Fighting to Survive Domestic Violence: Victims in the Prison System

by Vins
Published: Updated:

States across the US are incarcerating massive numbers of women for violent crimes that should be considered self-defense. As Victoria Law reported for Truthout in October 2016, many women are incarcerated for committing violent crimes as a result of defending themselves against abusers. According to Law’s report, 34,000 women are currently serving time in state prisons for violent crimes, of which over 10,000 women have been convicted of murder. “Some are survivors of domestic violence whose actions were desperate attempts to defend themselves or their children,” Law reports. “But the exact numbers remain unknown; no government agency tracks the number of abuse survivors behind bars.”

Law describes the cases of three such women, and efforts in New York state to pass a Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act that would allow judges to take abuse into consideration when sentencing survivors convicted of acts directly related to abuse, as well as providing opportunities for currently incarcerated survivors to apply for resentencing if they have been sentenced to more than eight years.

“Sissy,” one of the women profiled by Law, spent eleven 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 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 fifty years in an Alabama prison. That was in 2002; Sissy was 48 years old.

Law’s report is supported by an article by Rebecca McCray, published by TakePart in 2015. McCray’s report, “When Battered Women Are Punished with Prison,” reveals that about 90 percent of women incarcerated for killing men were physically abused by their victims. Although these cases should be treated as acts of self-defense, most judges don’t consider the prior history of violence perpetrated against the women as relevant background for their actions. As Law reports, “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.”

In New York, advocates, including formerly incarcerated women, are seeking passage of a Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act. If made law, the legislation would include self-defense and acts in which survivors were coerced by their abusers. If abuse is determined to be a significant contributing factor, then judges could shorten sentences or recommend alternative-to-incarceration programs for survivors of domestic violence found guilty of committing violent crimes.

Source: Victoria Law, “’The System Abuses Us by Locking US Up Forever’: Aging Survivors Behind Bars.” Truthout, October 04,2016,

Student Researcher: Yesenia Huerta (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University)