Content warning: This article contains references to sexual assault and abuse.
When a woman is in a violent situation, especially one in which she fears for her life, she should be able to defend herself without criminalization.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for Cyntoia Brown, Keiana Aldrich and Chrystul Kizer, who were convicted for defending themselves while being sex trafficked; and Nan Hui-Jo, Bresha Meadows, Charisse Shumate and Marissa Alexander, who were incarcerated for defending themselves against domestic violence. These are some names among the many more other women who were convicted over the years for trying to survive a violent set of circumstances.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, women are the fastest growing incarcerated population in the United States, and this population has been increasing at twice the rate of male incarceration over the last three decades. Additionally, the ACLU reported that 92% of all women in California prisons have been abused in their lifetimes.
The World Health Organization announced that one in three women globally experience physical or sexual violence during their lifetime. Severe and life-threatening violence against women is increasingly prevalent in our society, and when 40-80% of women convicted of murder acted in self-defense against their abusers, society should start to reflect on the way that victims of abuse or violence are being criminalized for surviving.
Survivors of sex trafficking and domestic abuse may face unstable and dangerous living situations after being coerced or groomed into criminal activity or facing violence, and many face the challenges of having to protect their children’s lives and defend themselves against life-threatening situations.
Marissa Alexander endured three years of incarceration and two years in house arrest for firing a warning shot to defend her life from her abusive husband, who had threatened to kill her in 2012, nine days after giving birth to her premature daughter. Although Alexander’s husband had been arrested twice for domestic violence, hospitalized her and admitted his role as an aggressor, Alexander was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Even though she did not have a previous criminal record and had not harmed anybody, Alexander was not given protection under the “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law. Alexander was freed in 2017 after launching a campaign to educate communities on the intersections of domestic violence and criminalization and has since become an activist against the criminalization of women.
It was a similar grassroots organizing effort which freed Alexander that also attracted enough attention to pay Chrystul Kizer’s $400,000 bail after she spent two years in jail awaiting trial for defending herself against a man twice her age who had sexually abused her. Kizer, who was 17 years old when she was arrested, says that Randall Volar had pinned her on the floor after she rejected sex from him, and she shot him in self defense. Before Kizer had acted in defense of herself, Volar had been under investigation for child pornography and sex trafficking.
An important factor in winning Alexander and Kizer’s freedom was community awareness and engagement, which is the most effective aspect in reforming any system. The Free Marissa Now Mobilization Campaign was an activist-run platform that engaged in community outreach, organized resources, published educational materials and produced opportunities for action. They worked in collaboration with Alexander and her mother until she was freed five years later. Additionally, the Chrystul Kizer Defense Committee played a large role in spreading awareness and promoting community advocacy in order to raise the funds needed to bail Kizer out of jail; they are still encouraging fundraising efforts in order to help Chrystul pay living and transportation costs.
When criminal justice and court officials choose to criminalize a woman defending herself, a miscarriage of justice occurs. Women who have survived violence deserve to be met with resources, not handcuffs.
For some women, being sent to prison for surviving can end up being a death sentence in itself. The California Coalition for Women Prisoners, a grassroots social justice organization, was founded in 1995 to join the fight for better prison healthcare after Clarisse Shumate and other incarcerated women filed Shumate v. Wilson, a case against the medical neglect of incarcerated women. Shumate had been given a life sentence for defending herself against her abusive boyfriend, yet she only served 16 years after her body slowly deteriorated from sickle cell anemia, cancer and hepatitis C, and was not given proper medical treatment or attention. After she died in 2001, CCWP continues to advocate for social justice and the abolition of the prison industrial complex.
The criminalization of the survival of women who have experienced violence comes at a very high and human cost. It is very immoral and unethical to cast victims of violence out of society and add to their trauma. Many women wrongfully spend years of their life incarcerated after being convicted by the same officials who were supposed to protect them and give them justice. There is a need for reckoning to increase transparency and accountability in the criminal justice system.
As a community, we do not need a uniform or badge to make a difference — we can conduct grassroots campaigns to promote fundraisers, awareness, protests and collective action, just as volunteer groups have done to help Alexander, Kizer and many others win their freedom. Groups such as CCWP are informative and accessible ways to stay engaged in advocating for social justice and incarcerated women. At USC, the Human Trafficking Awareness Club’s mission is to promote community awareness of human trafficking and related issues in Los Angeles and the surrounding area. By engaging ourselves and others, we can all do our part to protect the rights of women and end criminalization of survival in violent situations.
As the nonprofit organization Survived + Punished says: “Defund prisons. Defend survivors!”
Victoria Valenzuela is a junior writing about criminal justice and prison reform and policies. Her column, “Breaking Out,” runs every other Thursday.