Despite Enduring a Lifetime of Violence, Kelly Savage Emerges as an In-Prison Activist

Kelly Savage. Kelly Savage. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)Nineteen years ago, in 1995, Kelly Savage was arrested and jailed after her abusive husband killed her 3-year-old son. Three years later, she was convicted of torture and first-degree murder, sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and sent to Valley State Prison for Women, then one of California’s three women’s prisons.

I wrote about Kelly’s case and the efforts to free her for Truthout. After enduring a lifetime of violence and abuse and then facing the rest of her life behind prison walls, it would be easy for a person to become bitter, disillusioned and self-destructive. But instead, as I spoke with Kelly, outside advocates and the attorneys helping her file her writ of habeas corpus, I found that, rather than sinking into despair, Kelly has instead become an in-prison activist.

Colby Lenz is a volunteer organizer with the advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners, or CCWP, which visits people in the state’s women’s prisons. Shortly after joining the coalition in 2003, Lenz was connected with Kelly, who had requested a legal visit. “Usually, people request a visit,” Lenz explained. But if the coalition does not have enough outside volunteers to pair up with people inside prison, the requester is placed on a waiting list. “When people get paroled or new legal assistants join CCWP’s visiting team, we then pull them out,” said Lenz.

Lenz remembers that, being new to prison visiting, she found some of the discussion confusing. “People were talking 602 this, 602 that, and I was like, ‘What?’” Seeing her new visitor’s confusion, Kelly took her aside to explain that a 602 is an official complaint that a person files within the prison. “She was very diligent and patient about teaching me,” Lenz recalled.

Over the years, Kelly has alerted Lenz and other coalition members about pressing needs. In 2011 and early 2012, shortly before Valley State Prison was converted to a men’s prison, Kelly and many others were transferred to the Central California Women’s Facility across the street. During a subsequent visit, Kelly gave coalition members a list of people who had been taken off their medications after being transferred. Coalition members called the prison on behalf of these specific people and, in some instances, were able to have their medications reinstated.

“Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t make a difference,” Lenz said. “But since so few women have people calling in on their behalf, if the prison has a sense that somebody [outside] is watching, they’re more likely to put them back on their meds.”

At other times, Kelly has worked to build community and reach out to people who might be even more isolated within the prison. She volunteers at the prison’s Comfort Care program, visiting and assisting people who are incapacitated and thus restricted to the prison’s Skilled Nursing Facility, which medical experts have found to have both insufficient beds and an insufficient number of medical staff to provide regular coverage. This past year, she also worked to ensure that no one felt abandoned or isolated on Mother’s Day, making and distributing Mother’s Day cards to every incarcerated person, regardless of whether they were mothers. She made approximately 4,500 cards.

These efforts may not be seen as activism by people on the outside looking for instances of prison resistance and organizing, but it’s important to note that they break through the isolation that prisons impose upon people locked inside. As Lenz pointed out, not many women have people on the outside calling in and advocating on their behalf. People in women’s prisons are less likely to receive sustained support from family members and friends than people in men’s prisons. While these actions may not challenge the overall prison system, or even certain aspects of them, they also serve to remind the people locked inside that they are not forgotten.

Kelly has also become an activist around domestic violence, often using her own horrific experiences to help others who have been in similar situations understand and heal from their histories of domestic violence and abuse. After being transferred to Central California Women’s Facility, Kelly began training to become a peer educator around abuse and domestic violence. The course, Beyond Violence, required her to undergo nearly 400 hours of workshops and classes. Now, Kelly is training others to become peer educators. And that education is very necessary, especially in a women’s prison.

A study of one California women’s prison found that 93 percent of women incarcerated for killing their partners had been abused by them. Two-thirds of those women reported that, at the time, they were protecting themselves or their children. However, no one knows just how many abuse survivors are in prison, whether or not they acted in self-defense. But informal studies indicate that the number is fairly high. Kelly recalled being in a class with 49 women. In that class, 45 had experienced childhood abuse. Of the remaining four, only one said that she had never experienced abuse as an adult.

Kelly’s efforts — and the Beyond Violence course — are not the first efforts to address domestic violence inside California’s prisons. In 1989, 26-year-old Brenda Clubine, incarcerated at the California Institution for Women (another of the state’s women’s prisons) formed Convicted Women Against Abuse. Originally formed as a support group for abuse survivors incarcerated for defending themselves, they attempted to advocate for clemency in the early 1990s. More than 30 women, many of whom had been tried and sentenced before Battered Women’s Syndrome became an available defense, sent letters to then-Gov. Pete Wilson asking him to consider commuting their sentences. Wilson ultimately granted clemency to three, denied it to seven and made no decision on the other 24 letters.

While the lack of response was a disappointment, the women continued to support each other and advocate to change the way abuse survivors were treated by the legal system. In 2002, their efforts ensued in a Senate hearing that was held inside the prison itself. Eight incarcerated survivors testified, resulting in the passing of section 1473.5 of California’s penal code, which allows abuse survivors to file for a writ of habeas corpus challenging their conviction if they were sentenced before 1992 (when Battered Women’s Syndrome became legally admissible). In 2008, Brenda Clubine became the 20th abuse survivor released under section 1473.5. She continues to advocate on behalf of her sisters inside, holding trainings for attorneys to help incarcerated survivors file these writs.

Section 1473.5 has been amended and expanded several times since its passage and is now not limited to those convicted prior to 1992. In 2005, Kelly began the process of filing her own writ of habeas corpus and was connected with Christina Harper and George Cumming with the law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, who helped her write and file the writ. However, California Attorney General Kamala Harris has filed opposition to Kelly’s efforts to secure a new trial, one which would include expert testimony on abuse and its effects. In response, advocates have launched a Change.org petition, which has garnered nearly 8,500 signatures, asking Harris to drop her opposition.

I spoke with Kelly several times, each call lasting 15 minutes and punctuated by a robot reminding us that Kelly was calling from a prison. She started our last conversation by reminding me that she is not the only abuse survivor in prison. “The biggest thing is the number of people here who could be affected by it [1473.5],” she said. But the number of attorneys is dwarfed by the number of survivors who need help filing writs. “It’s difficult to see and know that I’m so blessed. My lawyers have been trying everything possible, but the other ladies have no one,” she noted. “Going through this process has given me an education and helped me know that people care and that people want to help.”