Protections for Survivors of Domestic Violence Falls Short in New Legislation

Black Voice News

January 23, 2022

By Katie Licari 

On July 4, 2010 Corene De La Cruz, 33, rang the doorbell of the home she once shared with her ex-boyfriend, James Calderon. She carried a comforter, which belonged to his godmother, and a gun.

They had broken up in June, ending an 11-year on-again, off-again abusive relationship. De La Cruz’s mother, Beatrice Bayardo, said, “I would notice a mark on her neck or a black eye, or I would just see markings, and she would always deny it…I think Corene loved him more than she loved herself.”

Bayardo also said Calderon used racial slurs against her daughter during his attacks. Calderon’s family is from Guatemala, but he is U.S.-born. De La Cruz told a court psychologist that his family “looked down on Mexicans” and that he “should’ve never gotten together with a Mexican girl.” 

De La Cruz told her mother that Calderon twice pulled a gun on her and threatened to kill her if she ever left him. During their first breakup in 2002, Calderon waited in front of her parents’ house (where she was living at the time). When De La Cruz arrived home, he beat her in front of the friend she was with and damaged the friend’s car. De La Cruz said she didn’t file charges because she didn’t want him to get in trouble

Corene De La Cruz (left) pictured with her mother, Beatrice Bayardo in 2019 at the California Institute for Women in Corona. This Halloween event, which family members could attend, was one of the last times De La Cruz and Bayardo visited in person. (Courtesy Beatrice Bayardo)

Between five and six in the morning, before going to Calderon’s house on July 4, 2010, De La Cruz wrote a suicide note and multiple goodbye letters to family members. In court, she said that she brought the gun to commit suicide in front of her ex so he could feel the pain she felt at the time. 

What happened after De La Cruz rang the bell was presented in court as a case of he said, she said. Calderon claimed his ex rushed toward him, locked the door and then shot him. De La Cruz said that he knocked her down as he pulled her into the house and the gun went off when she fell. De La Cruz’s defense attorney never introduced evidence which corroborated her version of events, including audio and video of the incident which was recorded by a home security system Calderon had installed after their final breakup. 

De La Cruz waited in county jail for three years before she stood trial for burglary, pre-meditated attempted murder and gun charges. De La Cruz was found guilty of everything except attempted murder. She was sentenced to six years for those crimes. If that was her full sentence, De La Cruz would be free today. Instead, she’s still in prison. Her sentence was extended 15 years by mandatory sentence enhancements.

De La Cruz’s experience is emblematic of how survivors of intimate partner violence who commit trauma-related crimes experience the criminal justice system. 

2010, the year De La Cruz was arrested, was an especially violent year for intimate partner homicides in California. 157 people – 130 women and 27 men – were killed. According to 2010-20 data collected by the California Department of Justice, women were far more likely to be murdered by an intimate partner than men were, even though men accounted for 80% of homicides statewide. 

High Murder Rate in San Bernardino County

Locally, San Bernardino County has seen an uptick in intimate partner violence-related homicides most years since 2010. Fourteen people were killed in 2020, up 75% from the previous year. San Bernardino County’s population is nearly a quarter million lower than neighboring Riverside County, but the intimate partner violence-related murder rate in San Bernardino County was seven times higher in 2020.

People who experience intimate partner violence are far more likely to be murdered by their mate than to pull the trigger themselves. However, these victims face a criminal justice system where an affirmative defense, when a defendant claims they committed a crime due to a mitigating circumstance, isn’t an option. Affirmative defenses, for example, allow human trafficking victims to defend themselves against prostitution charges. 

“There are only two options for survivors in the worst conditions of violence: die or defend yourself and face prison for the rest of your life.” 

Sentence enhancements for violent crimes against intimate partners can mean more time incarcerated. Sentence enhancements add time or conditions to a sentence based on how a crime was committed – like use of a firearm – or the defendant’s criminal history  – like gang affiliation or past felonies. 

New Bill Aims to Help Survivors

California Assembly Bill 124, which went into effect Jan. 1, overhauls the state penal code to address disparities faced by some of the most vulnerable defendants. AB 124, written by Sen. Sydney Kamlager, calls for several reforms.

  • Defendants who have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence or human trafficking can use an affirmative defense for all crimes except violent felonies, like assault with a deadly weapon or murder.
  • Prosecutors are required to consider the impact trauma, exploitation and youthfulness (under age 26 at the time the crime was committed) had in the commission of a crime during plea bargaining. 
  • Judges should start at the lower prison term when sentencing a survivor if trauma, age or victimization contributed to the commission of the crime. Judges can still use their discretion to sentence a survivor to the middle or high prison term if the aggravating factors (such as lack of remorse, amount of harm caused to the victim) outweigh the mitigating factors (factors that support leniency, such as youth, ability for criminal reform and mental impairment).
  • Judges are encouraged to consider whether having seen or experienced abuse, trauma, intimate partner violence or human trafficking was a contributing factor in the evaluation of resentencing petitions.
  • Allow survivor to petition the court to vacate convictions and expunge arrests for nonviolent offenses that stemmed from being a victim of intimate partner or sexual violence.

Sen. Kamlager wrote in the bill’s legislative analysis, “AB 124 is an opportunity to correct unjust outcomes of the past and provide full context of the experiences that might impact a person’s actions and use a more humanizing and trauma informed response to criminal adjudication.” 

Kamlager said in an interview that the bill was written with a particular, Sacramento-based survivor in mind. Keiana Aldrich experienced human trafficking and sexual assault as a minor before she was charged for the  robbery of a man who was trying to buy her. Even though she was 17, she was charged as an adult and sentenced to 10 years in prison. 

Protections for violent felonies created by AB 124’s original text – which could have helped Aldrich and De La Cruz –  were scaled back in the Senate. Before her trial, a forensic psychologist examined De La Cruz and concluded she was exhibiting symptoms of a depressive episode. Dr. Nancy Kaser-Boyd said that she displayed “the effects of intimate partner violence and that her plan to commit suicide in front of Calderon was not unusual.” But, Dr. Kaser-Boyd wasn’t called to testify at trial, and her report was only brought into consideration during De La Cruz’s sentencing. 

Under the version of AB 124 that passed, De La Cruz wouldn’t have been able to use the affirmative defense for the attempted murder or first-degree burglary charges, but she could have used it to defend herself against the other charges against her. That may have resulted in a shorter sentence, or even an acquittal, on those charges.

The omission of violent felonies, including murder and attempted murder, from the new law disproportionately impacts women, especially Black women. According to the Family Violence Law Center, an Alameda County-based nonprofit which provides legal assistance for domestic violence survivors, about two-thirds of women who are convicted of killing a romantic partner did so in self defense. In addition, Black women are inordinately represented in California prisons compared to their overall population in the state. And, in San Bernardino County, Black women are the most likely to be murdered by an intimate partner. 

“We see this pattern of survivors of violence, particularly Black women and other women of color, being charged with murder and given the most severe sentences in context of that violence,” said Colby Lenz, a co-founder of Survived and Punished, a national coalition of survivors, advocates, attorneys and scholars who organize to decriminalize efforts to survive domestic violence.

When asked about the senate amendments which made violent felons ineligible for the new reforms, Kamlager said, “It is time to address the sections of our penal code that do focus on violent and serious felony offenses, and work to rectify these sections as well that have become overly used and leveraged by DA’s offices across the state to over incarcerate.”

Lenz said the amendments were “unfortunate” and that the modified AB 124 bill  “excludes survivors who are facing the most severe consequences of violence.  [It] reinforces the idea that there are only two options for survivors in the worst conditions of violence: die or defend yourself and face prison for the rest of your life.” 

Sentence Enhancements Make Justice One-size-fits-all

If AB 124 had existed when De La Cruz was sentenced, she could’ve been released in 2017. But, her sentence enhancement means she can’t be released for at least several more years. (De La Cruz’s petition to remove her violent offender status, which would make her eligible for release as soon as 2025, is currently under review.)

Sentence enhancements remove a judge’s discretion to dismiss charges or reduce sentences which can lead to inequitable outcomes. Lenz said that the state’s 150 sentence enhancements are unevenly applied by race. 

“Corene gets multiple enhancements, including an enhancement tagged as domestic violence,” said Lenz. “They’re able to turn these enhancements around and target the very victims of domestic violence that we’re supposed to be protecting.”

De La Cruz, who has served her entire base sentence, is now in prison entirely on enhancements. Lenz said that she is not alone. “Many survivors, particularly Black survivors that we’re working with in California, are sitting in prison on enhancements alone, based on defending themselves from violence,” said Lenz.

“Many survivors, in particular, Black survivors that we’re working with in California, are sitting in prison on enhancements alone, based on defending themselves from violence.”

A 2011 study published in a criminology journal examined sentence enhancements and mandatory minimums in five states, including California. The research found that both policies increased the number of Black and White men in the prison system. But, Black men were disproportionately impacted by sentence enhancements, particularly drug offenses. Sentencing enhancements enacted between 1982 and 2000 in every state studied are associated with 26 more Black men and 3 additional White men incarcerated per 100,000 people. 

Another 2011 analysis, on sentencing patterns of intimate partner violence-related homicides in California, found that women were less likely to be convicted of killing an intimate partner. However, they face a legal framework inherently stacked against them. Women in heterosexual relationships are more likely to kill their male partner with a gun or knife, a crime which carries weapons-related sentence enhancements. Heterosexual men are more likely to use their physical strength as a weapon. Men usually strangle or beat their partner to death, neither of which carry sentence enhancements.

The disparities in sentencing highlighted by the analysis are clear, but the data studied had major limitations. First, the data was drawn from appellate court system records, a smaller pool of records than trial courts. And, those records don’t include any demographic information beyond gender, like race or sexual orientation. These holes in the data could mask even more inequities.

Black women are disproportionately represented in the state’s prisons and are more likely to be murdered by their partner. And, there are already significant barriers to Black survivors seeking help from the legal system overall. 

Jane Stoever, director of the Domestic Violence Clinic at UC Irvine’s School of Law and the university’s Initiative to End Family Violence, studies the criminalization of survivors in the justice system. According to Stoever, domestic violence homicides and survivor incarceration have increased through prosecutors’ contempt filings and bench warrants since the 1990s. This is when national mandatory arrest policies, which require police to make an arrest if they believe domestic violence is involved, were enacted. This led to abuse victims often serving longer sentences than their abusers. 

“We still see this pattern in survivors of violence – particularly Black women and other women of color being charged with murder – being given the most severe sentences for self-defense in the context of that violence,” said Lenz. 

Lenz explained that, despite reform attempts, she still sees survivors “intensely persecuted when they act in self-defense.” Survivors in Riverside and San Bernardino counties tend to be sentenced severely, she said.

An “Extension” of Violence

In prison, De La Cruz tried to heal from her abuse. She’s participated in vocational programs, helps her fellow inmates with writing assignments and statements for court and she’s currently attending Chaffey College, a San Bernardino-based community college which provides courses for inmates at her prison. 

De La Cruz’s mother describes her prison’s conditions as “inhumane.” She said there’s mold in the showers, infestations of pests and the prison limits the amount of times an inmate can flush the toilet. 

Aminah Elster, a policy coordinator for the California Coalition of Women’s Prisoners, is a previously incarcerated survivor. She said the conditions in De La Cruz’s prison are similar to those she experienced and those in other women’s prisons around the state.

“It is important to note that prisons are an extension of the violent conditions survivors encounter on the outside,” said Elster. In 2018, the most recent year data is available, California reported 940 alleged non-consensual sexual events to the U.S. Department of Justice. These included sexual harassment and misconduct by prison staff, and non-consensual sex acts and abuse by other inmates. 

De La Cruz, writing from prison lockdown, said she is doing everything possible to obtain credits and milestones to decrease her sentence. But, it’s been difficult because of her status as a violent offender. This status, carried by many victims of intimate partner violence, impacts aspects of De La Cruz’s prison experience, including when she is eligible for parole and what career opportunities she is allowed to train for in prison. For example, De La Cruz wants to train to be an inmate firefighter, but she can’t because she’s considered a violent offender.

Bayardo keeps a binder of all her daughter’s accomplishments and certificates in prison. She feels that the prison isn’t taking into account the classes and efforts De La Cruz is making to rehabilitate herself. 

A Fight for Reform…and Freedom

Both Sen. Kamlager, Lenz and Elster agree that AB 124 is a good step toward reform but that there is still work that needs to be done. 

“AB 124 was a good start,” said Elster. “But it needs to be expanded.”

Survived and Punished and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners have petitioned Gov. Newsom to pardon Corene De La Cruz and commute her sentence. Newsom recently granted 24 pardons and 18 commutations but De La Cruz wasn’t among them.  

Editor’s note: The terms “intimate partner violence” and “domestic violence” have purposefully not been used interchangeably in this story, as there are nuanced differences between the two. Although not universally recognized as separate by law enforcement and other entities, intimate partner violence is committed within the confines of a romantic relationship. Domestic violence, however, includes abuse against both adults – significant others or other family members – and children.

California Coalition for Women Prisoners celebrates 25+ years

by Courtney Hanson            San Francisco Bay View Newspaper

On Nov. 12, 2021, California Coalition for Women Prisoners hosted a special virtual event celebrating 25+ years of inside organizing and the consistent publication of The Fire Inside newsletter. Around 200 people gathered for a dynamic program that featured Mariame Kaba as the keynote speaker and remarks from Angela Davis, Victoria Law, Hamdiya Cooks-Abdullah and Piper Kerman, as well as musical performances and poetry readings.

Romarilyn Ralston set the stage with beautiful opening remarks about The Fire Inside, now the longest published newsletter by and for people in women’s prisons in the United States. She said that while inside, this publication “allowed us to express ourselves through poetry and art, different essays about the struggles based inside of women’s prisons,” and that because of CCWP and this vehicle, “thousands of people’s lives have been amplified and lifted up.” 

Romarilyn shared deep gratitude for CCWP’s community, the many members and volunteers who have fought tirelessly for liberation for the last two and a half decades. “And now, we are here,” she said, “imagining a world without prisons, imagining a community that is free from harm, imagining a space where all of us can live our best lives and be our best selves.” 

Mariame Kaba’s keynote brought this theme of collective care and freedom to life, which isn’t surprising given that her latest book, “We Do This Till We Free Us,” inspired the title. Specifically, her father’s quote in the final section, “Show Up and Don’t Travel Alone,” where he says, “Everything worthwhile is done with other people.” 

“Thousands of people’s lives have been amplified and lifted up.” 

“In the work of CCWP, I see a reciprocal labor of care embodied and engaged,” said Kaba. “The networks and connections you’ve encouraged, fostered and maintained for over 25 years are the foundation for so many people’s survival. You are constantly inventing and reinventing how we be with and for each other.” Kaba framed CCWP’s model as one of accompaniment – to live and walk alongside criminalized and incarcerated people, to “show up repeatedly, listen without judgement, and offer resources and skills without condescension.” 

Kaba ended with the importance of spirituality and generational connection – inviting people to drop names in the chat of ancestors who guide them and us. Dozens of names immediately started bubbling up: Erika Rocha, Patty Contreras, Marilyn Buck, Wolfie, Yogi, Beverly “Chopper” Henry, Rose Braz, Fanny Lou Hamer, Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker, Leonard Peltier, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mumia, Charisse Shumate, Theresa Martinez. During the Q&A segment at the end, audience members asked about avoiding the burnout of care work, how to protect survivors while refusing disposability politics, the relationship between policy and abolition, and building community with imprisoned people. 

Indigo Mateo sings at CCWP’s 25th Anniversary Celebration

Next, Indigo Mateo came on screen to perform “Afterlife,” an ethereal and futuristic song about her traveling back from an abolitionist future to pick up a loved one coming home from prison. 

Angela Davis followed with her remarks about CCWP’s robust support and solidarity for imprisoned people: “As someone who literally was freed by the people, I strongly identify with the theme of this tribute,” she said. Davis congratulated CCWP and its broader coalition and community for recently winning reparations for survivors of forced sterilizations in prison. 

Angela Davis speaks at CCWP’s celebration of 25+ years organizing women prisoners.

Davis used the example of CCWP’s ongoing COVID-19 advocacy to name a crucial aspect of CCWP’s organizing framework: “CCWP knows how to effectively combine attentiveness to the immediate situation with the best possible long-term solution. Therefore, you help to attenuate the isolation required by pandemic-ordered shutdowns through the Writing Warriors program at the same time that you insist on decarceration as the only way to adequately address the impact of the pandemic.” Davis said that this balance “is an important lesson for anyone who wants to ensure that abolition is taken seriously, is strategically approached, and does not distract us from meeting the immediate needs of our people behind bars.” 

Testimonies followed from Hamdiya Cooks-Abdullah, Piper Kerman and Victoria Law. Cooks-Abdullah spoke on the people power behind CCWP’s selfless volunteers and staff and encouraged the audience to continue supporting the organization. 

Kerman uplifted CCWP’s ability to prioritize conditions and campaigns issues, based on guidance from inside members and networks. Law reflected on the beginnings of her journalism career two decades ago, where she found that CCWP was one of the few groups that not only worked on women’s prison issues but was the only group that was specifically formed to work in solidarity with the organizing that was already happening. She raised a toast to celebrate CCWP’s work, our loved ones who have come home, and our loved ones who will be brought home in the future.

Thao Nguyen performs for CCWP on Nov. 12. Some 200 people attended the virtual celebration.

Longtime CCWP members then got on the virtual mic to share various Fire Inside readings from the archives, written by formerly and currently incarcerated members and accompanied by photographs of them and/or of the issue itself. Thao Nguyen gave a heartwarming performance of “We the Common,” a song written for Valerie Bolden (who has since been released) that was performed live at CCWP’s Chowchilla Freedom Rally in 2013. CCWP staff came on screen afterwards to share their own personal histories with CCWP and talk about campaign and program highlights, such as the movement to Drop LWOP (Life Without Parole), CCWP’s Across the Walls visiting program, and racial and gender justice policy work.

Jane Dorotik closed out the program by affirming the importance of inside organizing and two of CCWP’s most generous gifts: the “gift of hope” and the “unparalleled recognition of the expertise inherent in all incarcerated women,” as well as the commitment to working alongside imprisoned people and with their guidance to advance change. “Together, we can build a world without prisons,” she said.

California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) Development and Communications Coordinator Courtney Hanson can be reached at

Formerly incarcerated speak on criminal justice

October 1, 2021

The Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America hosted a panel, entitled “Mass Incarceration is a Feminist Struggle: Voices of Formerly Incarcerated Women,” to discuss the intersections of feminism, mass incarceration and prison abolition Thursday. The event launched the Mass Incarceration Lab, an archive led by Associate Professor of Sociology Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve that preserves oral histories and written testimonies of Americans affected by the criminal justice system.

All three panelists were formerly incarcerated women who now organize against mass incarceration and advocate for the rights of incarcerated individuals. Esteem Brumfield GS, a current master’s of public health student at the University, facilitated the discussion. The group focused on issues that incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women face, like accessing reproductive healthcare, educational opportunities and facing gender-based violence.

“It’s important to note that 86% of women in jails are survivors of sexual violence and 77 percent are survivors of intimate partner violence,” said Aminah Elster, a campaign and policy coordinator at the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. She added that prisons perpetuate this cycle of violence through insufficient medical care, child separation and harsh punishments.

Daniela Medina, a 2021 master’s of social work graduate from the University of California, Berkeley and co-founder and host of the Berkeley Underground Scholars podcast, echoed Elster’s description of the lackluster healthcare provided within prisons. After she was released from Valley State Prison in California, she said, she has had to spend around $10,000 on dental work due to inadequate care during her prison term.

The panelists agreed that solidarity between incarcerated women within prisons is essential to their survival. Medina spoke about the help and care she both received and provided. “I mean, what could we do but support each other?” Medina said.

Cherie Cruz ’09 MA’10, the co-founder of Formerly Incarcerated Union of RI, explained how incarcerated women “jump into action” and pass down knowledge to care for each other. “When I was incarcerated, when I was pregnant, I was fortunate to have my mother there, who already knew this system,” she said.

She explained the responsibility that formerly incarcerated women carry in supporting women who are still imprisoned. “It’s reliant on us to stick together and not to forget those women who are left behind and give them the support they need in the community, to never be abused by that system again.”

The panel also explored how the carceral system continues to shape the lives of formerly incarcerated even after their release. Elster discussed how she gave birth to her son while in jail and how her parents raised him until her release.

“I’m still trying to establish a relationship with my son. I’m trying to get to know him as he’s trying to get to know me, because the whole entire 15 years that I was incarcerated, he was kept from me,” she said.

Cruz, who comes from a family with three generations who have experienced incarceration, spoke about the generational trauma perpetuated by the criminal justice system. “It doesn’t end with just the person who’s behind (bars), but their children and their communities,” she said.

The women also shared how they are working to end these mechanisms of injustice and support individuals impacted by the criminal justice system. Elster spoke about her legislative advocacy, Medina highlighted her commitment to expanding higher education opportunities and Cruz noted her work on initiatives like keeping families together and broadening voting rights for the formerly incarcerated.

With the Mass Incarceration Lab archive in mind, Brumfield asked the panelists to think about how they wanted viewers in 150 years to understand prison abolition.

“Abolition is shifting resources and power to community interventions,” Elster said.

“This is where building community comes in,” she added. Abolition “is about creating, it’s not just about dismantling.”

Reparations for Survivors of CA Forced Sterilizations

Survivors of California’s forced sterilizations: ‘It’s like my life wasn’t worth anything’

Erin McCormick

July 19, 2021

It wasn’t until years after Kelli Dillon went into surgery while incarcerated in the California state prison system that she realized her reproductive capacity had been stripped away without her knowledge.

In 2001, at the age of 24, she became one of the most recent victims in a history of forced sterilizations in California that stretches back to 1909 and served as an inspiration for Nazi Germany’s eugenics program.

But now, under new provisions signed into California’s budget this week, the state will offer reparations for the thousands of people who were sterilized in California institutions, without adequate consent, often because they were deemed “criminal”, “feeble-minded” or “deviant”.

The program will be the first in the nation to provide compensation to modern-day survivors of prison system sterilizations, like Dillon, whose attorney obtained medical records to show that, while she was an inmate in the Central California women’s facility in Chowchilla, surgeons had removed her ovaries during what was supposed to be an operation to take a biopsy and remove a cyst.

The investigations sparked by her case, which is featured in the documentary Belly of the Beast, showed hundreds of inmates had been sterilized in prisons without proper consent as late as 2010, even though the practice was by then illegal.

The new California reparations program will also seek to compensate hundreds of living survivors of the state’s earlier eugenics campaign, which was first codified into state law in 1909 and wasn’t repealed until 1979.

That law allowed state authorities to sterilize people in state-run institutions, who were deemed to have “mental disease which may have been inherited” and was “likely to be transmitted to descendants”. The law was later greatly expanded to include “those suffering from perversion or marked departures from normal mentality”. Those targeted were often Black or Latina women, though some men were sterilized as well.

“California established these egregious eugenics laws, that were actually even followed by Hitler himself, in an effort to curb the population of unwanted individuals or people with disabilities,” said the state assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, who introduced the bill to create the compensation program.

Wendy Carrillo introduced the bill to create the compensation program.

Wendy Carrillo introduced the bill to create the compensation program. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

She said, in all, more than 20,000 people were sterilized in California, including the historic cases prior to 1979 and hundreds of additional cases in the prisons documented until 2010. Many of the historical survivors have since died, but the state believes about 400 are still living, about a quarter of whom are expected to apply for compensation.

“No monetary compensation will ever rectify the injustice of this,” said Carrillo. “But there is a level of dignity that is bestowed on the survivors by the [state’s] acknowledgment that this happened. If we don’t do this now, when will we?”

She hopes that each qualified applicant to the program will get about $25,000 starting in 2022.

‘Saturated with racism, sexism and prejudice’

The state follows North Carolina and Virginia in developing programs to provide compensation for sterilizations that took place in the state-sanctioned eugenics programs of the mid 1900s, but California is the first to recognize and attempt to atone for much more recent cases in the prisons. Three previous attempts to create a reparations program have failed to make it through the California legislature.

From its outset at the turn of the 20th century, the state’s eugenics campaign was steeped in the kind of racist thinking that would eventually lead to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, said Alexandra Minna Stern, a University of Michigan historian who first uncovered file cabinets filled with medical records of early California victims in 2007 in the course of researching a book on American eugenics.

“A lot of this came out as ideas of using science for the common good, human improvement, race improvement,” she said. “Of course, all that was saturated with the racism, sexism and disability prejudices of the era.”

One well-documented victim was Andrea Garcia, a 19-year-old born in Mexico, who was sterilized in 1941 under the orders of an asylum near Los Angeles for those “afflicted with feeblemindedness”. Staff there decided she shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce because she was a “mentally deficient, sex delinquent girl” from an “unfit home”, according a dissertation by Natalie Lira, a University of Michigan researcher who reviewed historic medical documents of the sterilizations uncovered by Stern.

Garcia’s mother went to court to challenge the sterilization policy, but lost her case. Both mother and daughter have since died.

Stacy Cordova, whose aunt was a victim of California’s forced sterilization program that began in 1909, holds a framed photo of her aunt Mary Franco, who was sterilised in the 1930s.

Stacy Cordova, whose aunt was a victim of California’s forced sterilization program that began in 1909, holds a framed photo of her aunt Mary Franco, who was sterilised in the 1930s. Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP

Lira also outlined the case of 14-year-old Antonio Duran, who was sterilized in 1939, after being charged with burglary and painted as a criminal for entering a house and taking several items. The sterilization requests described him as “high tempered, unreliable, an habitual truant and a bully” and said his parents were “of low-grade Mexican mentality”.

Stern said this kind of egregious thinking wasn’t wiped out when California finally took the eugenics law off its books in 1979, around the time it also began closing the state institutions that for decades had warehoused people with mental illness and those deemed unfit for society.

She said she believes it is no coincidence that this is the same time period when the state’s prison population began to explode in an unforgiving era of mass incarceration, which she said saw many of those same people, often poor people of color, being incarcerated in prisons for long periods. It isn’t a big stretch to see how prison officials could begin abusing their power in a renewed push to prevent their charges from reproducing, Stern said.

“I see a lot of similar ingredients and sets of pre-conditions that allowed for [later] sterilization abuse in the prisons,” she said.

After undergoing sterilization without her consent or knowledge, Kelli Dillon said she began experiencing menopause symptoms when she was only 24.

“They weren’t telling me what they did and my body was going haywire,” said Dillon, who was released from prison in 2009 and now runs her own non-profit domestic violence counseling and violence prevention program and serves on a family services commission for the city of Los Angeles.

At the time, she was serving a 15-year manslaughter term for killing her abusive husband, after, she said, he hit her with an iron and threatened her two young sons.

Dillon said she had authorized the prison doctors to give her a hysterectomy only if cancer was found in the surgery, but no signs of cancer were ever reported.

She said the sterilization shattered her dreams of one day restarting her family and left her struggling with anxiety and depression.

“It was like my life wasn’t worth anything,” she said. “Somebody felt I had nothing to contribute to the point where they had to find this sneaky and diabolical way to take my ability to have children.”

A quest for justice, but concerns remain

While still incarcerated at Central California women’s facility, Dillon began to realize that many of her fellow inmates were getting hysterectomies and sterilization procedures as well. Sometimes it was after giving birth, while others had procedures that they were told were necessary to look for cancers or correcting gynecological issues. And so with her attorney, Cynthia Chandler, she began gathering the stories of other inmates.

Eventually, this led to an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) that identified 132 cases of women being given tubal ligation sterilizations in the prisons without proper state approvals and a 2014 state audit, which found nearly 800 hysterectomies and other sterilizations were performed there.

One of the prison doctors told CIR that he viewed sterilization as a way to prevent prisoners from procreating and having “unwanted children” that could cost the state money.

Kelli Dillon and her attorney, Cynthia Chandler.

Kelli Dillon and her attorney, Cynthia Chandler. Photograph: Courtesy of Belly of the Beast

“He articulated that it was a cost-effective way of preventing people from needing welfare,” said attorney Chandler. “He actually thought he was doing the taxpayers a favor.”

Chandler began working on the case in the early 2000s while with the prisoner rights advocacy group Justice Now, which she co-founded. She eventually helped to get a bill passed to make it clear that prison sterilizations are illegal and has been fighting to get compensation for survivors ever since.

The procedures often left patients unclear what had happened to them.

While an inmate at Valley state prison for women in 2003, Gabriela Solano underwent a surgery in which doctors said they were going to remove her swollen left ovary, but at the end they told her they had removed her right ovary instead, she told the Guardian.

When she questioned her prison doctors about it later, she said he told her “what do you care? You’re a lifer anyway.”

“I just remember him saying that to me,” she told the Guardian in a call from Mexico, where she now lives. “A lot of the girls I knew went through unnecessary hysterectomies.”

But many advocates of the new compensation program worry that the same sentiments that allowed the eugenics abuses of the past to occur still permeate American culture.

Prisoners, people with disabilities and people of color “are still considered to be at the margins of our society and not worth the bother of dignity or respect by many”, said Hafsah Al-Amin, the program coordinator for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, which has worked with many of the current and former inmates who may be eligible for the compensation.

California is the first state to recognize and attempt to atone for much more recent cases of forced sterilization in the prisons.

California is the first state to recognize and attempt to atone for much more recent cases of forced sterilization in the prisons. Photograph: Ric Francis/AP

“When people hear the term eugenics they often think of something that happened a long time ago,” said Lorena García Zermeño, the policy and communications coordinator for the California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, a co-sponsor of the bill. “But the legacy of eugenics continues to this day.”

She pointed to recent reports of women detained in US immigration centers being unnecessarily sterilized. But she also said health disparities, such as the huge numbers of Black people and Latinos who have died of Covid-19, are rooted in the same sense of disregard for the lives of people of color and poor people.

“It’s extremely important for the state to confront the racist, sexist, ableist beliefs that perpetuate health disparities happening now.”

Dillon said the idea that California is finally going to compensate eugenics survivors makes her feel like spinning in the streets like the 1970s television character Mary Tyler Moore, who played a TV journalist.

What finally helped her come to terms with the fact that she couldn’t have children, she said, was getting to know her now-eight-year-old grandson.

“I was given an opportunity, praise God, to have children before I went to prison,” she said. “And, through that, I now have the chance to be a mom or mother figure to my grandchildren.”

Ny Nourn: the woman convicted of murder and pardoned – who now fights for other battered women

Anna Moore
June 2, 2021

Ny Nourn.webp

When Ny Nourn entered Central California Women’s Facility, the largest women’s prison in the world, there was every reason to believe she would never walk free on American soil again.

She was just 21, and had been sentenced to “life without parole” for her part in a hauntingly brutal murder – a part she was forced into. Even if, at some distant date, a successful appeal commuted that sentence, her conviction made Nourn deportable – so when she had served her time, she was likely to be transported to another prison and ultimately to Cambodia, the country of her parents’ birth, a country she had never set foot in.

Given all this, seeing her now via Zoom in her San Francisco home, smiling, fast talking, squeezing me into her absolutely packed schedule, is a miracle. Nourn, now 40, is not only free, but a ferocious critic of the US criminal justice system, and a fierce advocate on behalf of female prisoners and immigrants.

Since her 2017 release, she has spoken at universities, on debating panels and talkshows; she has testified at Congress and the California state capitol. She has given a Ted Talk. “When I share my story, people often say that it’s unbelievable; that it seems more like a movie; that it doesn’t sound real,” says Nourn. But in truth, similar versions are being played out across the US on a daily basis, and most people trapped in that trajectory through poverty, violence, prison and deportation will barely be seen and never be known. This is why Nourn keeps talking. “When I came out of prison, I asked: who else would be fighting for the people I left behind if not me?”

Nourn as a young child.
Nourn as a young child. Photograph: Courtesy of Ny Nourn

Nourn’s story begins in crisis. She was born in a Thai refugee camp. Her Cambodian mother was 18, and had separated from her family and fled the country on foot, to escape the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal regime responsible for the deaths of 2 million Cambodians. She met Nourn’s father, another Cambodian, at the camp, though he had left before Nourn turned one.

Her memories of those early years are, she says, only “sad ones”. “The camp was huge and we were in a hut. I was always hungry. My mum would leave each day to work in the rice fields, and I just remember always needing her, and her not being there.”

When Nourn was five, they left for the US – a family sponsored them – and settled in San Diego. Here, Nourn’s mother met and married Nourn’s stepfather, a refugee from Vietnam. Her brother and sister were born there.

Nourn clearly recalls the gradual escalation of abuse at home, as her stepfather first romanced her mother, then shouted at her, then smashed furniture, then became physically violent. Many times, Nourn saw him punch her mother, kick her and chase her with a knife. She witnessed him rape her. (“I remember her telling me to shut the door, and I could hear her beg and plead.”)

All these years on, she doesn’t want to demonise him – this effort to understand and forgive is a recurring theme with Nourn. “Thinking back now, I can see he was under a lot of pressure trying to take care of the family,” she says. “He was young, we lived in one-bedroom housing in impoverished communities in a country that didn’t really accept us or offer resources to help. He worked long hours as a mechanic, then came home and drank and smoked, and didn’t take care of himself.”

At the time, though, Nourn only knew that she wasn’t safe, and had nowhere to turn. “I was so lost, so scared,” she says. “I heard my mum talking about it to her friends, trying to get support, but they’d say: ‘He’s a good man. He’s supporting you.’ There was nowhere to go. The lesson we got from the Cambodian community was that the police weren’t there to help – and in my own experience, years later, that turned out to be true.”

So Nourn managed it as best she could. At school, she had few friends because she kept so much hidden. At home, when violence erupted, she would tell her brother to go to his room and put on his headphones. In her mind, her only aim was to get away as soon as she could. “I had no plans,” she says. “I didn’t want to ‘be a doctor’ or ‘go to college’, I just wanted to leave the house as soon as possible and alleviate the pain and trauma.” As a teenager, she had several boyfriends. “I was looking for love, validation, escape, and that’s how at 17 I ended up meeting Ron.”

Nourn when she was in high school.
Nourn when she was in high school. Photograph: Courtesy of Ny Nourn

She wishes she had seen the red flags. “He reminded me so much of my stepfather,” she says, with the briefest, saddest of smiles. She had met Ron Barker in an online chatroom, and he’d told her he was in his 20s. When she snuck out to see him, she found someone much older: 37, Vietnamese, also struggling, with broken English, no real job and – unknown to Nourn – a wife, a child and a baby on the way.

“At first, he put me on a pedestal. He said he loved me, and that one day I’d be his wife,” she says. “It was everything I wanted to hear. Then, over the weeks, he was saying: ‘I don’t want to share you’. ‘If you’re not at school, you’re with me.’ He told me what to wear, how to do my makeup and said he’d always be watching me, that he was part of the mafia – I didn’t even know what the mafia was.”

By December 1998, just four months into the relationship, Barker began seeing less of her. She now knows it was because his baby had been born and he was otherwise occupied. “I sensed he was cheating. I was young, 18, and I hadn’t known him long.” Nourn had an after-school job as a telemarketer for a dating site called Perfect Match. On 23 December, she went on a date with her supervisor, David Stevens.

Nourn now calls Stevens “my victim”. “I didn’t know him. He was 38, even older than Ron, but he seemed like a gentle soul,” she says. “I think he had a good heart, and I was willing to grab on to anyone willing to rescue me.” She met Stevens once, had sex with him and returned home late to find Barker parked outside her house.

He wound down his window and asked where she had been. Nourn told him: “Walmart.” “This late?” “Yes, it’s 24-hour shopping.” ‘What did you buy?’ Silence. Barker instructed Nourn to get into his car, and here, Nourn admitted that she’d had sex with her boss. “He was hitting the steering wheel and calling me names. I was crying, hysterical, apologising.” Barker drove to a secluded area and told her to get into the back seat. “He said: ‘I’m going to treat you like the slut you are,’” says Nourn. “Essentially, he raped me, right? I was begging, [saying] ‘No’, trying to push him off.”

Afterwards, Barker told Nourn to direct him to Stevens’ apartment. When they arrived – Nourn still crying hysterically – Barker told her to “fix herself up” and go inside. She was to tell Stevens that she had got a flat tyre while driving home and ask him to give her a lift to her car and help fix it. She did this, Stevens agreed and as they set out in his Chrysler, Barker flagged them down, pretending to be Nourn’s brother. He sat at the back and directed Stevens to a deserted business area, then told him to stop the car.

Did Nourn have any sense about was going to happen? “I remember my whole body shaking, [I was] just thinking”: ‘This isn’t real,’” she says, “I thought the worst that would happen was a confrontation – that Ron would beat him up, and that would be it. Life would go on.” Instead, Barker pointed a gun to Stevens’ head and asked: ‘How does it feel sleeping with someone else’s girlfriend?’ “I remember David saying: ‘This is not cool, we don’t need to do this …’ then two shots going off.” Nourn sighs. She pauses. “Then I was screaming and screaming. I smelled the gun, the metal. David was slumped, Ron was yelling in my ear and my ears were ringing. I thought he was going to kill me right then.”

Barker told Nourn that he wouldn’t kill her if she did what he told her. If she didn’t – and if she told anyone what had happened that night – he’d kill her and her family. He set fire to the car with Stevens’ body in it. “I did this for you,” he told Nourn at the end of the night. “You’re clean now. You’re mine.”

“I remember getting home, scrubbing myself in the bathtub, wishing it was all a nightmare,” says Nourn. She dreamed about it for years – that she was back in Stevens’ apartment, being chased and stabbed by Barker, or just seeing recurring images of flames and ash. “I really blamed myself,” she says. “The shame that I should have protected my victim, that I should never have gone out with him, that I should have known better or seen the red flags.”

The murder went unsolved, and Nourn lived in total terror of defying Barker. She had always felt isolated, but now she was utterly alone, trapped, silent, surviving from one day to the next. She remained with Barker, even moving in with him and his family when he wanted her to. (He told his wife, who was also completely under his control, that Nourn was the daughter of a friend and needed somewhere to stay.) Barker was now consistently violent.

Twice she became pregnant and twice he forced her to have an abortion. He once drove Nourn to a ravine, made her kneel and held a gun to her head in a mock execution. He broke into her family home, watched her siblings sleep, and told Nourn he was deciding whether to slit their throats. “He used to say: ‘I should have killed you that night I killed him,’ and a part of me wished he had.”

In 2001, at 20, Nourn found her first friends – two colleagues at her job with a mortgage company. They noticed her bruises, offered help – and she told them about the murder. They urged her to call the police, assuring her that she’d be protected. Nourn made the call, and officers arrived at her work to take a statement. Then they took her back to the police station for a more “in-depth” interview … which quickly turned into an interrogation. It lasted about 10 hours.

Both Barker and Nourn were charged with murder. “The prosecutor didn’t care about the background, the violence, my young age,” says Nourn. “Now I see that we were two Asian defendants accused of killing a white man. Looking back, I had no chance.”

New evidence emerged of Barker’s murderous jealousy – before the trial, from prison, her lawyer had to step down after being informed that Barker was attempting to hire someone to kill him, because Barker felt Nourn and her lawyer were becoming too close. However, the judge ruled this evidence inadmissible, saying it had no relevance. Instead, at the trial, Nourn was depicted as a bloodthirsty femme fatale who had “lured” Stevens into a trap. (She would later become the subject of documentaries such as Killer Couples, which ran with the theme.) Barker and Nourn were found guilty of murder, and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The judge said that Nourn was “more culpable” than Barker “because she let this mad dog off the leash”.

Until this point, Nourn’s life had been a series of horrifying episodes – it was only when she began her sentence that she began to see the bigger picture. In the US (and here in the UK), female inmates are overwhelmingly survivors of trauma and abuse, and from poor backgrounds. Black women in the US are three times more likely to be in prison than white women (in the UK, black women are more than twice as likely), and Latina women 69% more likely. Comparable statistics on Asian Pacific prisoners are scant. A 2016 report by the Vera Institute of Justice found that 77% of women in US prisons were survivors of intimate partner violence, and 86% had experienced sexual violence.

“At first, I didn’t want to make any friends. I just wanted to survive,” says Nourn, “but I ended up befriending people, then went to the battered women support group. I started hearing their stories, learning about their backgrounds.

“So many had lengthy sentences for actions that were a result of the violence they endured – actions where they were protecting their children from their abuser or because they were in life-and-death situations. I realised: ‘Wow. I’m not the only one.’ What we didn’t need was incarceration. We needed support.”

‘There are so many others like me … who else would be in a better position to help advocate for their freedom?’
‘There are so many others like me … who else would be in a better position to help advocate for their freedom?’ Photograph: Courtesy of Ny Nourn

In prison, Nourn accessed therapy. “My counsellor walked me through the night of the murder,” she says. “I didn’t like it, but it helped me accept that it wasn’t my fault. The only way to heal was to forgive myself and forgive Ron, too.

“For years, I wanted him to suffer, to die, but I had to let it go and try to understand his background. I think he’s a sociopath. He had no friends, he was quick to anger. He came to the US as a refugee, and struggled to assimilate. He didn’t graduate from high school. It helps to think about why he is the way he is. He did have to be held accountable for what he did – but I hope he can get the healing he needs.”

In her own case, Nourn appealed on the grounds of “battered woman syndrome” and her sentence was reduced to 15 years. It was only as she neared the end of it that a fellow inmate told her: ‘You know you’ll be deported, right?’ “I didn’t understand,” says Nourn. “I reached out to the civil rights organisation Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ), which confirmed that, yes, even though I’d been born in a refugee camp and had permanent residency, my conviction made me deportable.”

The Criminal Alien Programme, which allows for the permanent removal of immigrants convicted of certain crimes, is now responsible for between two-thirds and three-quarters of non-border deportations in the US, according to the American Immigration Council.

Eligibility expanded through the 90s, from immigrants who commit serious or violent crimes to include those who commit minor ones, such as shoplifting, drug possession and turnstile jumping. On the day of Nourn’s “release”, she was collected by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials who shackled her arms, her waist and legs, then transported her to Yuba county jail, in Marysville, California, to await deportation.

This period, says Nourn, was the hardest of all. “At least in prison, my friends were there. I could go to work, go out in the yard,” she says. “In Yuba, you’re lucky if you can go outside every other day. Just seeing other women like me, also survivors … some had been there two years, and there was this hopelessness. Every time you went to a hearing, it was postponed. No one could afford an attorney. Seeing all this suffering … it weighed on me.”

In Nourn’s case, a campaign by a coalition of groups including AAAJ and Survived and Punished, which crowdsourced a $10,000 (£7,000) bond for her, led to her release in November 2017. In June 2020, she was officially pardoned by California’s state governor, Gavin Newsom.

Her first days of freedom – she moved straight to San Francisco – didn’t feel real. “I couldn’t believe it, I was walking on eggshells, I felt so scared,” she says. “Was ICE going to come back and re-arrest me? Was someone from Ron’s family watching me? I was always looking behind me, really paranoid.

“Then I realised, with the community I was building, the friends I was making, I could take life one day at a time and enjoy the simple things. Going out to get a coffee. A walk on the beach. Going to the restroom without fearing a guard is going to walk by and see me. Choosing whether or not to close a door.”

In some ways, unsurprisingly, Nourn was tempted to fade into a “normal life” and disappear from public view. “A part of me did want to do that,” she says. “To remove myself from anything related to trauma, abuse and incarceration. But there are so many others and who else would be in a better position to help advocate for their freedom?” On her release, the AAAJ offered her a job – she now works for them full-time as a community advocate. She also organises for Survived and Punished, a charity that campaigns to free female prisoners who were themselves victims of domestic and sexual violence.

One of her early campaign cases was for Liyah Birru, an Ethiopian facing deportation after being convicted of a felony assault on her husband. Birru had met the former marine Silas D’Aloisio when he was stationed in Addis Ababa. They moved to rural California, where Birru said D’Aloisio quickly became violent and abusive, although he denied the allegations. Birru says that during one such incident, she took D’Aloisio’s gun and fired it at him, believing it wasn’t loaded. D’Aloisio survived, but Birru was convicted, served four years, and was then detained for deportation. The Free Liyah campaign – which gathered more than 35,000 signatures – helped secure her release on bondand there is an ongoing campaign to get her pardoned.

‘How is incarcerating people and deporting them going to make the world a better place? It’s not transformative.’
‘How is incarcerating people and deporting them going to make the world a better place? It’s not transformative.’ Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

Nourn’s main message is that people can’t be neatly categorised. Their stories aren’t simple, so the solutions can’t be, either. Immigrants can’t be separated into “the good ones” (the honest, hard-working model minority) and “the bad ones” (whom it’s OK to kick out). The same applies to the criminal justice system. “We have a system that says: ‘Protect the victims and survivors, and lock away the perpetrators,’” she says.

“But what happens when the victim and survivor is also classed as a perpetrator?

“We have to challenge ourselves and think about how we hold the person who did harm accountable, but at the same time uplift their humanity,” she says. “How is incarcerating people and deporting them going to make the world a better place? It’s not transformative. It doesn’t look at root causes. There must be better ways.”

When it comes to her future, Nourn isn’t yet sure what she will do. “Maybe one day I’ll have my own nonprofit organisation or domestic violence shelter. I may work towards a PhD – who knows,” she says. (Nourn is also in the final stages of an undergraduate sociology degree from San Francisco State University.) Whatever path she chooses, her 10-, 16- or 21-year-old self would surely be staggered.

“That person was so quiet, so alone, so scared, doing what she could to survive and blaming herself,” says Nourn. “She would never have thought she could go to college, have a career, be an advocate.

“I’ve learned that if you want to see change happen, you have to be part of it. Being vocal is not wrong. I was silent for the majority of my life – but not any more.”