What Happens When Women Fight Back
Adult women and mothers are most often abandoned and stigmatized population in the criminal justice system. They are not visibly acknowledged in public media prison reform dialogue, and their unique needs go unmet.
In 2015 Herstory began to focus more intently on the role played by domestic violence in the lives of the women in the jail workshops. What we discovered is that there is very little empathy for the complexities faced by domestic violence survivors as judges, attorneys, prosecutors and, perhaps most importantly, the general public is unable to understand why women don't extricate themselves from relationships that are harmful to themselves or their children.
Victims of domestic violence are too often doubly punished. If they stay with the abuser because they are afraid of losing the roof over their head or custody of their children, or of being deported, the world looks at them with contempt. If they leave, and cannot provide for their children, their children are often taken away. If their children get hurt because the mothers did not raise a hand to protect them, it is usually the women who are arrested.
If they do raise a hand, and if they cause serious injury or kill their oppressors in the fight to protect themselves or their children, they end up in jail. If they report domestic violence and later take back the report because their abusers have threatened their lives, they are blamed for lying before the law and prosecuted. When they do go to jail, for failing to protect their children, their sentences are often longer than those of the men who attacked their children.
Immigrant women experiencing domestic violence are further unprotected. Not only are they fearful of calling in the authorities, especially if they are undocumented, but they can't even have a pay-as-you-go cell phone - often the only source of rescue - without proper documents. If the police are summoned, they often don't speak the woman's language. If the husband is able to tell his story, his is the one that is believed. Husbands and abusers often have more access to legal services that allow them to assume custody of their children and to keep homes, rendering the women who leave abusive situations homeless, which further affects their equality before the law in the struggle to keep their children.
The goal of our project was to produce a new anthology of survivor stories that will include policy and bill information and text that will discuss and advocate for more fair and just sentencing through the passage of the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA), and that can be utilized to raise awareness through legislative advocacy, community readings and other advocacy initiatives. Herstory will use this publication to inform lawmakers, and most importantly judiciary members and attorneys.
Once the book is published, we will reach out to partner organizations in the justice arena to offer it as a basis for public presentations, readings and targeted distribution to prosecutors, attorneys and judges in both criminal and family court for teaching purposes. We will use it a text in our jail-based programs, reaching more than 200 women a year, and in criminology and Youth Writing for Justice classes engaging high school and college students in developing a youth movement for justice and peace. We will include the individual stories in our new digital archive housed in Hofstra University’s Special Collections to help further research about the intersection of violence against women and mass incarceration, and make the project part of our 100 stories, Freedom Forums movement for which we are the representative for New York State.