Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and it's good to have you with us. In the final days of 2022, President Biden issued full pardons to six individuals. One, in particular, stood out
Speaker 2: Biden pardon an 80-year-old who was convicted for murdering her husband when she was 33.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Beverly Ann Ibn-Tamas shot her husband back in 1976. At her trial, she testified that her husband was habitually abusive and had beaten her and threatened her life just moments before she shot him. Her defense attempted to use expert testimony to show that she was suffering from battered women's syndrome, it's a theory of the psychological effects of living with intimate partner violence, but she was convicted of murder in the second degree while armed and sentenced to five years in prison with credit for time served.
Alisa Bierria: It's always great to see that anyone is disentangled from the criminal legal system. However, it's an odd thing to make news. My name is Alisa Bierria. I'm an Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and I'm also the co-founder of Survived & Punished.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Survived & Punished is a national coalition of advocates working to defend and free domestic and sexual abuse survivors who are penalized for actions they took to survive. Because even 45 years after Beverly Ann Ibn-Tamas was convicted, women are still being punished for fighting back.
Alisa Bierria: The criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence is such a crisis. There are so many survivors who are behind bars and jails and prisons and ice and juvenile detention centers that it's extremely inadequate to pardon this one survivor who is not in prison. There are many, many survivors in federal prison that await his attention.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, there's no single agency that collects official data on the numbers and rates of survivors who are incarcerated for defending themselves, but several studies have shown unmistakable patterns.
Alisa Bierria: Vast majority of people in women's prisons and many in men's prisons are survivors of domestic and sexual violence before they enter prison.
Melissa Harris-Perry: According to a 2016 study published by the Vera Institute of Justice, 86% of incarcerated women are survivors of sexual violence and 77% are survivors of intimate partner violence. In women's prisons, sexual abuse is widespread.
Alisa Bierria: People who experience the abuse to prison pipeline, there are a number of ways in which they find themselves in this pipeline, trying to navigate the conditions of domestic violence such as acting in self-defense, removing children from abusive people, protecting children from abusive people, or being coerced into acting as an accomplice for their abusers, securing resources needed to live. There are a number of paths. If we think about survivors, how we treat survivors in our community, we know that we punish survivors of domestic and sexual violence regularly.
We stigmatize them, blame them, and so on. This kind of thing merges into a really brutal criminal legal system that is mandated to essentially incarcerate as many people as possible for as long as possible. Those two things come together and very efficiently criminalizes survivors and puts them in prison. There's no way to disentangle the experience of gender-based violence and the experience of gender-based punishment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There are so many stories available to us in this moment of women who have been charged or convicted for actions that they said they took in self-defense. Thinking here of Tracy McCarter New York, Pieper Lewis of Cyntoia Brown. What do their stories tell us about who the court sees as a good or worthy victim who is maybe worthy of some level of either forgiveness or or protection?
Alisa Bierria: Tracy McCarter was targeted for her acts of self-defense. Her abuser came to her home. She defended her own life, saved her own life. She was punished as a result. Even survivors who are on the other side of the court, in the situation in which prosecutors are prosecuting the people who abuse them, even those survivors are abused by the court.
For example, if they decide that they don't want to testify against their abuser in some states, those prosecutors will put the survivor in jail as a way and to coerce that person into testifying against their abuser. I guess the thing is that the system doesn't necessarily discern with respect to good survivors or bad survivors, I think that it discerns with respect to race very specifically. You're more likely to be punished more severely if you are Black or brown. I don't think that the criminal legal system thinks any survivors are good survivors.
Carrie: My name is Carrie [unintelligible 00:05:44]. I'm at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McCloud, Oklahoma.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Carrie's in her late 30s and she called us from prison in Oklahoma. She's the mother of four children, children she now only gets to see once a month for two and a half hours.
Carrie: We've been talking about gratitude a lot lately, and identity. We'll do little activities. Last time we had they brought paint and campuses and we wrote our names and different traits that we like about ourselves. Then we got the paint film, mostly just talking on the phone and asking about what's going on in their lives. I try my best to be the best mother I can from here. It's very difficult to do, but I know other women have done it before me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: She tries to be the best version of herself that she can be. She holds a job in prison and has developed some creative hobbies.
Carrie: I actually just got a new job or I'm going to be working in the laundry, but before, I was what they call a tray orderly, and because I live on the on a unit with older people and some of them are not able to go up to the kitchen to eat. I go and make sure they have the correct diet, and I pick up the trays and bring them down here. I feel like I'm creative. I like to make things and I've been painting which is something I'm very new to. I'm not good at it yet.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This has been her life for the past six years.
Carrie: I'm coming to the end of my sixth year. They had given me 30 years and I have to serve 85% of that. Which is about 25 and a half years. I would say another 19 years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sentenced to 30 years and serving at least 25 and a half. Her children will be grown long before she gets out. Carrie wasn't convicted for something she did. She was convicted for something the state of Oklahoma said she didn't do.
Carrie: Because I really do feel like I did everything I could, but in this state that they believe that a woman is supposed to be able to take control of the situation like that and that is our job as mothers to protect our children. I agree with that. Whenever you're in a violent relationship like I was, you can only do so much, especially when you were under direct yourself. You've been abused so long.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Carrie was in an abusive relationship with a man who beat her and forced her to use heroin. One night she woke to find him choking and beating her then-four-year-old daughter. She tried to fight him off, leave the house, call the police, but he blocked her way. He threatened to kill her, then locked himself in a room with her daughter. Carrie could hear the child being hurt and didn't know how to stop it. The next day, her housemate was finally able to sneak out and call 911. The boyfriend was arrested, but then so was Carrie. She was held in jail for a year while she awaited trial. When it was finally over, the man who abused Carrie and her daughter was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Carrie was sentenced to 30. She was charged with failure to protect, a law that requires parents to protect their children from physical abuse that they are aware of. At least 28 other states have similar laws on the books, and while this sounds maybe sensible on its face, a Mother Jones investigation found that in Oklahoma, 90% of people charged with the crime are women. Even though Black people make up 8% of Oklahoma's population, they account for 19% of those found guilty under the failure to protect law even if there's solid evidence that they were also being abused. Here's Alisa Bierria again.
Alisa Bierria: Survivors of domestic violence who are mothers are particularly vulnerable to this charge. Failure to protect convictions are disproportionately women. They're almost all women. The notion is that you can take these different kinds of ideas and beliefs about mothers. Mothers should protect their kids. Mothers are overprotective. Mothers should be more involved. Mothers are too involved, and so you can take this cultural conceptualization of what mothers should do, what mothers oughtn't to do.
Mothers can't win. Merge it with the brutal punishment of the criminal legal system, who uses that cultural idea of motherhood and then manipulates it into a justification for criminal punishment. The idea is that survivors are bad mothers because they are survivors of domestic violence, and they were unable to stop their abuser from abusing their children. They were unable to stop their abuser from even abusing themselves because sometimes mothers are punished for failure to protect because they failed to protect their children from witnessing the abuse.
Carrie: I really do feel like I did everything I could. I was able to talk to one of my jurors, and she was just like, "I wish I had known all of the facts." I just balled my eyes out when I first talked to her. You might look at a picture of something and there might be another side to that picture. You can't look at something from one angle. You have to look at it from all angles to actually see the full picture. You can't just judge people on what's your first impression. I think that's what happened in my case.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do these laws actually protect children or simply punish mothers?
Alisa Bierria: They're certainly bias against women and bias against survivors that drive the failure to protect prosecutions, but there's also a larger problem of the courts and the criminal legal system having the mission of criminalizing as many people as possible for as long as possible.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's next on The Takeaway.
We just heard the story of one woman in Oklahoma who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for failing to protect her children from an abuser. He was also abusing her, but do these laws actually protect children or simply punish mothers? Here, again, is Alisa Bierra from UCLA and from the advocacy coalition Survived & Punished.
Alisa Bierria: There's a presumption that failure to protect is about the safety of children or the system of criminalization advocating for children, but what we know is that this system also systematically punishes child survivors of domestic violence. We can look at cases like Bresha Meadows in Ohio who went to the system, went to the police because her father was abusing her mother and abusing her, went to the police and the police turned her away and said that if she didn't go home, they would jail her as a runaway.
She was 14 years old, Black girl, and she ended up shooting her father fatally in order to save her own life, in order to save the lives of her family members and that system immediately incarcerated her. They wanted to pursue very high charges in an organizing campaign, a participatory defense campaign stepped in and created media around her case and advocated for her freedom. If that didn't happen, I do believe that Bresha would be imprisoned right now, but fortunately, she was able to get a plea deal.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is this primarily about biased enforcement, or is there something actually troubling in this very notion of what constitutes parental responsibility?
Alisa Bierria: Those two things are connected. There's certainly bias against women and bias against survivors that drive the failure to protect prosecutions, but there's also a larger problem of the courts and the criminal legal system having the mission of criminalizing as many people as possible for as long as possible. Failure to protect laws and the failure to protect justification for prosecution works really well with that because it's not just child endangerment laws that are being impacted or used against survivors, it's also laws like aid and abet. Aid and abet laws carry a much longer sentence.
We saw this with Kelly Savage-Rodriguez here in California. Her batterer tragically beat her child to death, and she was prosecuted for aid and abet considered through a failure to protect philosophy. Then she was given basically a life without parole sentence. She did not kill her child, but she was blamed for killing her child. It's not just bias against women inside of a just criminal legal system, that's not what's going on. The criminal legal system is a brutal system that uses these different cultural constructs to justify the brutality that that system perpetuates.
Melissa Harris-Perry: New York State passed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act back in 2019, and it was supposed to allow survivors who have been criminalized a second chance before a judge. How has this been working since that time?
Alisa Bierria: It has been limited. There was a survivor named Nikki Addimando who acted in self-defense and was being extremely blamed by the judge in her trial, just who would not believe the pile of evidence that she had. Many survivors who are criminalized don't have the backups of evidence in terms of medical records and police records and so on, but Nikki did. He just refused it. The DVSJA has in timed for her sentencing. The act said that judges can take into account domestic violence to mitigate sentencing, but she was sentenced for decades in prison.
It was devastating. She has young children. Her team took it to [unintelligible 00:17:05] court, and the court agreed that her case was eligible for resentencing. They reduced the sentence so that Nikki would be released sooner than later, I think, while her children are still children. The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act had been years in the making and for it to have a thankful but minimal impact. It's very hard to talk about this because I'm glad for her reduction of sentence, but I'm enraged by the entire process of punishing her.
One day that Nikki Addimando or any survivor sits in jail, even one day, is a profound injustice. The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act it just passes.
We'll wait to see if it has more of an impact, but my concern is that the state can point to the act as evidence that they are thoughtful about the criminalization of survivors and are acting in terms of real reform. This is the same case with Joe Biden with his pardon. He can point to this one pardon in order to justify his claim that he's concerned about the criminalization of survivors of domestic violence, but it's actually an extremely low impact.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What should justice look like for criminalized survivors?
Alisa Bierria: All criminalized survivors should be free. All criminalized survivors should be released. Survived & Punished, our goal is freedom. We believe that freedom is a feminist goal, that freedom is a feminist politics. That is the first step, but we are not doing a great job of supporting survivors. We need to have more housing justice. We need to have more economic justice.
Survivors like the friends and family and communities of survivors need to be trained in supporting survivors so that we can stop punishing survivors in our communities, which makes them more vulnerable to being punished by the criminal legal system. Let's train up friends and family to support survivors before it gets all the way to the point of them having to defend themselves or having to take other kinds of actions that are criminalized that lead them to being incarcerated.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Alisa Bierria is Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender Studies at UCLA and co-founder of Survived & Punished. Thank you for being here.
Alisa Bierria: Thank you.
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