Cuomo’s Gender-Based Violence Includes His Failure to Free Imprisoned Survivors

The current spotlight on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s history of sexually abusing his staff is consistent with his history of structurally misogynistic treatment of the people — especially survivors of gender-based violence — incarcerated in New York prisons.

The breadth of Cuomo’s interpersonal abuse is disgusting and infuriating. Unfortunately, it is not surprising, given the systemic violence that has characterized the Cuomo administration’s attitude to marginalized New Yorkers.

As organizers from Survived and Punished NY (S&P NY), an abolitionist group working to free criminalized survivors of gender-based violence and to decriminalize self-defense and other survival acts, we have long been privy to Cuomo’s pattern of further abusing survivors by incarcerating them. These actions are only Cuomo’s latest in a long list of harms, particularly to incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence, which do not garner the same level of attention as his violence toward victims that have made the news.

In light of his long history of harming survivors and marginalized New Yorkers, it is past time for Cuomo to actively support incarcerated survivors by freeing them all and then resigning from office. It is also past time for the public to turn its moral outrage toward all elected officials who leave mostly survivors of color in the abusive and death-making conditions of the prison industrial complex day after day.

Throughout Andrew Cuomo’s tenure as governor of New York, he has shown deplorable apathy toward incarcerated survivors. As governor, Cuomo has the power to release people from prison at any time using commutations. Executive clemency is the power of the governor to either pardon people convicted of a crime or commute their sentence, often to time served. S&P NY focuses on commutations because it is a way for the governor to release criminalized survivors and all people incarcerated in New York state prisons with just a stroke of the pen. Many incarcerated survivors are serving decades-long sentences. For some of them, clemency from the governor is their only hope at survival. These are individuals with communities waiting to reunite with them on the outside. Many have children.

Abolitionist organizations like Survived and Punished NY and Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) have lifted up these incarcerated survivors’ names and Cuomo’s inaction for many years. Each year, we are among thousands of community members pleading with Cuomo and organizing to release our loved ones from cages, yet each year, he ignores us without any accountability. Governor Cuomo has granted only 31 commutations since taking office in 2011. This is a shockingly small number compared to other governors. While he promises to increase the number of clemencies he grants, we know him to be a hypocrite and a liar when it comes to actually following through on valuing safety for survivors.

As one example, in 2015 Cuomo announced a program that purported to provide pro bono support to incarcerated people seeking clemency. It was touted as a way to make clemency accessible, and he encouraged incarcerated New Yorkers to apply. This was followed two years later by Cuomo encouraging family members to apply for clemency on behalf of their loved ones. Thousands of requests were received, yet almost none were granted. His false promise to grant mass clemencies was nothing more than a “cruel, soul-crushing hoax,” in the words of CUNY law professor Steve Zeidman.

Cuomo’s lack of action in regard to criminalized survivors of gender-based violence stands in sharp contrast to his public declarations of support for survivors and initiatives to combat domestic violence. Refusing to use his executive powers to free survivors, particularly during COVID-19’s added threat to those inside, underscores Cuomo’s complete disregard for the reality of gender-based harm and a sheer lack of commitment to “gender equity.”

Cuomo ignores these clemency applications and routinely subjects people to the horrors of incarceration. Doing so mirrors the abusive power and control cycle. Activists working against gender-based violence in 1980 described this cycle as a wheel with power and control at its center, physical and sexual violence as the wheel, and the ways an abusive partner may enact that violence to achieve power and control as the spokes. More recently, Monica Cosby, a formerly incarcerated survivor, compared her experience of abuse at the hands of a partner with her experience of abuse at the hands of the state, and updated the idea of the power and control wheel to incorporate both intimate partner violence and state violence. According to Cosby, “if there is anybody out here who’s never been in prison that can understand what it feels like to be in prison, it’s someone who’s been stuck in an abusive and violent relationship.” While we struggle to create communities built for true healing and justice for survivors, we know that incarceration does not end violence — it only exacerbates it and hides it behind prison walls.

As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, state policy has used prison and jails as “catchall solutions to social problems,” rather than providing the housing, food, health care and other public goods that create safety and healing. As a proponent of carceral “solutions,” Andrew Cuomo has long failed to provide safety and healing by maintaining a system that perpetuates sexual violence and abuse, particularly against low-income, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, disabled, queer, trans and sex worker communities.

In his 10 years as governor, Cuomo has enacted austerity budgets that defund social services that survivors need and has prioritized punishment through the prison industrial complex. Organizers also know Cuomo as a friend of the prison industrial complex from his pattern of dragging his feet to support, or all-out opposing, reforms that would materially improve the lives of marginalized New Yorkers, like supporting the rollbacks to New York’s 2020 bail reform, which excluded even more people from basic pretrial justice.

Governor Cuomo’s legacy is marked by punishment and apathy, and his policies have long denied people what they need to survive and thrive. As a result, many of our most harmed survivors have been ripped from our communities permanently.

While our hope is that this moment pressures Cuomo to take accountability for his long-standing patterns of abuse and neglect, we are disturbed and enraged that survivors trapped in Cuomo’s cages are being erased. This national moment of attention highlights the lack of empathy afforded to people behind prison walls and particularly to survivors who do not fit neatly into the “deserving victim” narrative. This harmful narrative emerges from society’s racist perception of people of color, particularly Black women, who act in self-defense and are often not given empathy for securing their own survival. While these survivors are flattened and misunderstood, the governor is attempting to garner unearned empathy, painting himself as a victim of political persecution.

The governor is no victim. He is only facing a fraction of the heat he deserves for his decade of injustices. State violence is violence. Prisons and jails are sites of extreme sexual and physical violence, and Governor Cuomo has been directly responsible for years of obscene violence, neglect and death. As such, it is frustrating and enraging to see a privileged white man in power being afforded a level of humanization and sympathy that incarcerated survivors of color largely do not receive.

We strongly believe that all survivors deserve true healing and justice, and as such, our vision is a New York free of the abusive system of incarceration. Given that prison is itself abusive and a form of gendered violence, our demand is that Cuomo immediately commute the sentences of criminalized survivors — and everyone inside — and then resign. Politicians and advocates who have recently called on Cuomo to resign due to his pattern of interpersonal abuses should join us in this demand connecting the abuses to structural violence, and recognize the everyday abuses survivors endure while incarcerated in our state.

Our goal remains abolition of the prison industrial complex because, as the criminalized survivor members of Survived and Punished NY testify to every day, the healing and safety that survivors and impacted communities of color deserve cannot happen from inside dehumanizing cages.

For thousands of New Yorkers inside of prisons and their loved ones, Cuomo’s misogynistic structural decisions and commitments to punishment are deeply personal. Last spring, we lost Survived and Punished NY’s beloved inside comrade Darlene “Lulu” Benson-Seay to COVID-19. Her death was entirely preventable by Cuomo, who chose to keep her and thousands like her locked up. We urge the public — including New York anti-violence organizations and advocates that often overlook survivors inside prisons — to support the campaign to free them all, for all the comrades we lost and for all the comrades still with us.

With each day that Cuomo overstays his welcome in office, we must echo this question from Crystal, one of our members on the inside: “What is he doing about all those clemencies sitting on his desk waiting for an answer?”