Skip to content Skip to footer

“The System Abuses Us by Locking Us Up Forever”: Aging Survivors Behind Bars

Survivors of domestic violence should have their abuse taken into consideration at sentencing and parole hearings.

Countless domestic violence survivors are sentenced to lengthy (or life) sentences. (Photo: Pixabay)

On October 6, 2016, 15-year-old Bresha Meadows will appear in an Ohio family court for the death of her abusive father. Meadows had spent a lifetime watching her father hit, kick, shove and control her mother. If her mother tried to leave, her father often threatened that he would kill her and their three children.

Meadows had run away twice; each time, police returned her to her parents. On July 28, 2016, using the gun her father often used to threaten his family, the 14-year-old shot him as he slept. She was arrested and is now facing charges of aggravated murder. She spent her 15th birthday in detention. That may not be her only birthday behind bars: The Trumbull County prosecutor has not yet said whether he will charge her in juvenile court or attempt to move her case to adult criminal court. If she is tried and convicted in adult court, she faces life in prison.

Bresha Meadows is only 15 years old. Her family and supporters around the country are fervently hoping that charges against her will be dropped, allowing her to rejoin her family rather than spend the rest of her life in prison. But what about the countless domestic violence survivors sentenced to lengthy (or life) sentences? What happens as they age behind bars?

Continued Denial of Parole for Domestic Violence Survivors

Another domestic violence survivor who goes by the name “Sissy” spent 11 years in a relationship with a man who shoved her, hit her, chased her, cut her with a knife and even pulled a gun on her. Despite the cycle of violence and apologies, she was still shocked the night he jumped across the coffee table, wrapped his hands around her neck and began to choke her. When he let go, she grabbed his gun and ran out of their apartment. He chased her down the building corridor.

“I was not trying to shoot him,” Sissy, who asked that only her nickname be used to protect the privacy of both families, explained in a letter from prison, “but the gun just started going off and wouldn’t stop. It was like fireworks.” Panicking, she dropped the gun and ran. “I never knew that he was in the range of the gunfire. It’s like I never saw him, I never knew he got hit. As far as I knew, he was still after me.” She turned herself in and, because of the numerous police reports documenting her partner’s abuse, was initially told that nothing would happen. Several days later, however, she was arrested and eventually sentenced to 50 years in an Alabama prison. That was in 2002; Sissy was 48 years old.

In 2014, Sissy turned 60. Instead of planning a birthday celebration with loved ones, she spent the months leading to her birthday fighting for false teeth. The 62-year-old can finally chew food, but encountered another setback — the parole board denied her application.

Sissy is one of approximately 368,000 prisoners over the age of 50, which is considered elderly, given that people in prison age more rapidly than their counterparts in the free world. Between 1995 and 2010, imprisoned people over age 55 quadrupled as those sentenced to lengthy sentences began to gray. By 2030, one-third of the prison population will be considered elderly.

Sissy is also one of 34,000 women currently in state prisons for violent crimes. Of those, more than 10,000 women have been convicted of murder. As Sissy’s story demonstrates, some are survivors of domestic violence whose actions were desperate attempts to defend themselves or their children. But the exact numbers remain unknown; no government agency tracks the number of abuse survivors behind bars. For those imprisoned for acting in self-defense, their chances of parole are frequently hampered by the fact that their convictions are for violent crimes, which parole boards often hold against them.

Sixty-nine-year-old Karen knows this all too well. In 1983, she was sentenced to 25 years to life for the death of her ex-husband. “He broke my nose, broke my jaw, burned me with cigarettes, kicked me down a flight of stairs while I was pregnant with my son, threatened to kidnap the baby,” she wrote in a letter from a New York State prison. After they split, she said he broke into her house and attacked her on several occasions. When Karen reported his abuse to the police, she said that they refused to arrest him “because they said it was his word against mine.”

Karen noticed that her two-year-old son came back with marks on his face and bruises on his arms. He soon began acting strangely and described sexual abuse to a family court psychologist. But, she was told, “in order to prove any sort of abuse against a child as young as him, there must be independent corroboration.” Karen remembers being shocked. “Of course, anyone who was planning to do things like that to a two-year-old wouldn’t gather witnesses first, so there would be no independent corroboration in this case.”

This is where Karen’s case gets stickier than most survivors’ stories. Karen talked to an acquaintance who had his own custody troubles and was angry that Karen’s ex was able to have visits where he could abuse his child. “I told him that if something happened to him, all my problems would be solved,” Karen remembered. “This began the premeditation of the crime.”

The plan was for Karen’s friend to ask her ex to help him with some heavy items. The two would drive off and “he would take care of the details.” But the plan went awry and, instead, her friend killed her ex in her basement.

Thirty-three years into her 25-to-life sentence, she has been denied parole five times, each time because of the “nature of her crime.” In 2011, New York State passed a law requiring the parole board to consider not just the nature of the crime, but also factors like participating in rehabilitative programs, release plans and the risk of recidivism.

For Karen, this means that the parole board should consider her participation in various anti-abuse programs, including organizing the first hearing about domestic violence within a prison in 1985, in which 12 women spoke about the role of abuse in their incarceration. After the hearing, Karen spoke with the commissioner of the Department of Corrections. “I told him that he could give us a budget line for a domestic violence program in the facility because we needed to reach out to help others who didn’t speak that day but were in the same situation.” The commissioner agreed and the Bedford Hills Family Violence Program was created and funded. Karen became the program’s clerk, facilitated groups in English and Spanish, and did one-on-one counseling.

Nonetheless, Karen was denied parole in 2011, 2013 and 2015 because of the nature of her crime. Her former sister-in-law has opposed her parole, claiming that Karen killed her ex for an insurance settlement. Karen has denied this, noting that, as part of their divorce settlement, she relinquished all claims to his money.

In response to her past three denials, Karen filed an Article 78, or a request for a judge to review the denial. Her 2011 and 2013 requests were denied. This time, she has assistance from Morningside Heights Legal Services, the law school clinic for Columbia University. She also has evidence of the abuse she sustained, including letters from former neighbors attesting to seeing her black eyes and witnessing her ex knock their two-year-old son down the stairs, as well as her divorce agreement foregoing all claims to her ex-husband’s money. “I do have hopes that I will prevail this time,” she wrote.

As she waits for a decision, her health continues to deteriorate. Karen has developed gallstones, the onset of deafness and progressive osteoarthritis. She has had a lump removed from her breast, as also her gallbladder; she’s had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and has had a knee replaced. In June, she contracted shingles, which resulted in lesions on her cornea. “I still experience double vision from time to time,” she wrote, adding that she also has postherpetic neuralgia. “I have to take medication to prevent searing nerve pain that is so bad it blinds me and takes my breath away.”

Parole Reform and the Possibility of a Domestic Violence Act

In Alabama, the parole board, which considers nearly 210 cases each week, is not required to give a reason for denying parole. This means that Sissy does not know what she can do to improve her chances. Nor can she ask — the parole board makes its decisions based on a case file; the person whose fate they decide does not attend the hearing.

But a 2015 law has given her more hope. Confronted with extreme prison overcrowding, Alabama passed the law to decrease the numbers of people in prison. Part of the law expands parole — which dropped from 42 percent in 2009 to 30 percent in 2013 — creating a set of guidelines, including considering the risk of recidivism, and it requires the board to give reasons for denial. This means that, even if Sissy is denied again, she will at least know the reason why and have the opportunity to address the board’s concerns. Though Robert Longshore of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles predicted that increasing the numbers paroled will be “years, years” away, Sissy says that she’s already seeing effects. “There are so many women making parole,” she wrote in September. “Some with sentences more or lengthier than mine…. The long-timers are leaving, their [sic] getting out of here.”

In New York State, advocates, including formerly incarcerated women, are pushing for the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act. If passed, the Act would allow judges to take abuse into consideration when sentencing survivors who are convicted of acts that are directly related to abuse. This means that the Act extends not only to acts of self-defense, but also acts in which survivors were coerced by their abusers (such as participating in a robbery). If abuse is a significant contributing factor, explained Gail T. Smith of the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York, the judge can decide on a shorter sentence than what’s recommended by the sentencing guidelines or avoid prison altogether by sending the survivor to an alternative-to-incarceration program. To qualify, the abuse must have been happening at the time the offense has been committed. In other words, a history of childhood abuse does not make an adult eligible.

The Act also allows currently incarcerated survivors to apply for resentencing if they have been sentenced to more than eight years. It does not require resentencing, Smith clarified, but it does allow the judge the discretion to consider the role of abuse and to decide whether the sentence, in light of the abuse, was unduly harsh. If the judge decides yes, then he or she has the ability to resentence the survivor.

Would the Act improve Karen’s chances of going home? Smith emphasized that the Act allows judges to decide on a case-by-case basis, but does not require resentencing. “It would be in the judge’s discretion, after evaluating all factors, to decide whether to resentence her,” she stated.

In May, 2016, shortly before the legislative session ended, the Act passed the state assembly. It will be reintroduced in January 2017 under a new bill number. If passed, approximately 360 people (185 women and 175 men) currently incarcerated could be eligible for resentencing. Smith estimates that, in the future, approximately 480 survivors (365 women and 115 men) could be potentially eligible for lower sentences or alternatives-to-incarceration each year. But she stresses, “It is important to remember that not all of these individuals will be eligible, and that we expect that many more women than men to be eligible given that women are disproportionately affected by domestic violence.”

Sissy, now 62, is still hoping for justice — and freedom. “We have been already abused and, when we finally get the courage to fight back and something unintentional happens, then the system abuses us by locking us up forever.”

Countdown is on: We have 1 day to raise $24,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.