How Many Women are in Prison for Defending Themselves Against Domestic Violence?

Victoria Law
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Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women

marissa alexander

Marissa Alexander was sentenced to prison after firing a warning shot to protect herself from her abusive husband. Photo courtesy Free Marissa

Last week, domestic violence was front-page news in America as the video of Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice beating his partner circulated online. Sunday morning news shows interviewed domestic violence survivors, social workers at domestic violence agencies, and even police chiefs about their departments' policies around domestic violence calls.

But in all this discussion about the realities of domestic violence, one perspective was clearly left out: the people who are imprisoned for defending themselves against abusers. Where are the stories about how the legal system often punishes abuse survivors for defending themselves, usually after the legal system itself failed to ensure their safety?

Many readers already know the name Marissa Alexander, the Florida mother of three who was arrested for firing a warning shot to dissuade her abusive husband from assaulting her. In 2012, Alexander was found guilty of aggravated assault and was given a 20 year sentence. Her sentencing coincided with the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, drawing wider public attention than she might have received otherwise. People across the country rallied to her defense, organizing fundraisers and teach-ins and bringing media attention to the injustice of her case. Alexander appealed her case and was granted a new trial, which is scheduled to start in December 2014. The prosecutor has said that, this time, she will seek a sixty-year sentence for Alexander if she is convicted again.

While awaiting her new legal ordeal, Marissa Alexander is allowed to be home with two of her three children. (Her estranged husband, the same one who had assaulted her and then called the police on her, has custody of her youngest child.) If it weren't for that outpouring of support nationwide, Marissa Alexander might very well still be in prison on that original twenty-year sentence.

We know Marissa Alexander's name, but there are countless other abuse survivors behind prison walls whose names and stories we do not know. We actually do not know how many women are imprisoned for defending themselves against their abusers. No agency or organization seems to keep track of this information. Prison systems do not. Court systems do not. The U.S. Department of Justice has some data on intimate partner violence, but not about how often this violence is a significant factor in the woman's incarceration. In California, a prison study found that 93 percent of the women who had killed their significant others had been abused by them. That study found that 67 percent of those women reported that they had been attempting to protect themselves or their children when they wound up killing their partner. In New York State, 67 percent of women sent to prison for killing someone close to them were abused by that person. But these are just two specific studies; no governmental agency collects data on how frequently abuse plays a direct role to prison nationwide.

an infograph says that 67% of women in new york prisons who killed someone close to them were abused by that person

This past Sunday morning, an ABC news segment reported that 70 percent of domestic violence calls do not end in prosecution. That story stressed how many abused people choose not to press charges against their loved ones. Not mentioned, however, is how often systems fail to help survivors when they do seek help. Domestic violence survivors have reported that, time and again, they sought help—from family members, from their communities, from domestic violence agencies and from police. Many times, they found that help was unavailable to them. As we collectively wring our hands about domestic violence, shelters for people seeking help remain grossly underfunded. Passing the Violence Against Women Act (which relies heavily on criminalization and arrest, both problematic for women of color and other marginalized people) required a monumental political effort. 

I recently interviewed several domestic violence survivors imprisoned for defending themselves. Each woman reported that she had defended herself only after repeatedly trying to seeking help—unsuccessfully. One woman recalled that police would drive by as her boyfriend beat her on the street. Most of the time, they ignored the violence and continued to drive. When she called the police, they arrived and did nothing. The one time police did arrest her boyfriend, it was not for attacking her, but for having illegal drug paraphernalia. He was held overnight, then allowed to return home to continue his abuse.

Another woman told me that she had called the police on several occasions. Each time, officers simply took her boyfriend out of their apartment, talked with him, and then allowed him to return. The beatings and abuse continued. She filed for and received an order of protection, which he repeatedly violated. She tried calling domestic violence hotlines. One told her that, to receive assistance, she would have to go in person to their organization. Another did not return her phone calls.

A third woman was in an even more precarious situation. Because her abuser was a police officer, she felt that she had nowhere to turn for protection. He repeatedly told her, "You can't call the police. I am the police." When she called a domestic violence hotline, they told her that she was in the worst situation possible; in addition to keeping guns in the house, her husband's profession meant that he could access records to find out where she was even if she did leave. They advised her to start saving money and to keep her important papers in one place in case she ever had to flee.

Why does she stay? Why doesn't she leave? Those questions come up frequently in conversations about domestic violence. They also become key legal questions in self-defense cases. But leaving is often the most dangerous time for people in abusive relationships.

In Sin by Silence, a documentary about survivors incarcerated for defending themselves, sociologist Dr. Elizabeth Leonard explained that a battered woman is 75 percent more at risk of being killed after she leaves. She stays at that increased risk for the next two years. Feeling as if he's losing control, batterers generally increase their level of violence. "Leaving does not stop the violence," states Dr. Leonard, in the film.

Each woman I spoke with told me that it was her life or his. She knew that this last attack was the one in which her loved one was making good on his promise to kill her. "You know that this is the end," one woman told me. "You see it in their eyes that they're going to kill you."

Each woman I spoke with survived that attack. Their abuser did not. But since their stories aren't part of our national discussion on domestic violence, we're not asking how we allow a system that failed them to then re-victimize them when they finally defend themselves.

Related Reading: House of Pain — The Latest Blow Against the Violence Against Women Act.

Victoria Law is a freelance editor and writer. She frequently writes about intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. She enjoys reading dystopic fiction to escape the realities of the U.S. prison system. 

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11 Comments Have Been Posted

For further support for victims of battering charged with crimes

If you or someone you know is a victim/survivor of intimate partner violence charged with (or convicted of) a crime, please contact the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women. As it says on their website, "The National Clearinghouse works with battered women charged with killing their abusers, women who have been coerced into criminal activity, and women who have been charged with a crime as a result of "failing to protect" their children from their batterer's violence and/or abuse." They don't gather statistics like the ones Victoria Law calls for, but they do provide legal backup to criminal defense attorneys to help the survivors she's writing about.

and of course women never

and of course women never lie. if she says she was abused by golly she must have been abused.

I get that you think that

I get that you think that would be an easy as hell way to get an 'excuse' in the event of a woman killing a man, but think you could be a little less of a dick about it? You won't find nearly as many cold blooded killing done by women as it is done by abusive males. Personally I've been on the wrong side of a guy with a habit and a bad temper. It's terrifying and when a woman starts resisting they get more violent to the point it literally is a life or death situation. I've had my collarbone snapped after being worked over like Rocky tendering a rack of lamb. That's a hard bone to break right up there with a femer. It's not going to be something that a woman can make up and have it be 100% compelling. That treatment does horrible things to your psyche that is permanent. If you think this way you're on the same path as the abuser... not the abused. Heaven help whoever you end up with in life.

Innocent until proven guilty =/= not taking a woman seriously.

Okay, suppose a woman does lie about gender-based violence. When we already know that 70% of abusers walk, what does that tell you? It means that regardless of the actual truth the scale is already tipped against her pretty astronomically. Now imagine that a criminal case does get brought up against this non-abuser. The chances of that person getting convicted are so low (about 3% in cases of rape, which in my experience as a front line activist DV is frequently accompanied by rape) that the amount of evidence said woman would have to provide to prove her lie is outrageous. But here is the thing--while I don't doubt there have to be some innocent people in prison for these crimes, that amount is low and astoundingly hard to prove beyond reasonable doubt. Yes it's unfair, and unjust, and the world should be pissed off.

But that doesn't mean women, and anyone else who reports abuse, shouldn't be taken seriously. It doesn't mean that you assume that they are lying, nor does it mean you assume that the alleged abuser is guilty. It means you get the survivor out of that situation as best and as fast as you/she can. Once both people are at a safe distance from each other we can get into the politics and ethics of what went down. If one party gets a couple nights in jail that is not the end of the world, and if found innocent, can sue for damages or whatever if he or she feels it is really necessary.

The key is that when someone is reporting DV they are generally doing so to try to protect themselves and/or their children. Give protection when it is asked for, treat the allegation seriously, and see where it takes you. Because regardless if there was physical or sexual abuse happening, it's apparent that the couple in question at the very least need to take a break and cool off at a safe distance. We as a society should be able to give that much.

Where can I watch Sin by Silence?

Does anyone know where I can watch that documentary, Sin by Silence?

I see that this is an older

I see that this is an older article/question. But, just in case you have not located the "Sin in Silence" documentary, go to YouTube and type the words in the search box. It's very enlightening.

I dunno, how many men are in

I dunno, how many men are in prison because they called the cops on their abusive wives/girlfriends, and got arrested themselves? Thanks VAWA!


Thanks to VAWA, the rate of male homicide victims by abusive partners has dropped 57%. For women, 36%. So yes, you ought to be thankful for the VAWA if you care about men.

How Many Women are in Prison for Defending Themselves Against Do

Not only are women being imprisoned for fighting back against their assailant, but they are also being failed by the Court System when they report abuse and try to protect their children. Marissa Alexander was trying to protect herself and her children. Elsa Newman another Mother from Maryland is serving 12 years of a 20 year sentence for a crime she did not commit. She was in a Custody dispute when the children reported Sexual Abuse by the Father to witnesses, she brought the allegations to court and lost custody of her two boys and was falsely accused of a crime so that she would stop reporting. This event is happening over and over. When mothers report abuse in Family and Dependency Courts, Judges who are often biased or mistrained and fail the 98% of mothers and children who are in danger by believing the myth that mothers lie. Judges continue to make women abide by the Rule of the Father when they separate and Divorce. Domestic Violence Services fail women with children. Once you separate in most states you share custody. Very few Judges are following laws to protect the welfare of victims of Domestic Violence both women and children. Elsa Newman had evidence and witnesses that was disregarded in court. These events are happening in every state across the nation. Some 58,000 Child victims a year are taken from safe mothers and placed with known perpetrators. In Maryland Elsa Newman - In Falsley accused in California Jennifer Green, In NY Falsey Accused Mom, In - Battered women are threatned that if they leave the man with destroy then and take their children and so often the courts help them achieve their goal by rewarding the bully.

As a longtime gun nut, I

As a longtime gun nut, I would be interested to know how many of these women are imprisoned not for defending themselves but for possession of the tool that they used for said defense. The old cliche' of an armed society being a polite society comes to mind. There is nothing more anti woman than oppressive gun laws that ban the woman from owning the tool that truly makes her equal in a life or death situation. Another cliche' that comes to mind is, it is always better to be judged by 12 than carried by six.

Domestic Assault is a serious

Domestic Assault is a serious case. Many people think it as a criminal offense by men against women, but in many reported cases the accused are women and the accusers are men. It is very common for people to side with women, when they hear about the incident. It is also not uncommon to be heard about false allegations of domestic assault in order to gain advantage in related cases like divorce or custody of children. People who could hire good domestic assault lawyers like Kostman & Pyzer Barristers may save themselves from the charges, but in several cases, victims are sent to prison for the crimes they haven’t committed.

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