My newest on Al-Jazeera America: DV Survivors Incarcerated in New York May Get Some Relief

Just in time for the start of 2015, my newest piece--on domestic violence survivors in prison--is up on Al-Jazeera America. Here's an excerpt:
NEW YORK — Valerie Seeley has been behind bars since 2003. But her troubles started much earlier, in 1995, when she first met Oliver Williams and his 10-year-old daughter while visiting a friend in Brooklyn. “I thought it was a really cool thing that he had his child with him all the time,” she says in a conference room at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York state’s maximum-security prison for women.

Attracted to Williams, who seemed like a responsible, caring father, she began dating him and soon moved in with the pair. But Williams quickly changed — drinking heavily, passing out in the street, using drugs, accusing her of sleeping with other men, “all kinds of crazy things,” Seeley recalls. And then the violence began. The first time he hit her, she told him, “Don’t ever put your hands on me again.” But he did — again and again...

Survivors of abuse and trauma are incredibly common in prisons across the country. The U.S. Department of Justice found that more than half of women in jails and prisons were abused prior to incarceration. According to the New York state Department of Correctional and Community Services, 67 percent of women sent to prison for killing someone close to them had been abused by that person. A full 90 percent of prisoners at Bedford Hills have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes.

“That we continue to punish survivors in this way, with as much as we’ve learned about domestic violence over the years, truly shocks the conscience,” says Tamar Kraft-Stolar, director of the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York, an advocacy organization that monitors New York state prisons. “Every time we visit a prison, we meet women who have been locked up for decades because they protected themselves. It’s a devastating example of the overuse of incarceration and it needs to end.”

The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act was introduced in 2011 to address these concerns and is now in the state legislature’s codes committee, which votes on any bill that would increase or decrease penalties. If the codes committee approves the bill, it is sent to the entire legislature for a vote. Sponsored by Assembly member Jeffrion Aubry and Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, the act would allow incarcerated abuse survivors to apply for resentencing if their crimes were directly related to abuse. Not only would survivors like Seeley, who harmed or killed their abusers, be eligible, but so would survivors who were coerced into crimes, such as robbery or burglary, by abusive partners. During the past decade, California has passed a series of similar laws, while a narrower bill is making its way through the New Jersey Legislature.

You can read the entire article here: