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Let’s Abolish Systems That Criminalize and Punish Survivors of Abuse

U.S. courts often reject domestic and sexual violence as legitimate justifications for self-defense.

Part of the Series

Content warning: This article describes domestic and sexual abuse, as well as violence committed by prison guards.

Thousands of the women and trans and gender nonconforming people who are doing time in U.S. prisons have been doubly victimized — hurt first by other people, and then victimized by the criminal legal system.

Taylor Partlow, a 30-year-old woman who is now incarcerated in New York, was sentenced to eight years after killing the man who abused her.

Ashley Barnett, a 34-year-old woman, served eight years in federal prison for inadvertently introducing a young woman to the men who would eventually traffic her, after years of having been sexually exploited herself.

Ky Peterson, a 32-year-old trans man who shot the man who raped him as he walked home, is now free, but was imprisoned for nine years for defending himself from the assault.

Their stories all underscore a reality that Survived and Punished — a national coalition working to support and free incarcerated survivors of violence, decriminalize the actions that survivors take to protect themselves, and abolish gender violence and the carceral state — noted in its 2022 report: “Domestic and sexual violence are often rejected as legitimate justifications for self-defense, either by the law’s design or through its interpretation and application in courts.”

Partlow, Barnett and Peterson are considered by the system to be “imperfect” victims of gender-based violence: They fail to conform to the narrow confines of “true” or “innocent” victimhood — a category reserved for victims who are white, heterosexual, cisgender, passive and compliant with law enforcement.

Victims are only deemed “perfect” if they do not use drugs or have mental health issues. To be “perfect” they cannot be jealous, angry or strong, and they can never fight back. They are expected to report to law enforcement and participate in prosecution.

The failure to meet those standards makes it difficult (if not impossible) for police, prosecutors and courts to see imperfect victims as victims at all. Imperfect victims are regularly arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for crimes directly linked to their own victimization.

Every day, the U.S. punishes victims of gender-based violence in prisons across the country. Let’s be honest about what that looks like and what mainstream society hopes to accomplish by locking them up.

Law students are taught that there are four justifications for criminal punishment: incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation and retribution. Incapacitation is locking someone away so that they cannot cause further harm. Deterrence is the idea that punishment will both prevent an individual from offending again and send a message to others in society about what will happen to them should they engage in the same behavior. Rehabilitation is meant to address whatever shortcoming led to someone’s criminal activity in the first instance. And retribution is punishment proportionate to the offense committed — in biblical parlance, an eye for an eye.

Most of these rationales make little sense, especially when applied to criminalized survivors. People who break the law in response to or as a result of the violence against them are not generally dangerous and do not need to be rehabilitated or isolated from the rest of society to prevent further harm; they need protection from the people who have abused them. Few scholars believe that criminal punishment deters. Which leaves retribution. It may be that society supports the idea that criminalized survivors should be punished for their actions. But the punishment meted out in prisons in the United States is far from “proportionate.”

In Texas, for example, incarcerated women live in what are essentially rundown pizza ovens. Over two-thirds of Texas prisons are not air conditioned. As the outside temperatures climb, the people inside endure temperatures as high as 149 degrees Farenheit; they are essentially being cooked. Opening the small window to allow cooler air inside can mean inviting cats, skunks, rodents, snakes, frogs, birds, raccoons, possums and insects into the parking space-sized brick cell.

To paint a fuller picture of the horrific conditions and violence endured by many women incarcerated in Texas, we share below some observations and stories drawn from coauthor Kwaneta Harris’s own lived experience of incarceration in Texas.

During the summer months, some incarcerated women stop taking medications for heart, seizure and psychiatric conditions because the side effects of those medications include heat intolerance. Frequently, the water and electricity do not work. There are no smoke detectors in many prisons. Fires are not uncommon. Desperation to escape the heat leads to many suicide attempts — the goal is to be housed in the air-conditioned psychiatric center. Sometimes, those attempts become “accidental” suicides.

Sexual and physical abuse of incarcerated women in Texas is shockingly common. We can only tell their stories using pseudonyms, for fear of retaliation. “Y” was held above a correctional officer’s head, legs flailing in the millisecond before he bounced her off the corner of her cell. Her crime? Rolling her eyes at him.

A correctional officer pulled “M” over the back of a bench by her hair, yanking some of her plaits out.

Perceived emasculation is handled with overwhelming force: Broken arms, jaws, chipped teeth and dislocated shoulders are evidence of toxic masculinity.

Correctional officers beat people up, then write them up. One Texas lieutenant was nicknamed “Sir Slam A Lot” by the incarcerated women, who watched him beat his wife up in the prison parking lot. It confirmed what the women already knew — what they do to women behind bars, they do to women behind doors.

The irony is that women who were abused are sent to a place where they are abused in the name of “correction.”

“B” was triggered by a guard’s cologne; it was the same as her abuser’s. She wet herself then crumbled to the ground, rocking. In response, the guards sprayed her bedding with it.

Witnessing such cruel brutality leaves incarcerated women feeling isolated and powerless. Eating disorders and self-harm satiate the lack of control for some. But the prison chooses to punish instead of treat. This state-sanctioned violence reinforces what criminalized survivors were told by their partners: You don’t matter.

Criminalized survivors trade one abusive environment for another. The carceral system isn’t the first harm that they experience, but it is for many by far the worst, revictimizing and retraumatizing incarcerated people. Prosecutors argue for and judges sentence victims to prison in the hopes that they will be rehabilitated and return as contributing members of society. But incarceration does not rehabilitate; it simply heaps additional trauma on people who have already endured a lifetime’s worth of trauma.

This is what the state is doing to criminalized survivors on behalf of its citizens. If voters are willing to let this continue, we should be honest about the harm that we permit in our names.

There is, of course, another option — we can fight to prevent survivors of violence from being incarcerated and to support those who already are. Groups like Survived and Punished and MUAVI in Chicago have been supporting incarcerated survivors for years, publicizing the stories of criminalized survivors, running campaigns to petition for their acquittal and clemency, and providing financial resources when they are released.

Similarly, individual survivor defense campaigns have raised awareness of the stories of criminalized survivors like Marissa Alexander, Bresha Meadows, Nikki Addimando, Maddesyn George and Wendy Howard. In state legislatures, efforts to abolish mandatory minimum sentences and enact laws that allow judges to reconsider draconian sentences have featured the stories of criminalized survivors.

And we can do this work with an eye toward the ultimate goal of abolishing incarceration altogether. So long as police, prosecutors and judges have the discretion to criminalize survivors, they will find reasons to do so. The only way to guarantee that “imperfect victims” are no longer punished is to dismantle the system that punishes them.


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