Protections for Survivors of Domestic Violence Falls Short in New Legislation

Jan 23, 2022

Katie Licari | Black Voice News

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.

Fourth California federal prison worker charged with sex abuse

The Federal Correctional Institution is shown in Dublin, Calif., July 20, 2006


WASHINGTON (AP) — A fourth worker at a federal women’s prison in California has been charged with sexually abusing an inmate. His arrest comes months after the prison’s warden was arrested on similar charges.

James Theodore Highhouse, a corrections worker and chaplain at FCI Dublin, was charged Tuesday with sexual abuse of a ward, abusive sexual contact and making false statements to investigators.

Prosecutors allege Highhouse engaged in sexual acts with a female inmate on multiple occasions between May 2018 and February 2019.

Highhouse then lied to investigators from the FBI and Justice Department Inspector General’s office when they asked him about the alleged sexual misconduct, prosecutors said. In interviews on Feb. 21, 2019, Highhouse knowingly made false statements denied engaging in sexual acts with the inmate, prosecutors said.

Court records did not list a lawyer for Highhouse and no telephone number for him was listed in an online directory.

Highouse is the latest latest employee of the federal Bureau of Prisons charged with criminal wrongdoing in a prison system that has been rife with corruption and misconduct. The Associated Press reported in November that more than 100 Bureau of Prisons workers have been arrested, convicted or sentenced for crimes since 2019, as the agency turned a blind eye to misconduct allegations.

Highouse worked at FCI Dublin, where actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin spent time for their involvement in the college admissions bribery scandal. He is the fourth employee at the prison to be charged in the last several months with sexually abusing inmates.

The warden at FCI Dublin, Ray Garcia, was arrested in September and later indicted on charges he molested an inmate multiple times, scheduled times where he demanded she undress in front of him and amassed a slew of nude photos of her on his government-issued phone. A recycling technician was also arrested on charges he coerced two inmates into sexual activity. In December, a correctional officer was charged with engaging in sexual conduct with an inmate and gave her special privileges and gifts, prosecutors.

Several other workers at the prison are still under investigation.

The Bureau of Prisons has faced a multitude of crises in recent years, including the rampant spread of the coronavirus inside its facilities, dozens of escapes, the deaths of inmates and workers, and critically low staffing levels that have hampered responses to emergencies.

The Justice Department announced earlier this month that the Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal would be resigning amid increasing scrutiny over his leadership. The agency’s deputy director announced days later that he would also be leaving his position in a few months.

When A Prison Closes – L.A. Times Op-Ed

When a prison closes, the town where it sits has a chance for redemption

The California state prison in Susanville is slated to close. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)


JAN. 21, 2022 3:30 AM PT

The scheduled deactivation of California Correctional Center has become a hot-button issue for the town of Susanville, sparking anger and a still-pending lawsuit to prevent the prison from closing at all. The fears of residents who have become dependent on prisons for their livelihood have been covered widely in the media, but these stories often erase the voices of millions of Californians – including people currently and formerly incarcerated at CCC – who are demanding these state-funded prisons be permanently shut down. 

Prison closure in California is a complex undertaking. The task has many moving parts, including important questions about labor and infrastructure in communities like Susanville, where prison economies have taken over. Yet the fixation on these concerns continues to obscure why we must close prisons in the first place: prisons are racist institutions that are disastrous to our nation’s public health and overall economic well being.

The evidence is overwhelming. Incarceration is an ongoing humanitarian crisis that disproportionately affects Black, brown and poor communities. The U.S. spends $300 billion on the prison industrial complex annually. There’s also a $1.2 trillion impact from lost earnings, adverse health effects and financial damage to the families of incarcerated people. Mass incarceration, historically inextricable from slavery, hurts everyone in the United States and has shortened our average overall life expectancy by two years. During a global pandemic, sustaining deadly and infectious prisons is a terrible strategy to prop up employment in rural America. 

Closing CCC, a 60-year-old facility requiring $503 million in infrastructure repairs, will save Californians $173 million per year. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office calculates that shutting down five of California’s 34 adult prisons would save $1.5 billion per year by 2025. Significant, but only a dent in this year’s whopping $18.6 billion state corrections budget, the clearest indicator of California’s incarceration addiction. Coalitions like Californians United for a Responsible Budget maintain that at least 10 prisons should close over the next five years, achievable through sentencing reforms that increase releases, deep community investment and strong political leadership.

It is true that thousands of people rely on income from working at prisons in California. However, if towns like Susanville cannot survive without a system that criminalizes, cages and harms people, they have an obligation to rethink the structure of their economies. And no, replacing government prisons with private detention centers is not helpful. There are smart public policy solutions that could address some of these communities’ concerns.  

Prison towns should be proactive in demanding more state investment in better jobs, creating new pathways to careers that have a viable future and pay a competitive wage. Prison jobs offer high salaries but are deeply traumatic and lead to negative health outcomes. These are not “good jobs.” However, the troubles of prison guards pale in comparison to the violence inflicted upon those who are locked in prison cages. It’s also no secret that some corrections officers are guilty of perpetuating the toxic culture of prisons.

One smart job creation idea: Susanville, which is in Lassen County, could have been destroyed by the Dixie Fire, one of the largest in California’s history. Climate change is real. Preventing, fighting and recovering from wildfires are more useful jobs than guarding prisons. State governments can both end racist incarceration and engage with stakeholders to serve real community needs.

All They Want For the Holidays Is for Their Loved Ones to Come Home From Prison

Victoria Law    TRUTHOUT

December 23, 2021

When she was 8 years old, Bryanna Rose had one item on her Christmas wish list — for her father, Jose Colon, to come home.

Ten years later, 18-year-old Bryanna is still waiting. “What would it mean for him to come home now? It would mean the wish I had asked for would come true. It would make me happy now, it would make my younger self really happy, and it would make us whole as a family,” she told Truthout.

On December 14, Bryanna watched as her mother, Janette Colon, emceed a rally outside the office of New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, calling upon her to grant clemency to Jose and hundreds of others who had transformed their lives while incarcerated.

In many states, including New York, governors have the power to grant clemency as a way of correcting excessive sentences or recognizing a person’s self-rehabilitation during their imprisonment. The president also has the power to grant clemency to those serving federal sentences.

Clemency takes two forms. A pardon, typically granted after imprisonment, expunges the conviction, removing threats of deportation and other barriers to establishing a post-prison life. A commutation reduces a person’s prison sentence, allowing them to appear before the parole board or releasing them altogether. During the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates and family members called upon governors to utilize their clemency powers to release people, particularly those vulnerable to COVID-19.

“I Feel Like I’m Inflating a Balloon”

At age 17, Jose Colon and another teenager decided to break into a Bronx apartment to steal jewelry. During the robbery, Colon shot and killed the two inhabitants. He was sentenced to two consecutive 15-to-life sentences; he must serve at least 30 years before he can appear before the parole board.

Jose and Janette Colon initially met as teenagers at a bowl-a-thon. Then came Colon’s robbery-turned-murder and imprisonment. Janette followed Jose’s case through the news though the two didn’t reconnect for years. When they did, sparks flew and, despite his lengthy sentence, they soon became a couple.

Janette notes that her husband has matured from an impulsive teenager to a mature 40-year-old who has helped parent Bryanna. He also wants to help other young people avoid the mistakes he made, designing a cognitive behavioral therapy course called I.M.O.K. (If Mother Only Knew) to help teens identify trauma and avoid going down similar pathways.

Colon submitted his application for clemency in 2019, four years after then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a new Executive Clemency Bureau which would identify state prisoners who might be worthy of commutation. Thousands applied but, by the time he resigned in 2021, Cuomo had granted commutations to only 41 people. His replacement, Kathy Hochul, has yet to issue any clemencies.

“I try not to think about it because I feel like I’m inflating a balloon and then it’s going to deflate. I try not to think about it and live day by day,” said Janette. While she tries not to get her hopes up, she is working toward not only his release, but that of hundreds of others in prison, advocating with the Release Aging People in Prison campaign to press for commutations as well as for laws expanding parole eligibility.

For 5,200 People Serving Life Without Parole, Clemency Builds Hope

In California, Joseph Navarrete is one of more than 5,200 people serving life without parole. In February 1994, Navarrete, then age 26, shot and killed two people. He was sentenced to life without parole.

Now age 54, Navarrete and his wife Yolanda both state that he is a far different person than he was half a lifetime ago. Without the governor’s intervention, however, he may never have a chance to convince the parole board that he merits a second chance.

Yolanda and Joseph Navarrete, wedding photo. Photo provided by Yolanda Navarrete

In the 1990s, Yolanda told Truthout, Navarrete was addicted to methamphetamine, cocaine, pills and alcohol. He had already endured a lifetime of childhood abuse — first from his biological father and, after his mother fled that relationship and moved from Arizona to California, from his stepfather. By the time he was 14, he was drinking and experimenting with drugs; the latter resulted in his mother kicking him out of the house. He moved in with his older brother, who had been kicked out for drugs the previous year, and was soon using more frequently. To support his habit, he began dealing drugs. He married, then divorced, losing custody of his son.

The couple dated briefly in junior high in the 1980s. In high school, they went their separate ways. “He ran with the sex, drugs, rock n’ roll crowd,” Yolanda recalled. She, on the other hand, wasn’t even allowed to attend afterschool activities.

The two reconnected in 2012 shortly after Yolanda’s divorce. They began corresponding and, that July, on the anniversary of her previous marriage, Yolanda drove to Pelican Bay State Prison to visit him. “When I saw him, all the magnets came back,” she recalled. “It was like there was no time lost.”

Navarrete was no longer the wild child from high school. While in prison, he had stopped using drugs and alcohol, attending and then facilitating Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He had connected with his Apache heritage and now leads the prison’s Native American sweat ceremonies. “I am no longer that person addicted to anger, drugs and alcohol,” Navarrete wrote in a statement from prison. “I am proud to say for the last 25 years I have been leading my life in Sobriety, honesty and integrity.” Outside of prison, Yolanda connected with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and the Ella Baker Center, both of which work with incarcerated people and their family members on advocacy and legislation. She was paired with Ny Nourn, who had initially been sentenced to life without parole, but later won a resentencing, making her parole-eligible. (Nourn was granted a pardon in 2020, removing the threat of deportation, and is now co-director of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee.) Yolanda met wives of others serving life without parole and learned how to advocate, not just on behalf of Navarrete, but thousands of others serving similar sentences. “A fire was lit within me,” she recalled. “I realized that families’ stories matter. It makes these bills not just black and white; it makes them alive.” She joined the Drop LWOP Coalition and has been advocating not only for her husband, but for the thousands of others sentenced to what she and others call “a living death.”


Candlelight vigil outside home of then director of of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Ralph Diaz, on August 13, 2020. Photo provided by Yolanda Navarrete.


Navarrete filed for commutation in 2018. Brown ultimately granted 281 commutations — 147 of which were to people serving life without parole. Navarrete was not one of them.

Navarrete stands outside the state capitol building in Sacramento, California on August 13, 2020. Photo provided by Yolanda Navarrete.

In 2020, Navarrete filed a one-page recertification with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office. As of November 2021, Newsom has granted 91 commutations, 29 of which were to people serving life without parole.

In California, people serving life without parole are excluded from recent reforms such as elder parole, a law allowing prisoners aged 50 and over to appear before the parole board after serving 20 years. “Commutation is the only way they’ll be reviewed,” Yolanda said.

“Half of Me Is in There With Him”

On the campaign trail, President Joe Biden voiced his support for marijuana decriminalization. “And I think everyone — anyone who has a record should be let out of jail, their records expunged, be completely zeroed out,” he said during a 2019 presidential debate.

Two years later, people in federal prisons are still waiting for him to fulfill that promise.

Pedro Moreno, Alejandra Lopez, and her child, 2016 visit. Photo provided by Alejandra Lopez.

Pedro Moreno has spent the past 25 years in federal prison. Sentenced to life, clemency may be the only way the 61-year-old can rejoin his family.

“I feel like I’m doing this sentence with my dad. Half of me is in there with him,” Alejandra Moreno Lopez told Truthout.

Alejandra Moreno Lopez was eight when federal officers burst into the family’s Texas home.

The officers, dressed head to toe in black, allowed her mother, Melba, to get dressed and dress her three children. She tied her daughter’s hair into a ponytail — the last one Lopez would wear during her childhood — and told them she’d be back soon. “We waited for her all day,” Lopez told Truthout. Her mother didn’t return for 13 years.

Melba and her husband Pedro were arrested as part of a 79-person federal marijuana sting. Pedro Moreno was charged with transporting thousands of kilos of marijuana from Mexico into the United States. Two years later, in 1998, Moreno pled guilty to conspiracy to launder monetary instruments and operating a continuing illegal enterprise. In return, the government agreed to dismiss the remaining charges and not oppose a sentence reduction.

Before sentencing in federal courts, the probation officer submits a presentence report (PSR), which guides the judge in sentencing. Pedro Moreno’s PSR recommended adding two points for obstruction of justice and no points for accepting responsibility. Those points increased his sentence guideline range from 324 to 405 months (27 to 34.75 years) to life in prison. Four of Moreno’s brothers were also sentenced to life in federal prison.

Twenty-five years after that fateful morning, Pedro Moreno remains in prison. In January 2016, then-President Barack Obama granted clemency to Moreno’s four brothers. Eight months later, he denied Moreno’s application. He remains the last family member imprisoned from that sting. In 2010, Moreno’s wife, Melba, was released from prison. The next month, she saw her daughter graduate from college. “She always said she’d get out to see us and be a mom again,” Lopez recalled. But their time together ended the following year when Melba died after a brain aneurysm.

Alejandra’s mother Melba Moreno in prison, 2004. Photo provided by Alejandra Lopes.

Moreno is held at the federal prison in Atwater, California, nearly 2,000 miles from his family in Texas. To visit, Lopez must drive an hour to the nearest airport, fly to San Francisco, rent a car and then drive two to three hours to Atwater.

The last time she visited was in 2018. She brought her husband as well as their 3-year-old son and 11-month-old granddaughter. They stayed for an extended weekend — Thursday through Monday — to visit several days in a row. But, remarks Lopez, “It’s never a vacation. It’s in the middle of nowhere.”

Unlike other prisons, Atwater does not offer video calling, so Lopez and her family rely on phone calls. She worries that her father will contract severe COVID. At the start of the pandemic, he and other men came down with flu-like symptoms, some so severe that they couldn’t get out of bed. For a time, he lost his voice and couldn’t call.

In December 2020, he tested positive for COVID. “We were afraid he could get very sick,” Lopez said. The previous month, both his sister and brother-in-law contracted COVID and died within days of each other.

Lopez doesn’t understand why her father was denied clemency. “Now [marijuana] is legal in a lot of states. I don’t understand why there are still people in prison over this,” she said. “And [their] families are hurting.”

A Christmas Without the Looming Threat of Prison

Diana Marquez is looking forward to her second Christmas with her family in their El Paso home. She and her three grandsons have already decorated the Christmas tree in their living room. She is planning to cook a turkey and watch the boys open their presents on Christmas morning. She can FaceTime her 92-year-old mother and oldest daughter, both in Nebraska, to wish them a merry Christmas. But the best Christmas gift was learning that she would not be returned to prison.

Diana Marquez, Marquez’s adult children, Marquez’s 92 year old mother. Phot provided by Diana Marquez.

The 65-year-old was released in May 2020 under the Coronavirus AID, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which prioritized the temporary release of people from federal prison if their age or health made them vulnerable to COVID and whose convictions are classified as nonviolent.

While she is now home with her daughter and grandsons, Marquez remains under home confinement and electronic monitoring. She has permission to leave the house for two hours each morning to walk in the nearby park and to pick her grandchildren up from school every weekday afternoon. Any other movement outside of her daughter’s home requires advanced approval and even then, she may not receive it. She cannot attend church services or spontaneously stop at a store. She cannot travel to see her mother or older children.

Until recently, she lived with the threat of being returned to prison after the pandemic ends. As Truthout previously reported, the Biden administration is upholding a last-minute memo issued by Trump’s Justice Department returning people to prison if their sentences extend beyond the “pandemic emergency period.” Marquez has more than nine years left on her prison sentence.

On December 21, under ongoing pressure from advocates, including formerly incarcerated people, the Justice Department reversed its stance, issuing a new legal opinion that would allow people like Marquez to serve the rest of their sentence at home. “I feel overwhelmed, so excited [and happy,” Marquez told Truthout. “[I’m] having tears of joy to know we don’t have to go back to prison.”

Marquez applied for clemency in 2016 while still in prison; it was denied the following year. In September 2021, she applied again.

“It would be a really big blessing,” she said. Clemency would also allow her to travel to Nebraska and hug her mother. Without clemency, Marquez will remain under the same restrictions until her sentence ends in 2031.

In September 2021, Marquez learned that the Biden administration, which has yet to grant any clemencies, is conducting an expedited clemency screening for people with nonviolent drug convictions on home confinement under the CARES Act. The screening only applies to those who have between 18 and 48 months remaining on their sentence. Marquez, whose release date is March 9, 2031, does not qualify.

That leaves Marquez to wait and hope. “I’m praying and praying for clemency — not just for me, but for all of us, both on home confinement and still in prison,” she said.

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