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An Online Resource Library on Gender-Based Violence.

How can my agency better respond to formerly incarcerated survivors?

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

by Jacqueline Miller, survivor, consultant, and advocate

Some years ago, I volunteered as a chaplain in a women’s jail. I must admit, with no experience I wasn’t sure what to expect from this new opportunity. At that time, I had reached my 15th year of working in the battered women’s movement. I am very grateful to survivors for allowing me to be part of their lives at such vulnerable times. One survivor, especially, comes to mind. The night before she was to meet with me, she was arrested. “Arrested again,” she said. It wasn’t the first time. I passed her cream and sugar for her coffee, and she began to apologize to me for what she did. I asked if she wanted to share anything more about it. She sipped her coffee between listing the things she had done wrong. She said:

I should not have gone to the park that day.

I should not have gone that route today.

I should not have told him that I needed bus fare.

I should not have….

I should not have…

I should not…went on and on.

She said it was her fault that she got arrested. As we talked, I identified how her abuser used coercive control to put her on the streets. He had also pointed out the car that had a customer waiting. Within moments, she learned it was an undercover officer.   

Shortly after my experience with this survivor, I was invited to join the chaplaincy department of the county jail. I remember attending my very first meeting. I remember walking through the divisions with the senior chaplain. Although many of the women were silent and glared at me, they were screaming with desperation in their eyes. My tour of the jail continued up to the third floor. We finally came back down to the ground level, and as we turned a corner, there was a single cell with a woman in it grabbing her head and pulling on her shirt. It wasn’t long until I asked, “Is someone going to help her?” Someone responded, “Oh she’s going through withdrawal from drugs right now.” I didn’t understand why she would be locked in a cage rather than at a hospital.

After my visit and tour of the jail, I realized that I was not prepared for, nor did I completely understand, the work behind bars. I became fearful and overwhelmed because many had said to me, “These women are very manipulative. Don’t let them get too close.” But I understood empowerment, and I desired a deeper understanding about the dynamics at the intersection of incarceration and domestic violence.

According to the ACLU, nearly 60% of people in women’s prison nation-wide, and as many as 94% of some women’s prison populations, have a history of physical or sexual abuse before being incarcerated.

How do survivors end up in the criminal legal system?

There is often a direct relationship between the abuse survivors experience and the crime with which a survivor is charged. Many survivors find themselves behind bars as a result of defending themselves against life-threatening harm by their abuser, making their experiences of abuse a risk factor for incarceration.

There are cases all over the country in which survivors had been coerced, by their abuser, into a single crime, or even organized and multiple crimes. Survivors have often not understood these tactics – such as being coerced into welfare fraud, selling drugs, driving a get-away car, false reporting or perjury – as part of the abuse they experienced.  

Similarly, many advocates do not understand the impact of conviction on the life of a survivor. A conviction (in some cases even an arrest) can affect many aspects of a survivor’s life, including:

  • employment (being barred from certain jobs; licensure problems; general discrimination)
  • public benefits
  • public housing
  • voting rights & other civil rights
  • right to possess/purchase firearms
  • federal financial aid
  • right to be on tribal land (potentially one could be excluded)
  • future sentences if arrested again (possible enhanced sentence if “repeat offender”)
  • if survivor is incarcerated, parental rights could be terminated
  • child protection cases
  • current or future civil cases (especially custody, spousal support, mediation)
  • immigration status (could lead to deportation)
  • the survivor’s credibility
  • the type/amount of penalties (e.g., if batterer sabotages conditions of sentencing)
  • mandated services (e.g., “batterers” groups)
  • survivor’s financial situation
  • how survivor is labeled (“perpetrator”, “offender”, “batterer”)

Almost all of these consequences have implications for survivors’ safety. Even with all the possible negative consequences of having a conviction, some survivors have found pleading guilty to be their best option.

During my chaplaincy at the jail, I observed a few domestic violence support groups in the women’s division. The participants had decided that domestic violence would be the topic of discussion every Tuesday evening. The support group took place in the common area, which was open, and even those who were not participating in the group could hear everything that was discussed.

There were no disclaimers given during the support group. No one told them to be careful not to discuss the facts of their case – not to share these details with anyone but their attorney. For those survivors awaiting trial, these support groups put them at risk rather than offering general information about domestic violence and helpful community resources.

How can advocates increase their capacity to work with formerly incarcerated survivors?

  • Learn about the nature of information that can/should or should not be shared with you about a survivor’s impending legal case
  • Help survivors identify information they can share with their attorney that may aid in their own defense
  • Learn to help survivors understand and prepare for the legal process 
  • Understand the survivor’s unique needs when it comes to safety planning, especially for survivors who are defendants
  • Help break down pre-trial and post-conviction barriers such as restrictions on traveling, house arrest, or the burden of monthly parole or probation fees
  • Learn about the impact that incarceration, arrests, and legal proceedings may have on the survivor’s day-to day life including access to their children
  • Help defense attorneys and others who work in the criminal justice system understand the collateral consequences of arrests and convictions on survivors’ safety

As I took my advocacy work beyond the four walls of the jail, I started asking community agencies key questions. These questions can serve as conversation starters when working to build your organization’s capacity to best serve survivors who are incarcerated or charged with a crime.

  • How could a survivor’s guilty plea be used against them? 
  • In what ways may our “help” cause greater harm?
  • What support can we offer to survivors who are incarcerated?
  • How can we support incarcerated women who are mothers? 
  • What is the job outlook for survivors post-incarceration? 
  • What can we do to support survivors in finding employment and avoiding recidivism?
  • What organizations in our community provide education, training and treatment prior to release?
  • Who are our allies in supporting formerly incarcerated survivors?
  • Is there a plan to examine and review the agency’s policies to determine where and how people with convictions are discriminated against?
  • What kind of systems advocacy can your organization engage in to help reduce the arrests of survivors?

As I continue to increase my own capacity to advocate on behalf of survivors, I was recently inspired by the first inmate-initiated and led group in the California prison system. Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA) meets twice per month and provides a setting for abused women to share their past experiences of victimization. Over the past twenty years, these women's efforts have resulted in some of their fellow inmates being released. The remaining CWAA members continue to create new means to have their voices heard. One of the new means created by members of CWAA is the ongoing advocacy work their group does with California legislators who can bring about change on behalf of incarcerated survivors. They have also created an online system for survivors outside of the prison system to share their stories of how incarceration has intersected with domestic violence in their lives. Post-incarceration, several CWAA members returned to their communities as advocates and volunteer their time at special events and regularly speak out through various media outlets. 

It’s been 21 years since I heard that survivor list what she had done wrong, between taking sips of her coffee. As I reflect on the progress of the domestic violence movement, I can hear her voice in my head shifting from blaming herself for her circumstance to instead seeing how it was orchestrated by the person who abused her. We need to continue to have conversations regarding change, removing systemic barriers, and allowing the time and space to commit to learning more about survivors who live at the intersection of incarceration and domestic violence.

 “Where There’s Breath There’s Hope” – Tonier Cain, Heeling Neen

For more information:

  • Strength of a Woman: This 20-minute documentary was created by the Violence Against Women Committee of the Coalition For Women Prisoners and filmmaker Allison Caviness about the experiences, resilience, and strength of formerly incarcerated domestic violence survivors and the devastating impact that the criminal justice system can have on women's lives.
  • Understanding the Links Between Violence Against Women and Women’s Participation in Illegal Activity: This report to the National Institute of Justice by Beth E. Richie explores the dynamic interaction between experiences of intimate partner violence and involvement in illegal activities, focusing specifically on an understudied group: women of color from low-income communities. Recommendations for shifts in intervention strategies, policy reform, and further research are provided.
  • Intimate Partner Violence Victims Charged with Crimes: “When systems neglect to distinguish violence used by an ongoing victim of battering from the systematic use of violence and threats used by a batterer, victims end up being treated like – or even more harshly than – batterers.” This monograph explores considerations in cases involving victims of battering who present as defendants and offers considerations for effective dispositions in cases where victims of battering use illegal violence.
  • Working with Justice Involved Women: Tips for Professionals: The National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women developed a series of eight Jail Tip Sheets on critical topics to facilitate the implementation of gender-informed approaches with women in jail settings. These tip sheets were developed in response to recommendations from participants at the Women in Jails Summit held in October, 2014. During the summit, jail practitioners asked for concise resources or tools that addressed their specific concerns regarding the management of women in jail settings and provided links to additional resources.
  • Best Practice Toolkit for Working with Domestic Violence Survivors with Criminal Histories: Created by the Michigan Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, this resource aims to address the barriers incarcerated and formerly incarcerated survivors of domestic violence face when they attempt to get help.
  • The Impact of Incarceration and Mandatory Minimums on Survivors: Exploring the Impact of Criminalizing Policies on African American Women and Girls: The Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) convened a roundtable of survivors, scholars, advocates and community activists who focus on sexual assault and intimate partner violence against women to examine how criminalization policies impact the lives of African-American women and girls. Participants offered policy recommendations and new initiatives to reduce or eliminate the harm that domestic violence or sexual assault victims may experience in the criminal justice system.
  • ​#SurvivedAndPunished: Survivor Defense as Abolitionist Praxis: This collection of tools, tips, lessons and resources was developed collaboratively by Love and Protect and Survived and Punished. It provides an analytical framework for building a defense committee and offers guidance for engaging in defense campaigns.
  • Marissa Alexander Justice Project: Founded in 2016 by Marissa Alexander herself, the Marissa Alexander Justice Project (MAJP) seeks to provide services that promote unity through the collaboration of social justice, criminal reform, and anti-domestic violence movements. They provide support to domestic violence survivors as they navigate the intersections of familial, community, and criminal justice systems.

Organizations focused on defending survivors in the criminal justice system: