In the year she was out of prison, Gwen Levi, 76, was thriving.
After serving 16 years in different federal facilities for dealing heroin, Levi was allowed to leave last June and finish her 24-year sentence in home confinement under the supervision of federal prison officials. She moved in with her 94-year-old mother in Baltimore and volunteered at prisoner advocacy organizations, hoping for a paying job to come along. She was also building her relationships with her sons and grandsons.
But Levi’s season on the outside ended June 12 after she attended a computer word-processing class in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. A Federal Bureau of Prisons incident report said she was out of contact for a few hours with the officials supervising her.
Levi is now at the D.C. jail awaiting transfer to a federal facility, according to her attorney, Sapna Mirchandani, of Maryland’s Office of the Federal Public Defender.
“There’s no question she was in class,” Mirchandani said. “As I was told, because she could have been robbing a bank, they’re going to treat her as if she was robbing a bank.”
Levi is one of about 4,500 federal prisoners sent to home confinement last year to protect them from contracting the coronavirus. Advocates celebrated the move by the Trump administration and expected that President Biden would continue to keep former inmates home even after the pandemic receded.
But while Biden has taken steps supported by criminal justice advocates, the White House has appeared to follow President Donald Trump’s lead with respect to a Justice Department memo calling for nearly all people to return to prison when the public health emergency ends.
The administration hasn’t weighed in on the binding Justice Department memo, issued in the final days of Trump’s presidency. The White House and Justice Department wouldn’t comment when asked by The Washington Post about the return of inmates to prison on seemingly minor violations.
Kristie A. Breshears, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, said in an email that the agency cannot discuss individual cases. However, sanctions “are not imposed in a capricious or retaliatory manner,” she said, and bureau staff “are the determining factor when making determinations regarding transferring an inmate back to secure custody.”
Breshears added that the Bureau of Prisons could decide to allow inmates near the end of their sentences to stay on home confinement after the pandemic.
“For the more difficult cases, where inmates still have years left to serve, this will be an issue only after the pandemic is over,” she said. “The president recently extended the national emergency and the Department of Health and Human Services has said the public health crisis is likely to last for the rest of the year.”
According to Levi’s Bureau of Prisons incident report, the officials supervising her were alerted by her ankle monitor at 10:51 a.m. that she was not home. She did not answer calls to her phone for the next few hours. By 1:17 p.m., the ankle monitor showed she was back at her approved address. The report noted the incident as an “escape.”
In a statement released by Mirchandani, Levi said she was “devastated.”
“I feel like I was attempting to do all the right things,” Levi said. “Breaking rules is not who I am. I tried to explain what happened, and to tell the truth. At no time did I think I wasn’t supposed to go to that class. I apologize to my mother and my family for what this is doing to them.”
Other prisoners released to home confinement during the pandemic also are being sent back.
Lynn Espejo was sentenced to 45 months for filing false tax returns, wire fraud and money laundering in the Eastern District of Arkansas in 2017. In an interview, she said she was released in May last year, got a job at her church and re-enrolled in graduate school, where she was completing a master’s degree in clinical and mental health counseling. She also writes a blog focused on inmates’ rights and hosts a radio show
On Jan. 12, according to Bureau of Prisons documents, Espejo was written up for emailing inmates — “[v]iolating a condition of a community program” by “communicating with inmates currently incarcerated in numerous Federal Prisons,” according to the incident report. She was reincarcerated Jan. 12 and released Jan. 27 after a judge allowed her to be returned home because of health issues.
Espejo, who has since completed her degree, said she believes she was sent back to prison as retaliation for her activism. About 153,000 inmates are in the custody of the bureau, a 20-year low.
“You cannot hold someone’s freedom of speech over their head on home confinement,” she said.
Breshears said she could not comment on an individual inmate’s conditions of confinement.
Kevin Ring, president of nonprofit prisoner advocacy organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said returning people on home confinement to prison for minor violations is “counter to human nature.” The Biden administration should say whether it will rescind the Trump administration memo, he said.
“This is exactly what we feared from them delaying resolution of this issue,” he said. “Every day is torture. They’re worried about going back to prison. .?.?. Waiting is the hardest part.”
Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, said that if the Justice Department won’t rescind the memo, the Biden administration could use another legal tool: clemency. Osler said he has spoken to administration officials about that possibility.
But such grants could prove controversial as Biden announces measures to combat violent crime amid an increase in violenceacross the country.
The transfer of prisoners to home confinement during the pandemic has proved to be safe, Osler said. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April, Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal said three inmates transferred to home confinement have been arrested on new charges.
“The facade of their incarceration in the interest of public safety has been knocked over,” Osler said.
As national leaders debate criminal justice, Levi is back behind bars. Her son Craig Levi said it was a blessing to have his mother home. Now, she’s gone.
“We don’t understand how it escalated,” he said. “It’s unjustified — the stress that they put on the family.”
By Justin Wm. Moyer—Justin Wm. Moyer is a breaking news reporter for The Washington Post. After a long stint as a contributing writer at the Washington City Paper, he came to The Post in 2008, becoming an editor in Outlook and for the Morning Mix, The Post’s overnight team. He became a reporter in 2015. Twitter
By Neena Satija—Neena Satija has been an investigative reporter for The Washington Post since January 2019. She was previously an investigative reporter and radio producer for the Texas Tribune and Reveal, a national radio show and podcast. Twitter
Jennifer Orthwein, a public interest attorney in California, filed a lawsuit on June 11 on behalf of a currently incarcerated trans woman, Syiaah Skylit, and the entire class of trans prisoners in similar situations in California. “As people have begun to assert their rights under SB 132, they have been met with severe retaliation, distressing delays, tactics intended to police their genders, dangerous rumors and misinformation, and systemic outing of transgender, nonbinary and intersex people,” Orthwein tells CNN.
(CNN)—Jasmine Rose Jones is a woman. But for much of the last 23 years, she was incarcerated in a men’s facility, and she says she was subjected to rape, sexual assault and abuse, just because she is transgender. Jones, who was released from prison in May 2020 and is now a legal assistant at the?Transgender?Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project in San Francisco, says she was repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted by male prisoners and abused by male correctional officers across multiple facilities throughout her multiple stints in custody.
At the time, Jones did not feel like she could report the assaults to corrections officers, for fear of retribution, including being thrown into solitary confinement. But she says she had told officers that she was transgender and feared for her safety.She heard similar fears from other trans women serving with her.”We lived with it,” she says. “We lived with the abuse.”
Jones is not alone. As recently as last year, the vast majority of incarcerated trans people in America are still housed in facilities based on the sex they were assigned at birth, according to a 2020 investigation by NBC News.
This is despite robust evidence that trans women are at a significantly higher risk of abuse and assault than the general prison population, according to academic research and surveys of incarcerated trans people. And that is still the case nearly 30 years after a landmark Supreme Court decision in Farmer v Brennan that found deliberately failing to protect incarcerated trans people from abuse or violence behind bars qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. Activists say not much has changed. Now, they are working to change policies on both the federal and state level to allow trans prisoners to decide for themselves where they would feel safest being housed — or at least have their voice heard, even if prisons or independent decision-making boards still get to make the final call.
A 2007 study from the University of California, Irvine, found that incarcerated transgender people were 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than a random sample of incarcerated men. Fifty-nine percent of transgender prisoners reported having been sexually assaulted within a California correctional facility compared to just 4.4% of the incarcerated population as a whole.”Transgender women are not safe behind bars, period,” says Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the incoming executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). “Nobody should be in danger just because they are in government custody.”
In 1994, the US Supreme Court ruled on Eighth Amendment grounds that failing to protect trans people in custody is unconstitutional because it qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. Farmer v Brennan centered on the alleged prison rape of a trans woman, Dee Farmer. She says only a few days after a transfer to FCI Terre Haute, a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, she was raped by a cellmate. Prior to her incarceration, she had been living as a transgender woman, and argued that that fact, coupled with what court documents called the “violent environment and a history of inmate assaults” at the Terre Haute facility, meant that officials deliberately failed to protect her from harm by placing her there.
“He just kept repeatedly punching me all over,” she remembers, voice strong but still emotional more than 30 years later. “He started kicking me and I saw a knife in his tennis shoe. And it scared me so bad that I just stopped resisting. And he threw me on the bed and raped me.””A prison official’s ‘deliberate indifference’ to a substantial risk of serious harm to an inmate violates the Eighth Amendment,” wrote Justice David Souter in the court’s opinion. While a jury ultimately found for the defendants in her case, her win at the Supreme Court is still hailed as a victory.
Activists like Dee Farmer are still fighting to institute national and state-level policies that would require a facility to house transgender, nonbinary or intersex people in the facilities where they feel safest, which would often mean according to their gender identity.”They should not feel that they have to settle for being assaulted or violence or being harassed or being abused,” she tells CNN. “Make it known that this is what is happening. Let your voice be heard.”
‘I never murdered anyone or anything like that’
Transgender people are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system to begin with, incarcerated at significantly higher rates than other groups.According to the NTCE’s last national US Transgender Survey conducted in 2015, the rate of incarceration for transgender people was double that of the nation-wide rate of incarceration, and about 10 times higher for Black transgender women.In many states, being transgender in public can lead to an arrest under so-called “Walking While Trans” laws: anti-loitering codes officially used to target sex workers, which in practice target primarily trans women of color regardless of whether they are sex workers, advocates say.
“I was certainly profiled” as a transgender woman on the street, says activist and transgender woman Bamby Salcedo. “It was always a thing. I would always be stopped for just walking to get groceries from the store.”Salcedo says she was first incarcerated at age 19, shortly after she began her transition process, and spent the next 14 years in and out of prison and jail for a variety of drug charges and petty theft charges, which she says primarily entailed shoplifting makeup and food.
“I never murdered anyone or anything like that,” Salcedo says. “Back in the ’80s there weren’t any services related to us. So anything we needed we got from the street, from our sisters. Participating in the street economy was the only way for us to live and survive.”Salcedo says the “inhumane” and “disgraceful” treatment of trans women in custody often starts immediately upon the intake process, a sentiment echoed by Jones and others.”We are told to get undressed in front of many men” including both corrections officers and other male prisoners, Salcedo describes, which “automatically creates this sense of fear for many of us and this sense… that it’s ok to sexually harass us and oftentimes sexually assault us.”Jones similarly spent a lot of time on the street as a teen, after becoming homeless when she says her mother kicked her out of the house after coming out as gay.”The streets were my best friend. That’s where I learned to become who I am today,” Jones says.But soon, for Jones too, life on the street turned to life behind bars.
Violence on the Inside
Once they are incarcerated, trans people are at significantly higher risk of violence. Trans prisoners are over nine times more likely than the prison average to be assaulted or abused by fellow prisoners, and over five times more likely to be assaulted or abused by facility staff, according to a national survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality. According to the 2015 survey, within the year leading up to the survey, almost a quarter of transgender prisoners reported being physically assaulted by other people in custody or staff.Salcedo describes being raped in custody by a man who held a razor blade against her neck. On other occasions, she says she was beaten by other prisoners, including one time being beaten with a four-by-four piece of wood.”Every single day I was at least verbally attacked. Every single day,” she remembers.Formerly incarcerated trans women say that abuse often comes at the hands of correctional officers.
“They have this whole language they used toward the trans community,” Jones remembers. “They call us horrible names, they used to have us strip out in front of other inmates to embarrass us. They used to come and ransack our cells and take our make-up. They wouldn’t let us eat in chow halls if we were wearing any make-up at all.”Opponents of housing people in custody according to gender identity argue that men could falsely claim to be transgender so they are housed with women they can then assault. There is no evidence to support that this happens, while there is overwhelming evidence that trans women in men’s prisons are being sexually assaulted at exponentially higher rates than the general incarcerated population.”There is no evidence whatsoever to support this argument of false claims. It simply doesn’t happen,” Heng-Lehtinen says. “There are criteria for determining that someone really is transgender… It’s not as simple as simply declaring that you are transgender.”There is limited data available on whether incarcerated transgender women in women’s facilities are at a lower rate of sexual assault because so few transgender women are currently being incarcerated in women’s facilities. However, formerly incarcerated trans women speaking to CNN shared that they would feel more comfortable being strip searched by guards who are women — standard practice in women’s facilities — and would feel safer with cellmates who are women.
Laws on the books
In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, into law. It required the Department of Justice to develop federal rules for prisons and jails aimed at preventing and eliminating sexual assault and rape of prisoners. The DOJ issued those PREA Standards in 2012, which still stand today.Among them, the PREA Standards say that prison staff “must consider [housing assignments] on a case-by-case basis,” and not simply on the basis of a person’s “genital status.” The rules also say “serious consideration” should be given to an incarcerated person’s “own views regarding his or her own safety.”In practice, activists say those standards rarely lead to trans women ever being incarcerated in a women’s facility, despite their requests to be housed as such.”We’ve heard from so many trans women that prison officials will ask them if they have a penis during intake,” says Richard Saenz, a senior attorney with Lambda Legal. “And that’s how they decide where they should be housed.”
Saenz says Lambda Legal gets hundreds of letters and phone calls every year from trans people in prison who say they are being assaulted, abused and otherwise are unsafe in their housing situation specifically because they are transgender. .”[PREA is] still not enforced consistently enough,” Heng-Lehtinen says. “We need clearer and more detailed policy about exactly how to determine the housing assignment and it needs to be reevaluated periodically because circumstances change.””Best practice would be for a trans person’s housing to be re-evaluated every year. And if that’s not going to happen, it should be revisited every five years.”
The Department of Justice tells CNN that the Federal Bureau of Prisons “follows and enforces PREA standards and recognizes the importance of ensuring that inmates are and feel safe while in custody. Under current policy, a transgender or intersex inmate’s own views with respect to his or her own safety must be given serious consideration when BOP makes housing and programming assignments.”
Part of the problem, activists say, is that there is a “patchwork” of federal and state regulations that is often “exploited to ignore the transgender person who is unsafe,” explains Heng-Lehtinen.This patchwork includes the federal government’s Transgender Offender Manual, which the Trump Administration revised in 2018 to roll back protections for trans people in custody. It required officials “use biological sex as the initial determination” for housing placement, but it did not define the term “biological sex” — a controversial term for which there is not one standard set of medical criteria.
Despite the Biden administration’s assurances that they want to improve the quality of life for transgender Americans, it has not yet revised these Trump-era regulations or issued a new Transgender Offender Manual.
“We do expect the Biden administration to update and fix the Transgender Offender Manual,” says Heng-Lehtinen, who says the NCTE has been working closely with the Biden administration and Department of Justice to make these changes.Salcedo is now the CEO and President of Los Angeles-based TransLatin@ Coalition, an organization dedicated to improving the conditions of trans people in America. She says revising the Transgender Offender Manual is a good start, but not enough.”More than that, it’s important that we understand the reasons why trans people are incarcerated: we are criminalized because of who we are. An alternative to that is to provide trans people with the resources and support that we need, rather than… having to resort to survival which gets us put in prison.”
State level action
Individual states are also working on legislation requiring their state corrections facilities to house transgender people in the place they feel safest. That includes SB 132 in California, which Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law in September of 2020, effective January 1. This law requires transgender, non-binary and intersex prisoners to be housed in “a correctional facility designated for men or women based on the individual’s preference,” according to the bill text. It also requires all carceral staff to address prisoners by their correct gender pronouns and to search prisoners in a way consistent with their gender identity.But activists say this law is also unevenly implemented.
“Since I’ve been out, I’ve been hearing stories of trans people being assaulted …, being stripped out,” or strip searched, by male correctional officers says Jones, alleging that is happening because the trans women are still being housed in men’s facilities with officers who are men. “Even though SB 132 is now law, they are not implementing it right. They need to be held accountable for that. People are really under attack now.”
Jennifer Orthwein, a public interest attorney in California, and now a friend of Jones, filed a lawsuit on June 11 on behalf of a currently incarcerated trans woman, Syiaah Skylit, and the entire class of trans prisoners in similar situations in California. “As people have begun to assert their rights under SB 132, they have been met with severe retaliation, distressing delays, tactics intended to police their genders, dangerous rumors and misinformation, and systemic outing of transgender, nonbinary and intersex people,” Orthwein tells CNN.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation tells CNN, “CDCR has remained committed to providing a safe, humane, rehabilitative and secure environment for all transgender, non-binary, and intersex people housed in the state’s correctional facilities… All housing transfer requests are being reviewed by a multi-disciplinary team to include institution leadership, mental health professionals, and Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Compliance Managers. We’ve also developed and provided specialized training to staff to ensure they are aware of laws and departmental policies and to give them the knowledge and tools they need when interacting with the incarcerated transgender community.”
According to the court filing, “Defendants and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) have repeatedly tortured, sexually assaulted, threatened, and pepper sprayed Plaintiff Syiaah Skylit, a 30-year-old Black transgender woman.” Orthwein says Skylit has attempted suicide and gone on a hunger strike.
On the day the lawsuit was filed and CNN requested comment, Skylit was informed that her transfer request was approved and she will be transferred within the next few days, according to Orthwein.
“CDCR cannot comment on pending litigation, nor can we comment on a specific incarcerated person’s housing requests. But again, we take the health and safety of all those in our care very seriously and are ensuring thorough reviews are completed for each request.”
According to CDCR, out of 1,277 incarcerated individuals that identify as transgender, non-binary or intersex, 272 have requested gender-based housing transfer requests. 265 are from people being housed at male institutions requesting to be transferred to female institutions and seven are from people being housed at female institutions requesting transfer to a male facility.CDCR says that a total of 33 requests have been approved and 19 of those approved incarcerated people have already been transferred. They say the remaining 239 requests are “being evaluated.”
While both lawsuits and policy efforts are underway to ameliorate the conditions for transgender, non-binary and intersex people behind bars, advocates say lives are at stake.
“The need is urgent,” Heng-Lehtinen says. “There are trans people behind bars right now suffering.””We want people to understand that we are under no delusion that this bill will make prisons safe for anyone, including gender variant people,” Orthwein says. “We just hope that this bill makes it possible for transgender, nonbinary and intersex people to survive prison with as much of their mental and bodily integrity intact as possible.”
Prosecutors’ offices deal in punishment, not healing, prevention or justice. When candidates running for prosecutor claim to be on the side of survivors of violence, we always need to take a closer look — and recognize the violence inherent in the office itself.
In May, Manhattandistrict attorney (DA) candidate Alvin Bragg published an op-ed with advocate Marissa Hoechstetter in which they assert that it’s time to “center survivors and fight the public health crisis that is sexual violence” by expanding the prosecutor’s office to include a specific sex crimes unit. Not long after,carceral feministsGloria Steinem and Sonia Ossorio announced support for the wealthy Wall Street candidate for Manhattan DA, Tali Farhadian Weinstein. They similarly claim that the expansion of the punishment system will improve the lives of women. The reality is that these carceral feminists, Manhattan DA candidates and the overwhelming majority of DAs across the country, are pushing forward a decades-old agenda of expanding a system that is inherently violent and counter to what most survivors say they need.
One year after the murder of Oluwatoyin Salau, a Black teen activist who was failed by a system unable to provide her safe housing and was, therefore, left more vulnerable to violence, the DA candidates are advocating for devouring the already austere New York City budget to build out the criminalization infrastructure.
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As Black survivors of gender-based violence ourselves, and as organizers who work to end the criminalization of survival, our vision for a world without gender-based violence requires a world without policing, prisons and prosecution. Carceral feminists — or those who believe punitive practices such as policing and incarceration can solve gender-based violence — continue to claim they speak for all survivors. Yet many of us are screaming from the rooftops that we deserve so much more than the few carceral crumbs governments toss our way.
While carceral feminists may take up much of the public spotlight, radical feminists have long made connections betweeninterpersonal and state violence, showing how law enforcement has perpetratedgender-based violence throughout history and outlining the ways thatcarceral systems have failed many survivors. While it may be true that some survivors feel that the criminal legal system is useful to them, studies have found that around 70 percent to75 percent of sexual violence survivors do not report the violence to the police. Of those who do report to police, crude estimates show that 2.3 percent result in a conviction.
As the experience of Chanel Miller — a sexual assault survivor whose victim impact statement went viral in 2016 — revealed to millions, the court process is frequently retraumatizing and victim-blaming for gender violence survivors, even if a conviction occurs. Survivors are often crushed as the carceral machinery churns along to cage its next victim. Unlike restorative or transformative justice approaches, this legal system does not foster survivor-centered healing and accountability. The things that are precious to so many survivors — the abusive person taking responsibility for the violence they caused, apologizing and outlining how they will stop their violence, and making agreed-upon amends — are not byproducts of this system. The byproduct is more violence. Studies have shown that when the state targets communities with criminalization and incarceration, these communities actually experience increased rates of interpersonal violence rather than less. In short, incarceration does not prevent violence, it fuels it. The Manhattan DA has had over two centuries to become a victim-centered office — ultimately carceral feminists need to reckon with the fact that this is not possible in a system that only cares about punishment and not what survivors actually say they need.
As arecent survey of violence survivors has shown, overall survivors of violence prefer investments in schools, jobs and mental health treatment over more investments in prisons and jails. These realities would not surprise most anti-violence advocates. Since the Violence Against Women Act was first introduced, survivor advocates, particularly those that center the most historically marginalized groups, have stated over and over what communities ask for most while experiencing abuse:somewhere safe to live and somewhere nurturing to heal. Nevertheless, these cries go largely ignored by most bureaucrats and lawmakers. As a result of refusals to invest in actualaffordable housing and sufficient emergency cash assistance, our city’s shelters burst at the seams, as domestic violence has become thenumber one driver of the New York City homeless shelter population. Upon fleeing violence, many survivors and their families then experience the stress of severe poverty and housing insecurity.
Any real commitment to survivors must involve divesting from law enforcement responses to violence — which most survivors do not benefit from and which many marginalized survivors experience as violent — and redistributing resources to life-affirming and non-carceral supports.
Prosecutors Must Drop Charges Against Survivors
Not only do prosecutors usually fail to provide any respite for survivors of gender-based violence, they also often directly target them with criminalization and incarceration. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has a long history of prosecuting survivors of gender-based violence. In 2007, seven women were arrested for defending themselves after being sexually harassed in the West Village, andfour of them were later sentenced to up to 11 years in prison. Today, that same office isprosecuting Tracy McCarter, a survivor of domestic violence, for the death of her abusive partner. The DA’s office currently housesa Domestic Violence Unit similar to the proposed sex crimes unit that Bragg andHoechstetter propose, and yet it continues to prosecute people for defending their lives.
Steinem and Ossorio are promoting Farhadian Weinstein’s plans for a Bureau of Gender-Based Violence as if a departmental expansion and name change can transform the system’s relationship to survivors. Prosecutors cannot claim to care about survivors while simultaneously criminalizing their survival.
Prosecutors often serve as a criminalized survivor’snext abuser through aggressive character assassinations, monitoring their movement and phone calls, and creating an environment of punishment and fear. New York City jails and prisons are also frequent sites of sexual violence. Criminalization, prosecution and incarceration inherently spread violence; they don’t solve it.
Any discussion about reforming criminal legal systems on behalf of survivors without mention of how these very systems are abusing survivors themselves is incomplete at best, and extremely harmful at worst. This is particularly true forBlack, Latinx, Indigenous, queer and trans survivors who are rarely seen as “real” victims by courts if they fight back, but are also killed at the highest rates when they do not fight back. The city’s next DA must decline to prosecute and drop the charges against all survivors of gender violence — including Tracy McCarter — once elected. Otherwise, their “commitments” to survivors are nothing more than campaign talking points while survivors continue to be penalized by prosecutors in New York City.
Prioritize Survivor Needs, Not the Expansion of the District Attorney’s Office
Survivors shouldn’t have to engage with violent carceral systems to receive the support they need. While gender-based violence is supposedly considered apublic health issue, local and state government officials and prosecutors continue to push for a law enforcement response.
The District Attorney’s office is a law enforcement body, and we know that in ravaged government budgets, when a budget line is added in one place, it means another is lost. Instead of adding more survivor-oriented social workers and medical personnel to the law enforcement budget, we should be building up these resources in other departments. Supports should not be an extension of policing.
Moreover, if these resources are housed in police precincts and district attorney’s offices, they are likely to be used as carrots to pressure survivors into working with cops and prosecutors. As just one example, New York State requires that survivors quickly report a crime to law enforcement to be eligible for Victim Compensation, financial assistance to cover medical bills, counseling or other costs related to their survivorship. This policy coerces survivors into engaging with police to receive emergency economic support. Funding for the prosecutor’s office should be redirected to the resources that survivors have been consistently asking for, such as housing, flexible funds, and other resources that are essential for supporting survivor healing and self-determination. If we funded these needs proactively, we would be investing in the prevention of violence rather than only responding after the fact — and peddling public dollars into institutions that often cause further harm.
Defund the District Attorney’s Office to Radically Invest in Safety
Prosecution cannot address the root causes of violence. The criminal legal system itself is built on anti-Black racism, settler colonialism, capitalism, cisheteropatriarchy, and other oppressive forces that sustain a culture of violence. Unable to recognize their fundamental role in continuing these systems of oppression, any solutions that prosecutors offer outside of shrinking their own power will continue to fall short. For example, something as simple yet consequential as the framing of the issue has implications for who is recognized as a survivor and can access public resources. During this campaign, DA candidates — as well as Steinem and Ossorio — wrongly use a “violence against women” frame to describe gendered violence, which is often used to exclude transgender women and erases many other survivors across the gender spectrum. These instances reinforce what other feminists have long been telling us about the delusions of trusting the criminal legal system to support survivors, when these systems have targeted the communities that many survivors come from.
Conversations about the consequences of relying on criminal legal responses to violence have been happening for decades, from theFeminist Alliance Against Rape newsletters in the 1970s to theMoment of Truth Statement signed by anti-violence organizations across the country in 2020. Prosecutor candidates like Bragg and Farhadian Weinstein are proposing to interrupt gender-based violence with more violence (such as the sexual violence of incarceration). A truly transformative step would be one that shrinks prosecutor power. If prosecutors really want to help gender-based violence survivors, they should cut their budgets and return their funds to the city for community and survivor-led participatory budgeting.
Prosecutors’ offices are using their outsized power and resources to harm so many of us, particularly Black, queer, and other historically marginalized communities. It is time to defund and abolish them all, and give us what we need to live.
Taylor Blackston Taylor Blackston is a Black queer abolitionist organizer and survivor of sexual violence.
Sojourner Rivers Sojourner Rivers is a sexual violence survivor, member of Survived & Punished NY and a member of the #StandWithTracy defense team.
“And So I Stayed” examines how the courts treat women who kill their abusers. The movie played a role in one case that resulted in freedom after a conviction.
In 2013, Tanisha Davis, a 26-year-old woman from Rochester, N.Y., was sentenced to 14 years in prison for killing her boyfriend, at whose hands she suffered, she said, nearly seven years of abuse, including choking, death threats and a beating on the night he died. The judge agreed that she was a victim of domestic violence but said her response did not merit leniency. “You handled the situation all wrong,” he told her. “You could have left.”
In 2021, because of a new law that allows survivors of domestic violence more nuanced consideration in the courts, the same judge released Davis, thanks in part to a documentary that helped frame her case.
It’s not uncommon for documentary projects to have an impact on legal proceedings, once they’ve found an audience and built public attention. But the film that helped Davis, “And So I Stayed,” was not yet released — it wasn’t even finished — when the filmmakers, Natalie Pattillo and Daniel A. Nelson, put together a short video for the court, describing her life.
“You could see the strength of the ties she had to her family and the strength of the support she would have” if she were released, said Angela N. Ellis, one of her lawyers. The prosecutor and judge both mentioned watching the footage when they agreed, in March, to set her free.
In her eight years in prison, Davis, 34, spoke to her son, now 15, every day. Now that she’s home, “I can just call him in the next room,” she said. “I can’t even explain that joy. I cry happy tears all the time.”
For the filmmakers, it was an unexpectedly bright ending to an often heartbreaking and troubling film. “And So I Stayed,” which will have its premiere Saturday at the Brooklyn Film Festival (viewable online through June 13), is personal for Pattillo, who is a survivor herself and whose sister was killed by a boyfriend in 2010. The documentary grew out of her thesis project at Columbia Journalism School, where she met Nelson, her co-director.
Credit: Gwen Capistran
“I didn’t realize how common it was, the gravity of women being incarcerated for defending themselves or their children,” Pattillo said. “Once I found out, I couldn’t stop reporting,” in an effort to show just how misunderstood, and punitive, these cases are within the justice system.
The film’s first focus was Kim Dadou Brown, who served 17 years in prison for killing her abusive boyfriend. She became an advocate, traveling to Albany to needle New York lawmakers about the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, the long-simmering legislation that eventually helped free Davis. Introduced in 2011, it was finally passed in 2019, after Democrats flipped the State Senate.
The act is among the few laws in the country that grant judges more leniency in sentencing domestic violence victims who commit crimes against their abusers. It follows a growing, research-backed understanding of the patterns of abusive relationships, and the unique hold they have on people within them.
“Leaving is the hardest part,” and the most dangerous, Dadou Brown said. “I thought that all men hit, and so I stayed with mine, so I knew which way the blows would come.”
After Dadou Brown, a Rochester native and former health-care worker, was paroled in 2008, she volunteered with survivors and crisscrossed the state for rallies — even when money was tight because her felony status made jobs hard to find, she said. With 17 earrings (one for each year of her incarceration) and her signature false eyelashes, “she’s just a force,” Pattillo said. “It’s pure tenacity. That’s Kim.”
When the bill passed, there was elation among its supporters and the filmmakers. But they kept their cameras rolling.
One case that was considered a surefire test of the act was that of Nicole Addimando, a young mother of two in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who in 2017 fatally shot Christopher Grover, her live-in boyfriend and the children’s father. The film includes police camera footage of that night, when she was found disoriented and driving around in the wee hours, her 4- and 2-year-olds in the back seat.
Her case made national headlines because of the severity of the abuse she said she endured: bites and black eyes; bruises and burns to her body, including while she was pregnant, that were documented by medical professionals; rapes that Grover videotaped and uploaded to a porn site. In the film, a social worker calls it not just assault, but “sexual torture.” In 2020, Addimando was sentenced to 19 years to life for second-degree manslaughter; the judge denied that the survivors justice act was applicable.
“I felt like we failed her,” said Dadou Brown, who was at the sentencing.
In the film, Addimando is heard mostly as a voice on the phone from prison; in one call, her mother tries to console her that at least she’s alive, that she escaped the abuse. “I’m still not free,” she replies, weeping.
Though there are no nationwide statistics on the number of women incarcerated after defending themselves against abusers, federal research suggests that about half of the women in prison have experienced past physical abuse or sexual violence, a majority from romantic partners. Black women are disproportionately victimized through both intimate partner violence and the justice system: They are the most likely to be killed by a romantic partner and more likely to end up in prison, according to Bernadine Waller, a scholar at Adelphi University.
In bringing stories like these to the screen, said Nelson, the filmmaker, the aim was not to dispute who pulled a trigger, but to contextualize those convicted. “The legal system forces you to create the perfect victim,” he said, “and a prosecutor will do everything in their power to characterize a survivor into not fitting into that box.” (In Addimando’s case, the judge said she “reluctantly consented” to the sexual abuse.)
Garrard Beeney, a lawyer for Addimando, who is awaiting a decision on her appeal, said the documentary’s examination of the way the judicial system treats survivors is “a necessary, but I also think, not sufficient step,” in changing the process. Police, prosecutors, and judges have to be educated on how to think about domestic violence, he said. “We need that kind of retraining more immediately than a gradual process of understanding.”
For Pattillo, who had two of her three children while making the film, some moments felt overwhelmingly raw. “There’s survivor’s guilt, always, when you’re dealing with trauma,” she said, adding, in reference to Addimando, “Why did I get to be OK and not Nikki? Why do her kids not get to be tucked in by her every night?”
But it was also “very healing,” she added, “to have a hand in making sure the survivors feel seen and heard and believed through this film.”
It originally ended on a dark note, at a vigil for Addimando. Then came the Davis case. The filmmakers were there on the day she was released from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Reacclimating to life outside — during a pandemic — is still challenging, Davis said last week. But she wanted her story told as a warning for victims, and a beacon. The filmmakers plan to make the documentary available to those in the legal system — “a tool kit,” Nelson said, on how to employ the new law.
Dadou Brown was also at Bedford Hills; she drove Davis’s family there. Her advocacy, Dadou Brown said, had become her life’s calling. “I feel so fortunate to have so many dream-come-true moments,” she said. “Even coming home from prison. My next dream-come-true moment will be bringing Nikki home.”
Last week, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) announced his intention to close the state’s women’s prison, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, as a means of “completely breaking [a] pattern of misconduct.” Murphy reported being “deeply disturbed and disgusted” by an April 2020 Justice Department report citing a “pervasive culture” of violence and sexual abuse in the institution.
Headlines referred to the findings as “shocking,” but they actually echo centuries of accounts of abuse and neglect endured by women in U.S. prisons, as well as more recent reports of mistreatment. While the closure of Edna Mahan may stop cruelty at one facility, it is an incomplete solution to a deeper and widespread problem: The United States’ jarringly inhumane system of incarceration poses unique dangers to women.
That has remained true throughout U.S. history, though prison conditions have varied by period, region and other factors. Reports of physical and sexual abuse in 19th-century penitentiaries were rife, as were tales of extreme neglect. In western New York, in the mid-1820s, women were placed in an attic above the kitchen of the new state prison. Aside from being visited by a steward who brought food and removed waste once per day, they were largely abandoned.
In the South, women in prison camps undertook forced labor — building roads, tending crops — alongside their male counterparts. Under a system that supported both white supremacy and the Southern economy, all incarcerated people faced threats of corporal punishment and abuse. But, as detailed by Talitha LeFlouria, Black women in particular were “subjected to fiendish acts of physical cruelty, often of a sexualized nature, and raped with impunity.”
At the turn of the 20th century, reformers who voiced concerns that prevailing prison conditions undercut public safety and democratic ideals pushed state governments, mainly in the Northeast, to construct all-female reformatories focused on rehabilitation rather than just punishment. Results of prison-based agricultural and domestic education programs at facilities like Edna Mahan — founded in 1913 as Clinton Farms — would be, they imagined, “shown in many happy homes, many clean and upright lives, many parasites turned into producers,” as the Clinton Farms 1917 annual report put it.
Only some were deemed worthy of such high hopes, however. Women’s prisons, like others, were segregated and racialized, and White women had the most extensive access to reformatory-style programs.
In the post-World War II years, many Southern and Western states lacking dedicated women’s prisons invested in such facilities. By that point, the reform impulse had largely waned, and women, like other incarcerated people, were increasingly “warehoused” in institutions hidden from public view and scrutiny.
Constituting a relatively small portion of the prison population, and commanding little sympathy from lawmakers, they increasingly took claims of abuse and neglect to the courts. In cases like Barefield v. Leach in New Mexico (1974), Grosso v. Lally in Maryland (1977) and Glover v. Johnson in Michigan (1979), women argued that they had even less access to vocational and educational programs than their male counterparts.
Other litigation focused on women’s heightened risk of sexual harassment and violence. In a 1977 lawsuit, women incarcerated at Bedford Hills in New York alleged that correctional officers violated their privacy and left them “‘involuntarily exposed’” in a variety of ways, including by looking “‘over the curtain which we use to cover the doorways to our cells when we are on the toilet.’” An appeals court opinion stipulating that women could dress in shower stalls and request that male guards close their cell door slots when they used toilets, Juanita Diaz-Cotto notes, failed to address “the widespread fear among women prisoners … [of] greater sexual and other abuse.”
Women protesting poor treatment faced the prospect not only of being rebuffed, but also of violent repression. According to a 1975 civil action, after receiving no response to written grievances, more than 30 people incarcerated at the North Carolina women’s prison in Raleigh gathered in the prison yard for a “vigil” with the aim of presenting their complaints directly to facility officials. They were met instead by guards wearing riot helmets and wielding billy clubs. As the protesters assumed “the traditional non-violence posture … by lying down and going limp,” the men forcibly moved them inside. By the end of the confrontation, the women said, they had injuries, including scratches on their faces and broken ribs, and they had been tear-gassed.
Although action could be dangerous, incarcerated women and their advocates consistently organized and spoke out. In October 1980, the radical newsletter No More Cages,presented firsthand reports from Ohio’s Reformatory for Women at Marysville. Harsh disciplinary procedures, medical neglect and guards’ physical brutality were rampant, according to imprisoned women. “We are,” they said, “extremely desperate.”
Yet, with the public clamoring for harsher policing and sentencing, prison officials, policymakers and the courts too often ignored such pleas, even as the population of women at risk in U.S. prisons and jails exploded. Over the past 40 years, according to the Sentencing Project, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700 percent, from 26,378 in 1980 to 222,455 in 2019.
The Justice Department report about Edna Mahan reveals that women in prisons face terrifying dangers — dangers that resemble those encountered and fought by generations that came before them. Perhaps more disturbing, the New Jersey facility is hardly an anomaly.
Despite the department’s assertion that there have been egregious violations of constitutional rights at Lowell, policymakers and state officials have embraced the twin strategies of intransigence and repression modeled by their historical forebears. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) did not respond to requests for comment from the Miami Herald upon the release of the Justice Department findings and ignored calls to oust Lowell’s warden. Meanwhile, Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch maintained that the report “over-generalized.” All the while, conditions inside apparently remained threatening. In February, a judge granted a protective order for women incarcerated at Lowell and other Florida facilities who alleged that they were subjected to “unconstitutional isolation practices” in retaliation for outspokenness about prison conditions.
While Murphy is at least taking action, it remains to be seen whether closing Edna Mahan and transferring the 400 women imprisoned there to other facilities will help them avoid the rights violations, violence and sexual abuse that have long defined the experience of incarceration in the United States.
The “pattern of misconduct” in need of remedy, it is clear, extends far beyond one institution.