“The System Abuses Us by Locking Us Up Forever”: Aging Survivors Behind Bars
On October 6, 2016, 15-year-old Bresha Meadows will appear in an Ohio family court for the death of her abusive father. Meadows had spent a lifetime watching her father hit, kick, shove and control her mother. If her mother tried to leave, her father often threatened that he would kill her and their three children.
Meadows had run away twice; each time, police returned her to her parents. On July 28, 2016, using the gun her father often used to threaten his family, the 14-year-old shot him as he slept. She was arrested and is now facing charges of aggravated murder. She spent her 15th birthday in detention. That may not be her only birthday behind bars: The Trumbull County prosecutor has not yet said whether he will charge her in juvenile court or attempt to move her case to adult criminal court. If she is tried and convicted in adult court, she faces life in prison.
Bresha Meadows is only 15-years-old. Her family and supporters around the country are fervently hoping that charges against her will be dropped, allowing her to rejoin her family rather than spend the rest of her life in prison. But what about the countless domestic violence survivors sentenced to lengthy (or life) sentences? What happens as they age behind bars?
Continued Denial of Parole for Domestic Violence Survivors
Another domestic violence survivor who goes by the name “Sissy” spent 11 years in a relationship with a man who shoved her, hit her, chased her, cut her with a knife and even pulled a gun on her. Despite the cycle of violence and apologies, she was still shocked the night he jumped across the coffee table, wrapped his hands around her neck and began to choke her. When he let go, she grabbed his gun and ran out of their apartment. He chased her down the building corridor.
“I was not trying to shoot him,” Sissy, who asked that only her nickname be used to protect the privacy of both families, explained in a letter from prison, “but the gun just started going off and wouldn’t stop. It was like fireworks.” Panicking, she dropped the gun and ran. “I never knew that he was in the range of the gunfire. It’s like I never saw him, I never knew he got hit. As far as I knew, he was still after me.” She turned herself in and, because of the numerous police reports documenting her partner’s abuse, was initially told that nothing would happen. Several days later, however, she was arrested and eventually sentenced to 50 years in an Alabama prison. That was in 2002; Sissy was 48 years old.
In 2014, Sissy turned 60. Instead of planning a birthday celebration with loved ones, she spent the months leading to her birthday fighting for false teeth. The 62-year-old can finally chew food, but encountered another setback — the parole board denied her application.
Sissy is one of approximately 368,000 prisoners over the age of 50, which is considered elderly, given that people in prison age more rapidly than their counterparts in the free world. Between 1995 and 2010, imprisoned people over age 55 quadrupled as those sentenced to lengthy sentences began to gray. By 2030, one-third of the prison population will be considered elderly.
Sissy is also one of 34,000 women currently in state prisons for violent crimes. Of those, more than 10,000 women have been convicted of murder. As Sissy’s story demonstrates, some are survivors of domestic violence whose actions were desperate attempts to defend themselves or their children. But the exact numbers remain unknown; no government agency tracks the number of abuse survivors behind bars. For those imprisoned for acting in self-defense, their chances of parole are frequently hampered by the fact that their convictions are for violent crimes, which parole boards often hold against them.
Read the full article by Vikki Law here.
Learn more about the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA) and the Campaign to get the law passed in New York State.
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