Pointing #MeToo towards Freedom: Update on Research & Strategy Convening to Free Incarcerated Survivors

by Alisa Bierria, CRG Feminist Anti-Carceral Policy & Research Initiative

Does the #MeToo anti-violence movement reach survivors of domestic and sexual violence in California’s women’s prisons?  Recent reforms to curb mass incarceration in the U.S. have reduced the total number of men in state prisons since 2009, but populations in women’s prisons have increased in 35 states. The Prison Policy Initiative found that the criminalization of women expanded in part because actions taken to survive domestic and sexual violence (e.g. self-defense, drug dependence, sex industry, etc.) have been increasingly criminalized.

California has been a particularly troubling site for intersections of gender violence and carceral violence. Though women’s incarceration in the state is decreasing, it is likely due to court-ordered reductions in its prison population following a 2011 Supreme Court ruling asserting that California’s prison overcrowding violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has also been cited for egregious institutional abuse of people in women’s prisons. In 2017, the California State Auditor released a highly critical report highlighting CDCR’s failure to implement effective suicide prevention and response policies, and uncovering dangerous prison conditions at the California Institution for Women (CIW) which led to a soaring suicide rate over the past four years.  Also in 2017, four trans and queer people of color, all of whom identify as survivors of sexual trauma, filed a lawsuit against the State of California and the CDCR, stating that they were beaten and sexually violated by correctional officers, and were then denied medical treatment for their injuries and prevented from filing grievances. This lawsuit is one of multiple cases filed against CDCR for sexual violence and wrongful death in the last several years.

Ny Nourn reports back from a strategy session.

Survived and Punished (S&P) is an all-volunteer statewide and national project that illuminates the “gender violence to prison pipeline,” and analyzes how carcerality is part of the cultural infrastructure of rape and domestic violence. S&P joins others who contend that #MeToo efforts that highlight sexual and domestic violence must also address how this violence is an integral component of carceral systems – including police, immigration enforcement, prisons, court systems, and other structures of punishment and surveillance. Therefore, for S&P, securing pathways to freedom from prisons and detention centers must be a central anti-violence goal.

The Feminist Anti-Carceral Policy & Research Initiative (FACPRI), an initiative that is hosted by the Center for Race & Gender, collaborates with S&P to support the development of statewide strategies to decriminalize survival. On December 2-3, 2017, S&P convened over 30 advocates and activists who are also formerly incarcerated survivors of domestic or sexual violence. Hosted by FACPRI at UC Berkeley, this convening was an opportunity to learn directly from formerly incarcerated survivors about their experiences of criminalization and barriers to release, as well as collectively identify California-based decarceral strategies to increase the rate of prison release for people in women’s prisons and trans women in men’s prisons.

Barriers to Release

Convening participants identified barriers to release that have been previously documented as ongoing institutional problems, such as the lack of access to free/affordable and effective legal representation, the lack of information about new legislation that increases pathways for release, and coerced plea deals that can forfeit the right to appeal. Additionally, participants also explored lesser known barriers that are often gendered, such as the role of abusive partners in manipulating judicial processes, parole board discrimination against survivors of domestic violence, immediate ICE detention after prison release, and the refusal of prison officials to follow court release orders, sometimes out of retaliation if the incarcerated person has filed a complaint about abuse while in prison.

Marissa Alexander reports back from a strategy session.

The Board of Parole Hearings was highlighted as a particularly problematic institution with largely unchecked power to extend incarceration. Some survivors reported getting rejected for parole over ten times, and others described how identifying as a survivor of gender violence can be used as a reason to prevent their release because it is distorted as evidence that they are not “sufficiently remorseful.” The relationship between ICE enforcement and prisons was also identified as extremely dangerous. Even if some survivors are able to achieve freedom in one system, they may end up facing multiple points of incarceration after being released. The fear of deportation and isolation can cause profound emotional barriers to fighting for release. It is also extremely difficult to secure free/low-cost legal representation with expertise within multiple systems as well as skills for developing dual parole plans.

Sources of Support & Recommendations

Participants identified multiple key sources of support that helped them navigate their way to freedom. The nonprofit, California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), was cited as a crucial resource that helped create conditions that improved the likelihood of release, including providing volunteer legal advocacy, and advocating for the health and survival needs of imprisoned people. As a membership-based organization, CCWP also creates community networks inside and outside prisons that decrease isolation and provide the grassroots political support that strengthens advocacy efforts. Community groups, such as the TGI Justice Project and the Asian Law Caucus, also organize people to attend court hearings, a support that participants identified as a tremendously valuable strategy that supported their feelings of individual worth, and demonstrated community support to the court.

Additionally, participants identified a number of recommended actions to widen the pathways for release, including building more supportive post-release institutions and resources for women, queer, and trans people; building advocacy networks for survivors to provide crucial support such as legal advocacy, health support, etc. as soon as survivors are arrested; holding prosecutors accountable for making choices to prosecute survivors and ending the prosecutorial conviction incentive; increasing organized court watches to decrease isolation and make judicial processes less hidden; exposing how multiple sectors of carceral systems actively discriminate and punish survivors; building more coalitions between immigration justice advocates and victim advocates; and continuing to support public grassroots defense campaigns that can advocate for commutations and paroles.  

This convening was supported with a generous grant from the UC Irvine Initiative to End Family Violence. It was an important early step to set the preliminary groundwork for an organizing and advocacy model that incorporates a complex understanding of the criminalization of survival, and increases access to freedom.

Mapping the “gender violence to prison” pipeline.

Photo at top: Alisa Bierria recounts Harriet Jacobs’ escape from slavery.
All photos courtesy of Survived and Punished.