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With Funding for Domestic Violence Survivors Under Threat, Grassroots Groups Step In

Organizers are sharing their strategies to help survivors.

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

Days after her conviction, Marissa Alexander, a mother of three and domestic violence survivor, was told to report to the jail’s mailroom. There, she was given 100 pieces of mail — all from strangers who had seen Alexander, who had fired a warning shot at her abusive husband, interviewed on CNN and wanted to show their support. Mailroom staff were annoyed at having to open and inspect so many letters but, for the mother of three and domestic violence survivor, the paper bag of mail reminded her that, even if the courts hadn’t, many others believed her. “Somebody else saw that what was happening to me was unjust,” she told Truthout. “That was very encouraging.”

That encouragement turned into mobilizations and campaigns across the country demanding Alexander’s freedom. Supporters, many of whom had never met Alexander, organized teach-ins, letter-writing sessions, rallies and fundraisers, bringing wider attention to her legal ordeal. Their actions caught the attention of attorneys experienced in domestic violence defense, who helped Alexander appeal and overturn her original conviction. In 2015, faced with the threat of a 60-year sentence, Alexander accepted a plea deal. She is now free and continues to speak out against the injustices of the criminal legal system.

Mandatory arrest policies for domestic violence calls continue to place victims at risk of arrest should they turn to the police.

The concept of organized support for criminalized survivors of sexual and domestic violence is not new. In the 1940s, Black women across the country mobilized to stop the executions of Rosa Lee Ingram, a Black widow and mother, and her two sons. The three had been sentenced to death after Ingram defended herself against a white neighbor’s attempted rape. Black women’s organizing pushed the NAACP to get involved and ultimately stopped the executions. They continued organizing and, 12 years later, freed Ingram and her sons. In the 1970s, defense campaigns resulted in freedom for low-income women of color, such as Inez Garcia and Joan Little. More recent defense campaigns have also resulted in less harsh penalties for survivors like Bresha Meadows and CeCe McDonald.

Now, this type of support becomes even more crucial as the federal government cuts away legal protections and safety nets for survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

In 2011, the Obama administration issued a memo threatening to pull federal funding from colleges and universities that did not combat sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus. But current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos publicly and vehemently disagreed, implying that these guidelines unjustly punish students who are accused. She announced that the Education Department was rescinding the guidelines. Though Title IX is still law, advocates and students fear that the rescinding of guidelines may further undercut recourse for sexual assault survivors.

Meanwhile, the proposed 2018 federal budget shows a massive decrease for federal programs that aid survivors of sexual and domestic violence. Over the course of 10 years, funding for these programs will drop 93 percent, from $460 million to $30 million. Cuts to other social safety-net programs will also reduce funding for other domestic violence services. For instance, the elimination of the $68 million Social Services Block Grant means that New York City alone will lose $17.8 million for city-run domestic violence services, including domestic violence shelter programs for 840 families and non-residential services for 1,900 abuse survivors. At the same time, mandatory arrest policies for domestic violence calls continue to place victims at risk of arrest should they turn to the police — or, in the case of abuse survivors in Georgia and elsewhere, jail time and hefty fines if they choose not to press charges.

But organizers aren’t relying on federal and state governments, noting that some of the now-threatened or repealed policies were already failing survivors marginalized by race, class, immigration status and sexual or gender identity. Organizers are continuing to mobilize to support people criminalized for surviving domestic and sexual violence. At the same time, they’re creating toolkits to share their hard-earned lessons so that others can replicate the mobilizations and defense campaigns, and to ensure that these experiences aren’t forgotten when key organizers move on from their roles.

“When They Left, the Work Stopped”

In 1984, Sue Osthoff, now the founder and director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, was a victim advocate for Women Against Abuse when she began receiving calls from abuse survivors in the Philadelphia jail. The calls motivated her to begin searching for other incarcerated survivors and, each morning, she scoured the newspapers for stories about women charged with killing a man. Whenever she came across one, she visited the woman at the jail. Nearly every time, the woman had killed an abusive partner.

Osthoff wasn’t the only domestic violence advocate recognizing that survivors were sitting behind bars for defending themselves. “In the early ’90s, [battered women’s] advocates were visiting jails and prisons on top of their regular work,” she told Truthout. “We were listening to women and sometimes women were saying, ‘I need you to come see me in jail.'”

In May 1988 many of these advocates convened in St. Louis, Missouri, for the first national conference about working with survivor-defendants. Four months later, in September 1988 they gathered again, this time at the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence conference, where they drafted and passed a resolution to prioritize working with abuse survivors who were facing or convicted of charges that stemmed from their abuse.

Despite these efforts, organizations were slow to institutionalize this work. By the later 1990s, however, advocates committed to working with incarcerated survivors began moving on. “When they left, that work stopped,” Osthoff recalled.

As Osthoff and the now 30-year-old Clearinghouse demonstrate, support for criminalized survivors didn’t stop altogether. However, many of the lessons and experiences were not passed on.

In December 2016 the Clearinghouse published a 147-page toolkit for advocates working to change systems on behalf of criminalized survivors, whether they be facing charges, serving sentences or reentering communities after prison. “We want to make sure that communities who come together around battering are including all victims of battering,” said Osthoff.

The Clearinghouse does not provide legal representation to individual survivors. But that doesn’t mean that other organizations and individuals aren’t doing so. The overwhelming support flooding the mailroom of the jail where Marissa Alexander was held is only one example of individuals and organizations coming together to free an incarcerated survivor. CeCe McDonald, Patreese Johnson and Bresha Meadows saw an outpouring of community support, including calls to prosecutors’ offices to drop charges, court support and fundraising to defray legal and other costs.

Organizers aren’t relying on the government. They note that some of the now-threatened policies were failing marginalized survivors, anyway.

In 2016, several of the groups doing this work came together to form Survived and Punished, a national network focused on ending the criminalization of survivors of gendered violence. The following year, members decided to institutionalize their knowledge, publishing “Survivor Defense as Abolitionist Praxis,” a collection of tips, lessons and resources based on their own experiences.

Colby Lenz is an organizer with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, one of the groups that founded Survived and Punished. She is also a contributing writer to “Survivor Defense.” “As the visibility of the work we are doing increases, we were getting an increasing number of requests from grassroots organizers, family members who are fighting for the freedom of survivors,” Lenz told Truthout. “We are a small but strong group, but don’t have the capacity to support all these campaigns.” The toolkit is a way to share their lessons, strategies and resources with others so that they can organize their own defense campaigns.

At the same time, organizers want to ensure that these experiences aren’t forgotten. “There’s a long history of organizing, especially by Black women, women of color, trans women and trans men, that is so often invisibilized even though the organizing tends to lead the analysis,” Lenz noted.

Though “Survivor Defense” was published in June 2017 organizers are already hearing that their work is inspiring others. “We’ve been getting emails from people around the country saying that they just started organizing and they’re so thankful for that resource,” said Lenz.

“No One Else Would Listen”

Barbie Hart spent three days trapped inside her home by her husband Dean. During that time, she was sexually assaulted and in constant fear for her life. But when she refused to testify against him at trial, she went from being viewed as a victim to being targeted as a defendant.

During their brief marriage, Hart, then a licensed social worker, recalled that Dean did not allow her to leave the house unless she was accompanied by him or his preteen daughter. He did not allow her to have a cellphone; she had to share one with her stepdaughter. When the girl ran away, Hart had no phone.

On December 26, 2013, Dean learned that Hart’s ex-husband, with whom she remained on good terms, had given her a cellphone. Dean threatened to kill both Hart and her ex-husband. He then forced her into his car and drove to the hospital where he knew her ex worked. But her ex wasn’t at work and Dean did not know where he lived.

Hart told Truthout that she tried to get out of the car, but Dean grabbed her hair and pulled her back in. She refused to tell her husband where her ex lived. In response, he hit her, knocking her unconscious.

Hart woke up at home, feeling dizzy and ready to vomit. Her husband refused to let her leave the house — and sexually assaulted her. She escaped three nights later and made it to the emergency room where she reported being raped. After a standoff lasting more than seven hours, police arrested Dean. He was sent to jail and, after paying a $150,000 bond, went to rehab while awaiting trial. Hart moved in with her sister and began to pick up the pieces of her life.

Then Dean called. “He said that he really didn’t rape me or kidnap me, that I had overreacted,” she recalled. He demanded that Hart meet him in a town over two hours away. “If you ever loved me, you will meet me,” she recalled him telling her. Hart agreed to meet him.

Looking back on this choice, Hart reflected that she was not thinking rationally. By then, she had already testified before the grand jury, which had indicted her husband. Still, she didn’t want Dean to believe that she did not care about him. She met him and he persuaded her to meet his attorneys, who pressured her into calling the district attorney. “I told them, ‘I feel differently and I see things differently and I don’t want to testify,'” she said.

In response, the district attorney charged Hart with perjury and conspiracy to commit perjury. Meanwhile, Dean began threatening that, if she did testify, he would kill her, her sister and her ex-husband. Though Hart was subpoenaed as a witness, she refused to talk about those four days. Her sister was also scheduled to testify, but before she took the stand, Dean pled guilty to aggravated battery. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Hart spent the next four years in and out of court. “I never wanted to kill myself, but I thought, ‘Gosh, I’d be better off dead,'” Hart said. During that time, she often recalled how, during the three days in which her husband kept her trapped in the house, he held a gun to her head. As she wound her way through court proceedings, she thought more than once, “It would have been over if he had just killed me.”

For Savage and other survivors behind bars, support has helped keep hope alive.

Hart called the local domestic violence agency and asked if they would help advocate for her. She was told no. “They said that would be like advocating for a woman charged with murdering her [abusive] husband,” she recalled. She then contacted the National Clearinghouse. “They were the voice of reason,” she said. Every week, she spoke with Dale Grayson, the Clearinghouse’s legal consultant. “She helped validate things,” Hart recalled. “I felt lower than dirt under a rock. It made all the difference in the world. No one else would listen. It’s important to have someone to listen.”

Hart ultimately entered a no-contest plea in exchange for an acquittal. But until she expunges her arrest, she cannot regain her license to practice social work.

Support Enabled Ramona Brant to Walk Out of Prison

As Marissa Alexander’s story demonstrates, post-conviction organizing is not only an important way to support survivors, but it can also result in freedom. This was true for Ramona Brant, facing a lifetime in federal prison for drug conspiracy. For prosecutors, it didn’t matter that Brant had never sold drugs or that police records showed that she had endured six years of abuse at the hands of her boyfriend. What mattered was that Brant refused to accept a plea bargain requiring her to testify against her boyfriend. Because of her refusal, prosecutors charged her with conspiracy.

Brant’s attorney contacted the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women. Still, Brant was convicted and, in 1995, sentenced to life in prison.

But Clearinghouse advocates did not give up on freeing Brant. The organization worked with attorneys to file motion after motion. “A lot of times, I didn’t even know they were doing what they were doing,” Brant told Truthout. “A lot of times, I’d get something from court denying my motion. I’d ask, ‘Who filed a motion? I didn’t file a motion.’ Then I’d see that it was from the Clearinghouse.”

The federal prison system does not utilize parole; life sentences mean a person will be locked up for their entire life, unless the conviction is appealed and overturned. For Brant, the Clearinghouse was her lifeline to the courts. “I could not understand the law,” she recalled. “I could not grasp it. It was like trying to read another language.” Those denials became a beacon of hope. “I thought, ‘Wow, someone is out there fighting for me,'” she recalled. “It was a great feeling.”

In 2014, when the Clemency Project was announced, Brant began searching for attorneys. She handwrote letters to legal firms and pulled out her transcripts to send copies. But the photocopiers in the law library were broken and Brant spent two days searching for a working copying machine. Finally, she decided that she would bring the transcripts to her job in the prison commissary and plead with her boss to make three copies.

“That Friday morning, the fog was so thick that you couldn’t see your hand,” she described. The lack of visibility meant that “movement,” including going to work, was canceled. “I went back to my room and cried like a baby,” Brant recalled. That afternoon, she went to the prison’s 4 pm mail call. There, she found a letter from Sue Osthoff, who had spoken to an attorney whose firm agreed to take on Brant’s clemency petition. “I just stood there in mail call and cried,” Brant recalled.

Other advocates, including women who had served time with Brant, also pushed for her clemency, collecting petition signatures and bringing her story to the public’s attention.

In 2015, days before Christmas, Brant received clemency. In the predawn hours of February 2, 2016, after 21 years behind bars, she walked out of federal prison and into the arms of her family and friends.

That’s what organizers are now hoping will happen to Kelly Savage, a 45-year-old abuse survivor who has spent 22 years behind bars after her husband fatally beat her 3-and-a-half-year-old son. At trial, the prosecutor argued that, because Savage had not left her husband, she was equally at fault for her son’s death. She was convicted and sentenced to life without parole. But she has never given up fighting for her freedom. She filed a writ of habeas corpus challenging the lack of expert testimony about battering and its effects. Her petition, which was twice opposed by then-Attorney General Kamala Harris, was ultimately denied.

With support from the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, and Survived and Punished, Savage continues to fight for freedom through the courts and is now petitioning for clemency. California Gov. Jerry Brown, whose term expires at the end of 2018, has already started the process of granting clemencies. In April, he granted clemency to seven people, including three serving life without parole. In August, he commuted the sentences of another nine; among them were five serving life without parole. His clemencies did not mean automatic release — instead, the life sentences were commuted to 25 years to life, enabling people to appear before the parole board. But, noted Lenz, “for somebody sentenced to life without [parole], that is a huge change.”

For Savage and so many other survivors behind bars, support has helped keep hope alive. “So many people do get forgotten,” said Osthoff. “Battering pulls them away from their families and then they’re sent to prison. It’s really easy to move into despair and give up on hope.”

Brant agrees. “When everyone else gave up, they never gave up,” she said. And because of advocates’ refusal to give up, she’s now free.