Trauma Warning: This article contains references to abuse, including physical and sexual violence.
Many survivors of domestic violence live with the abuse for months or years. The reasons they stay are complex; leaving is not only logistically difficult, but can also be dangerous. But what happens when the violence escalates, leaving the victim fearing for her life or the lives of her children? What happens when it becomes clear that the abuser will not stop, leaving her no choice but to protect herself?
For some women, the only choice is to fight back. Too often, though, the law does not see survivors as victims, but instead prosecutes them as criminals.
The Line Between Self Defense and a Criminal Offense
Women who kill their male partners, often in self-defense against abuse, are sentenced to an average of 15 years behind bars. Their male counterparts – men who kill their female partners – receive an average sentence of two to six years. And many of those men do not claim self-defense as the reason for killing their partner.
Take, for instance, the high-profile cases of women who are behind bars because they injured or killed their abusers:
- Cyntoia Brown, who spent 15 years in prison after she killed a man who solicited her for sex when she was 16. She eventually received clemency after her case went viral on social media.
- Nikki Addimando, a mother convicted of second-degree murder and second-degree weapon possession after she shot and killed her boyfriend after years of alleged abuse. She is currently serving a reduced sentence of 7.5 years.
- Kim Dadou Brown, a woman convicted of killing her husband after he climbed on top of her and said he was going to kill her. She was sentenced to 17 years.
- Marissa Alexander, initially sentenced to 20 years in prison for aggravated assault after firing a warning shot at her abusive ex-husband. She spent three years behind bars before her conviction was overturned.
In a cruel twist of fate, those who experience physical and sexual violence sometimes end up in the criminal justice system because of their abuse. Some women severely injure or kill their abusers after enduring years of extreme mistreatment. Others, like victims of sex trafficking, may end up arrested on prostitution charges, forced to pay the price for the crimes of others.
In fact, Georgetown Law’s report, The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline, says that “sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system.” According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), nearly 60% of female prisoners in America have a history of physical or sexual abuse. That rate jumps to 94% among marginalized communities.
A note here about marginalized victims of physical and sexual violence. Women of color, transgender women, gender non-conforming people, other members of the LGBTQ+ community, and those with disabilities not only face higher rates of domestic violence, but are also more likely to end up incarcerated when they defend themselves.
Those with more than one marginalization (Black transgender women or lesbians with disabilities, for instance) are at even greater risk.
Though we use the term “women” throughout this article, we acknowledge that domestic violence occurs across demographics, as does incarceration due to self-defense.
Survivors Behind Bars
A survivor who defends herself against her abuser can face dramatic legal consequences. As highlighted in this report, the American criminal justice system was designed by men, primarily for men. As a society, we are trained to believe that perpetrators of violence are “bad,” and those at the receiving end of a violent act are always the “victim.”
With that narrative so clearly etched in our social conscience, the justice system quickly labels women who harm or kill their abusers as “criminals,” ignoring that those women are victims of abuse themselves.
Incarceration and Revictimization
Our criminal justice system is ill-equipped to treat the underlying trauma that led these survivors to end up behind bars. We lock them up, tell them to do their time, and provide them with few resources to help them confront and overcome past trauma. There is no counseling or treatment for PTSD, even though many female prisoners are survivors of domestic and/or sexual violence.
Even worse than not addressing past trauma, being incarcerated can add new trauma, therefore revictimizing the survivor. Being imprisoned is traumatic in its own right: small spaces, lack of freedom, disconnection from family and friends, and a heightened fight-or-flight response. But many women also experience abuse within the jail’s walls; verbal abuse, physical violence, and even sexual violence in some cases, both from staff and other inmates.
Without proper treatment for the resulting mental health conditions, these inmates are more likely than non-inmates to engage in risky or illegal behaviors when they leave custody. Those behaviors, of course, can land them right back behind bars, starting the cycle all over again.
Where We Go from Here: Supporting Survivors and Preventing Violence
While there are several resources and systems in place to help domestic violence victims leave their abusive environments, there are not enough. These women face many obstacles, often leaving them feeling helpless and hopeless. Survivors who do report the abuse to the authorities report not being believed or, worse, being treated as the perpetrator.
As women, many of us have either experienced or heard stories from survivors. We know how frightening it can be to live with an abuser. But for some, the fear of reporting the violence or leaving the abuser is even worse.
This isn’t a problem that will be solved overnight. However, several organizations are working to bring reform to the criminal justice system and provide greater support for domestic abuse victims. Many states have now passed legislation making “battered women syndrome” or self-defense a viable defense strategy. But it’s not always effective; every day, women are sentenced to serve time for defending themselves.
There is hope and help for victims of domestic violence.
First, believe the women in your life when they tell you they are experiencing abuse. Telling someone about the abuse is the first step towards freedom and safety.
Second, if you or someone you know are experiencing abuse, seek help from professional domestic abuse organizations like your local domestic violence shelter or the National Domestic Violence Hotline. These organizations can help you create a safety plan, find local resources, provide legal help, and offer support and counseling before, during, and after leaving the abuser.