Article in Frontiers of Justice Vol II:

Coddling or Common Sense?

Finding Self-Respect for Battered Women

E-Mail   by Marcia Bunney   Bio/Address

"The subject of past abuse emerges frequently in recovery programs, yet it is basically overlooked in most curricula. Clearly, domestic violence in an inmate's background, whether experienced as a child or during adulthood, results in long lasting damage that needs to be addressed. For many survivors it may be at the root of many socially maladaptive behaviors.

More than two decades ago, books such as Del Martin's Battered Wives began to focus public attention on the issue of domestic violence. The body of related literature amassed in the ensuing years contains little, however, which directly addresses the concerns of incarcerated victims of abuse: battered women in prison.

Controversy has long surrounded the issues of abuse and victimization, particularly as applied to those who break the law, and most especially to women who commit crimes under the duress of abuse, or who kill or assault the men who abuse them. Our criminal justice system is engaged in a continuing struggle to balance compassion for the abused against a visceral fear that acknowledgment of reduced culpability sends the wrong message to offenders.

The correlation between domestic violence and women's criminal conduct is demonstrated in numerous studies. Statistics indicate that as many as 88 percent of women in prison today have been victims of domestic violence and sexual or physical abuse prior to their incarceration, either as children or adults.' Violent offenders in particular were determined to have been victims of physical or sexual abuse prior to incarceration. This abuse, according to researchers, "was likely to be at the hands of their husbands or boyfriends."' This correlation is particularly important in rendering in-custody assistance to battered women who have killed or assaulted their abusers.

It is exceedingly difficult for the average person to understand the daunting challenges faced by abused women in prison.

Prison administrators and guards, like the public, often err in assuming that "domestic violence" is an exclusively physical phenomenon. Experts in family violence, on the other hand, urge that physical violence is but one factor, albeit the most readily perceived by the average layperson. Battered women frequently report to researchers and therapists that "the psychological harm is much more significant than the physical harm."' The psychological effects of battering are numerous, including depression, anxiety, insecurity, and suicidal thoughts.' The development and nurturing of self-esteem in these women is thus absolutely vital in motivating them toward, then sustaining them through, recovery.

Typically, a woman who is convicted of killing/assaulting her abuser arrives in prison in an utterly debilitated state, suffering not only the physical and emotional effects of jail confinement-often, of several years' duration in murder cases or the terrible grief and disorientation resulting from having committed a violent act against the man she loved.

The majority of women convicted of such offenses have no criminal record, no history of violence. In many cases, a woman has been intimidated by attorneys who use the threat of the death penalty to induce her to accept a plea bargain, or forego her right to a trial by jury. Engulfed in remorse, paralyzed by fear, and convinced of her utter worthlessness in the face of the State's apparent willingness to kill her for having fought back against her abuser, she is likely to capitulate and enter a plea of guilty, just to get the process over with.

Having thus condemned herself in every sense, it is extremely difficult for her to focus inward to activate her survival instinct, and make the best of her lot in prison. The reserves of strength and determination that enabled her to survive abuse are the key to her healing and her survival in prison. Yet, while a woman remains immobilized by the combination of her own emotions and memories, amplified by the inescapable fact of her imprisonment as "proof of her failure as a human being, she is unable to help herself. She is, in her own eyes, unworthy of the effort to save herself, totally at fault for everything that has happened to her-just as her abuser always told her she was. As long as she continues to think and feel this way, it is as though he is still alive, still abusing her, still in control.

This, their, is the starting point for battered women sent to prison as punishment-punishment for striking back to save themselves and their children, for breaking under the pressure of more threats, more beatings, more sexual abuse in the guise of conjugal relations. It is the purpose of the prison's battered women's group to assist these women in their efforts to overcome the effects of combined negative messages, to cope affirmatively as survivors rather than victims, and to foster the growth that will enable them to avoid violence in future relationships.

Among California's five state prison facilities housing female offenders, two currently operate self-help/support groups for battered women: the California Institution for Women (CIW), and the Central California Women's Facility (CCWF). Initiated by the women themselves, then formally implemented through administrative proposals, each group functions under the combined supervision of prison staff and counselor-facilitators from a local battered women'.% shelter/support agency.

An auxiliary function of the groups is the presentation of informal workshops on domestic violence. Conducted on a voluntary basis by senior group members, these loosely-structured dialogues occur within the framework of other self-help/motivational prison programs, such as Substance Abuse, Parenting, and PreRelease. Each inmate facilitator is free to draw upon her own experience for anecdotes to stimulate the interest and involvement of the class. Hand-out literature and short videos provide more detailed information and reinforce the speaker's message.

Experts in family violence recognize the unique value of peer input and support in a battered woman's long, painful, and often frightening odyssey through recovery. Abused women themselves say that the most effective assistance they receive comes from groups and shelters utilizing the input and presence of women who have experienced domestic violence.' In the prison setting, this inmate-to-inmate approach is acknowledged as a major strength and source of effectiveness for self-help groups,' as it encourages a degree of sharing, frankness, and insight not generally achieved by more traditional methods and exercises.

New members of the group receive an extensive orientation regarding basic aspects of domestic violence, including identifying and understanding the emotion s related to their histories. Gradually, they explore constructive means of emotional expression appropriate to the peculiarities of the prison environment.

In the process of their recovery, senior group members have developed personal strategies for healing, particularly those of us who came to prison during the years preceding a more general recognition of the scope and dynamics of domestic violence. In these early years, a woman convicted of killing an abusive mate was treated as nothing more than a vicious criminal. She was no different, in the system, than a gang member involved in a drive-by shooting, or a drug dealer who executed a competitor. Although she, too, was a victim, it was as though her victimization was nullified by her criminal conduct and resulting conviction. While many correctional entities, including the parole board, continue to view us this way, some are beginning to acknowledge the critical importance of recognizing and validating the grief and other emotions of women who have attacked, even killed, their abusers.

The prison environment, however, is not conducive to self-assertion; most expressions of personality are viewed as tantamount to criminal offenses, and making decisions is considered a luxury.' Women prisoners frequently say that prison staff encourage them to focus on the positive aspects of their situation, to forget about their depression, to stay out of trouble. The prevailing attitude is that remaining silent about their feelings will make them go away. In the community, depression is treated as a natural response to loss; in prison, it is viewed as inappropriate behavior rather than a valid response.' Expression of this grief, as well as the anger and depression likely to follow without counseling and support specific to their needs, is likely to be interpreted as a lack of self-control." Left to themselves, they are at risk, and some eventually do lose control. Typically, the response of the system is punitive; the women are designated "management problems," caught up in an endless cycle of disturbances and segregation placement. This, unfortunately, has the effect of exacerbating prisoners' difficulties while adding to the burdens on prison personnel; it is a sad and unnecessary misuse of resources.

Any battered woman in recovery travels along a fine line between awareness of her victimization and the compelling necessity to proceed with her life, a victim no more. This line is even more finely drawn in prison, where the microcosmic culture itself can be a tremendous obstacle to true healing.

For many battered women confined in prison, the physical abuse, emotional manipulation, and terror we suffered at the hands of our abusers is far from over. The inherent brutality and abusiveness prevalent in California's prisons spawn high levels of stress and physical violence, posing a serious threat to the health and safety of all, and creating a cruel irony for battered women. Thus, although we are physically removed from the presence of those who abused us prior to our commitment to prison, conditions within the institution continually re-invoke these experiences, often with devastating results.

If a woman is being beaten or emotionally tormented by another prisoner in her dorm, for example, a typical staff response is, "Deal with it," or an offer to move her to another dorm. Being moved fosters the impression that she, not the abusive other, is the problem-a parallel to situations in which women have been forced to abandon their homes in order to escape abuse. Generally, assaults occur unpredictably and infrequently, the woman "hurt just enough to 'keep her in her place...... The relatively minor effects of such violence do not mean that its overall effect is insignificant; in fact, "the psychological and social effects of the violence can be very great, even when the physical damage is minuscule."''

Employing my own history as an example, the sole disciplinary offense on my prison record-which was clear for the first eleven years of my incarceration stems from such a situation. Despite my repeated verbal complaints, pleas for help, and written grievances submitted according to procedure, I was forced to remain in that dorm until I was attacked, and was subsequently placed in segregation housing. I was given a disciplinary report because my behavior-complaining about the abuse-had ostensibly caused the attack. In reality, having "made my bed" by coming to prison in the first place, I was expected to "lie in it" by virtue of my silence, and was indirectly punished for my refusal to do so. In the ensuing five years, placement in similar situations has continued. I was last attacked in June 1997, by a roommate known to be violent: she had battered another woman in our dorm less than two months prior to her attack on me, and in that case, the victim, not the abuser, was moved.

My experience of violence and abuse in the confines of this particular prison is not merely a personal phenomenon. Rather, it is representative of other incidents in the same vein. It is symptomatic of a continuing refusal to deal with serious problems at root level, a failure to operate from a preventive, rather than remedial, philosophical base. One member of our group described it thus: "Living in the average dorm at CCWF is like living with seven abusive husbands."

Incarcerated battered women who receive the education and support available through groups learn to cope with the dynamics of interaction with personnel in the prison setting, and minimize detrimental interaction with their sister prisoners. Most importantly for re-integration into society, they acquire knowledge and develop resources, both internal and external, which will enable them to take a pro-active position in dealing with an abusive mate, or recognize-and avoid-a potential barterer. They learn the importance of seeking help before things go too far, as well as safe methods of involving the appropriate agencies. They team to stop the violence-a goal which benefits the women, their families, and their respective communities. The woman who develops an awareness of the shadow presence of abuse possesses an invaluable tool for directing and accomplishing her recovery, overcoming her self-image as a victim, and rejoining society as a responsible and empowered citizen.

The paramount needs of incarcerated battered women are safety and means of exercising self-assertion in a constructive fashion. It should be obvious that it is difficult at best to achieve true healing while abuse is permitted to continue, even encouraged in some cases. The fostering of dependency and maintenance of a climate in which abuse can continue to occur virtually unabated is not merely cruelly ironic; it reinforces the very role we women are striving to escape.

Self-help/support groups for incarcerated battered women are thus an effective and increasingly important means of promoting valid correctional goals, while affirmatively confronting an uncomfortable truth: the prevalence of domestic violence.

Marcia Bunney is a California prisoner, sentenced to 25 years to life for the shooting death of her abusive lover. Incarcerated for 16 years, she has been active in the formation of two self-help groups for battered women, at the California Institution for Women and the Central California Women's Facility, where she also facilitates domestic violence workshops for prisoner-,. She has earned her A.A. Degree while in custody, and is exploring means to continue her formal education, emphasizing the areas of journalism and law. Her work has been produced in various media, including workshop literature distributed at the U.N. World Conference on Women (Huairou, China, 1995) and articles/essays appearing on the Internet. She serves on the advisory Boards of the National Network for women in Prison and Catholic Charities' HIV/AIDS in Prison Project, and is an elected member of the National Steering Committee of the National Lawyers Guild Prison Law Project.

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