Marissa Alexander was sentenced to prison after firing a warning shot to protect herself from her abusive husband. Photo courtesy Free Marissa.
Last week, domestic violence was front-page news in America as the video of Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice beating his partner circulated online. Sunday morning news shows interviewed domestic violence survivors, social workers at domestic violence agencies, and even police chiefs about their departments’ policies around domestic violence calls.
But in all this discussion about the realities of domestic violence, one perspective was clearly left out: the people who are imprisoned for defending themselves against abusers. Where are the stories about how the legal system often punishes abuse survivors for defending themselves, usually after the legal system itself failed to ensure their safety?
Many readers already know the name Marissa Alexander, the Florida mother of three who was arrested for firing a warning shot to dissuade her abusive husband from assaulting her. In 2012, Alexander was found guilty of aggravated assault and was given a 20 year sentence. Her sentencing coincided with the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, drawing wider public attention than she might have received otherwise. People across the country rallied to her defense, organizing fundraisers and teach-ins and bringing media attention to the injustice of her case. Alexander appealed her case and was granted a new trial, which is scheduled to start in December 2014. The prosecutor has said that, this time, she will seek a sixty-year sentence for Alexander if she is convicted again.
While awaiting her new legal ordeal, Marissa Alexander is allowed to be home with two of her three children. (Her estranged husband, the same one who had assaulted her and then called the police on her, has custody of her youngest child.) If it weren’t for that outpouring of support nationwide, Marissa Alexander might very well still be in prison on that original twenty-year sentence.
We know Marissa Alexander’s name, but there are countless other abuse survivors behind prison walls whose names and stories we do not know. We actually do not know how many women are imprisoned for defending themselves against their abusers. No agency or organization seems to keep track of this information. Prison systems do not. Court systems do not. The U.S. Department of Justice has some data on intimate partner violence, but not about how often this violence is a significant factor in the woman’s incarceration. In California, a prison study found that 93 percent of the women who had killed their significant others had been abused by them. That study found that 67 percent of those women reported that they had been attempting to protect themselves or their children when they wound up killing their partner. In New York State, 67 percent of women sent to prison for killing someone close to them were abused by that person. But these are just two specific studies; no governmental agency collects data on how frequently abuse plays a direct role to prison nationwide.
This past Sunday morning, an ABC news segment reported that 70 percent of domestic violence calls do not end in prosecution. That story stressed how many abused people choose not to press charges against their loved ones. Not mentioned, however, is how often systems fail to help survivors when they do seek help. Domestic violence survivors have reported that, time and again, they sought help—from family members, from their communities, from domestic violence agencies and from police. Many times, they found that help was unavailable to them. As we collectively wring our hands about domestic violence, shelters for people seeking help remain grossly underfunded. Passing the Violence Against Women Act (which relies heavily on criminalization and arrest, both problematic for women of color and other marginalized people) required a monumental political effort.
I recently interviewed several domestic violence survivors imprisoned for defending themselves. Each woman reported that she had defended herself only after repeatedly trying to seeking help—unsuccessfully. One woman recalled that police would drive by as her boyfriend beat her on the street. Most of the time, they ignored the violence and continued to drive. When she called the police, they arrived and did nothing. The one time police did arrest her boyfriend, it was not for attacking her, but for having illegal drug paraphernalia. He was held overnight, then allowed to return home to continue his abuse.
Another woman told me that she had called the police on several occasions. Each time, officers simply took her boyfriend out of their apartment, talked with him, and then allowed him to return. The beatings and abuse continued. She filed for and received an order of protection, which he repeatedly violated. She tried calling domestic violence hotlines. One told her that, to receive assistance, she would have to go in person to their organization. Another did not return her phone calls.
A third woman was in an even more precarious situation. Because her abuser was a police officer, she felt that she had nowhere to turn for protection. He repeatedly told her, “You can’t call the police. I am the police.” When she called a domestic violence hotline, they told her that she was in the worst situation possible; in addition to keeping guns in the house, her husband’s profession meant that he could access records to find out where she was even if she did leave. They advised her to start saving money and to keep her important papers in one place in case she ever had to flee.
Why does she stay? Why doesn’t she leave? Those questions come up frequently in conversations about domestic violence. They also become key legal questions in self-defense cases. But leaving is often the most dangerous time for people in abusive relationships.
In Sin by Silence, a documentary about survivors incarcerated for defending themselves, sociologist Dr. Elizabeth Leonard explained that a battered woman is 75 percent more at risk of being killed after she leaves. She stays at that increased risk for the next two years. Feeling as if he’s losing control, batterers generally increase their level of violence. “Leaving does not stop the violence,” states Dr. Leonard, in the film.
Each woman I spoke with told me that it was her life or his. She knew that this last attack was the one in which her loved one was making good on his promise to kill her. “You know that this is the end,” one woman told me. “You see it in their eyes that they’re going to kill you.”
Each woman I spoke with survived that attack. Their abuser did not. But since their stories aren’t part of our national discussion on domestic violence, we’re not asking how we allow a system that failed them to then re-victimize them when they finally defend themselves.
Victoria Law is a freelance editor and writer. She frequently writes about intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. She enjoys reading dystopic fiction to escape the realities of the U.S. prison system.