been forced to support their father inside prison. He must pay for everything from soap, a comfortable pair of shoes and to send letters, emails and make phone calls. Something he does regularly. “Even though we are separated, he doesn’t take that for granted. As an adult, I understand that he’s made an effort to be in our lives. He sends cards consistently,” Ebony says. “In order for me to stay connected to our father we have to pay to send letters, emails and make phone calls. It’s the monetisation of our relationship. (They’re) profiting from our pain.” It’s hard to not see mass incarceration as simply a money making scheme for the US Government and private companies alike.

Ebony Underwood We Got Us Now Children Of Incarcerated Parents

When bills such as these are passed, thanks to the 13th Amendment, they disproportionately affect BIPOC. Drawing links between current prison worker schemes and slave labour used on plantations in 400 years ago is not hard to do. With a model prisoner like William Underwood behind bars for life, it’s no wonder that gaining clemency for people like him is tough. Miko told me that “we are a strong family and are united behind him. He’s a mentor inside prison and a really kind person.”

“He has zero infractions, he’s a model prisoner, he’s mentored young men in jail,” Ebony asserts. However given the evidence that mass and over incarceration yields big profit for companies, trying to win clemency for their Father is proving difficult for the Underwood’s.

Ebony, with Miko’s support, is tirelessly advocating for the release of those who remain over incarcerated. Her work with We Got Us Now creates awareness and campaigns effectively for change. Her petition ‘Free Bill Underwood,’ has over 100,000 signatures. COVID-19 has made the work more urgent. “I’ve been socially distancing from my father for 31 years! It’s heavy work but it’s necessary,” she admits. “ We are historically invisible because of the trauma and stigma attached to our experience.” 

However, even though Trump’s administration signed a bill allowing prisoners the ability to get to court where before this was denied to them, William Underwood has had no such luck. “Laws come out and we get excited. When he tries to appeal, he would be told no. The law doesn’t apply to old cases.” Mr Underwood’s case is heartbreaking but so are many of the stories that Ebony hears. The Underwood’s story is a very human one that throws into sharp relief, the real people and families that suffer as a result of over incarceration. 

Discover Ebony’s work including; Open Plea To The President, Hope For Fathers Day and Free Bill Underwood

You can help by signing the petition, Free Bill Underwood and by donating and joining the movement at We Got Us Now. Listen to the We Got Us Now Podcast here.

 

By Lucy Kebbell

Ebony Underwood We Got Us Now Free William Underwood

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