Locking People Up Doesn’t Make Us Safer, Abuse Survivor Says

A number of people who actively work to eliminate the problem of domestic violence advocate punitive solutions like incarceration or electronic monitoring. Kristie Puckett-Williams, herself a survivor of abuse by her partner, believes the solution lies in “freedom,” not punishment. Rejecting revenge-based models in favor of restorative ones, she has taken on the challenge of educating men who have engaged in domestic abuse. She is a true visionary practitioner of a revolutionary form of justice.

In this exclusive Truthout interview, we explore these topics in conversation with Kristie Puckett-Williams, the interim statewide campaign manager for ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Puckett-Williams now spends most of her days educating and mobilizing people on issues related to the cash bail system and the treatment of pregnant people and mothers who are incarcerated in her state. But before her life as an advocate, Puckett-Williams experienced many of the injustices she currently speaks out against. She traversed a long and difficult road to get to the Campaign for Smart Justice. Her path included surviving addiction, intimate partner violence, incarceration and electronic monitoring.

During my conversation with her, I was struck by her unique analysis of the linkage between domestic violence, electronic monitoring, and the need to replace punitive “justice” with true restorative justice.

James Kilgore: So today you are tirelessly campaigning to transform the criminal legal system in your state. You arrived at this activist role through lots of difficult trials. Can you tell us a little bit about your personal evolution?

Kristie Puckett-Williams: Early in the 2000s, I had lots of challenges. I was addicted, in an abusive relationship and caught a drug charge. My bond was $167,000 which I couldn’t afford. I eventually applied to the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department to be released on ER [extended release]. I was also pregnant at the time. When I was released, they put me on an electronic monitor [EM].

What was your time on the monitor like?

With EM you’re halfway in and halfway out. They use it like a puppet string so you end up lingering in the system. I couldn’t even leave my front porch. Couldn’t go to the mailbox. If the dog got out, I couldn’t chase after it. At first they had me on a real bad curfew, could only be out of the house from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Then they made me go do some life skills courses and extended the curfew until 5. I had a real problem keeping the device charged. Had to sit still for two hours straight. I was still addicted. The way things were in my house, it was hard to sit still for two hours. So they kept dinging me, telling me I had to charge the device or accusing me of tampering with the device. Eventually I ended up back in jail for violating curfew too many times.

Did being on the monitor help you in any way?

No, not at all. It’s punitive. Everything that’s punitive surrounds it. As I became bigger in the course of my pregnancy, my legs started to swell. The band was pressing against my leg. I tried to stick something in between the band and my skin and then they would accuse me of tampering and threatened to send me back to jail or hit me with a fine. These things put people, especially Black people, into unnecessary involvement with law enforcement. The monitor drives a narrative of enslavement. A shackle. We have to think about how it impacts how people view themselves and how other people view you. People think you are undeserving when you are on that device. When I went into court, that monitor on my leg meant the judge already had bias against me.

One of the arguments for monitors is that they supposedly ensure that people will appear for court. How do you respond to that?

I had a long history of failures to appear. The reason I didn’t show up for court was that he — my abusive boyfriend — wouldn’t let me leave the house or I didn’t have transportation. But I always reappeared when I could get out. This is the situation with many people who are living in a violent household. They don’t need a device on their leg, they need to stop getting beaten up. They aren’t a flight risk. They aren’t going anywhere.

Do you think people — women in particular — who are being abused and beaten by their partners benefit if those abusive partners are placed on monitors?

Absolutely not. You can put people on a monitor, issue them a restraining order. That order is just a piece of paper. If he wants to come and beat you up, he will. The monitor doesn’t address the fundamental underlying problems that cause domestic violence. This is a social, political and economic problem. We can’t solve it with punishment.

But somehow you managed to extract yourself from your addiction and a violent situation and move to where you are today. How did that happen? What lessons do you have for other people?

I went into a 10-month recovery program that got me turned around. That was part of my sentence. I went to school for substance abuse counseling and eventually obtained a Masters Degree in Human Services Counseling. And you know what I did when I got done with all that? I took a job in a batterer intervention program. I worked with men who had a history of doing violent harm to people, who had a history of abuse. I felt that as a survivor I had a responsibility to women and to children to stop this cycle.

That seems like it would be the last thing you would want to do. I would have thought you would have wanted to get as far away from those men as possible. What was that experience like?

I don’t believe people who perpetuate violence need to be locked up. It doesn’t address the underlying situation of toxic masculinity and patriarchy. It does nothing about the way they use power and control as a way of coping with the conflict in their lives. I believed I had a responsibility to hold them accountable but also be compassionate and remain respectful. Society had already labeled them as monsters. I had to begin to see the humanity in them and to expand upon that humanity. This was healing. But they also had to learn how toxic masculinity and white supremacy were the foundation of all this.

I was always working to get them out of state control, out of the carceral state. They didn’t know anything else. We didn’t as a society offer them anything else. How can we hold them accountable for the shit we fed them? Then when they shit it out, we’re mad because it stinks. I never wanted my abuser to be locked up. When you look at violence, you’re just looking at one part of a relationship. Restorative justice for me was for him to stop beating me. I still needed his financial contribution, needed him to protect me from other men, to love me in a way that didn’t harm me. What we can’t do in the name of safety is to keep locking people up. As I said before, domestic violence is a social, political and economic issue.

So, did you have success with this work?

I worked with about 300 men and not one ever committed a crime of violence if they completed the program. Some caught drug charges but they never laid their hand on a man or a woman. They learned to heal from their own experience. I asked them, “What kind of man do you want to be? What do you want for your children?” They used to tell me how much they liked coming to those classes. Other programs they were forced to go to just made them angry. Then they went home and beat up their partners. But I also represented hope to them because I believed in them and because I understood domestic violence from all angles through my own experience. These carceral feminists don’t really get it. They are experts at maintaining the system. But when we ask them to change, they can only give us what they are already giving us. Then they make women into hostile witnesses. For me, once my basic needs were met, I was able to move toward the higher needs of being lawful and building relationships, but if my safety was threatened, I had to focus on surviving day to day.

So ultimately, what do you see as the solution to domestic violence, to gender-based violence? Does electronic monitoring have a role to play?

We need to think about people, not data points. Then it is much easier to make transformational changes. I am about helping people [move] toward more autonomy. I would actually refuse electronic monitoring if I was offered it again. It’s a trap, an illusion of freedom. Just give me my time. The monitor is a way for them to keep dehumanizing you without knowing you at all. With the spread of risk assessment, EM becomes another risk category. We should be working toward liberation, not incarceration.

This interview has been edited for clarity.