When Battered Women Are Punished With Prison

Incarcerated women are often victims of physical and sexual abuse before they wind up behind bars.

Tanya Mitchell. (Photo: 'The Perfect Victim'/Facebook)

Sep 24, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Years after she killed Jimmy, Tanya Mitchell continued to dream of her abusive husband. Though the two-decade nightmare of beatings and threats to family and friends who tried to protect her ended with his death, she went from feeling like a captive to a terrible relationship to doing time in a Missouri state prison. When she first went to prison in 2002 after being charged with second-degree murder, she stripped the sheets she brought from home off her bed every morning, folded them up, and stored them in the locker in her prison cell. “I’m just camping out here. I’m not staying,” 53-year-old Mitchell recalls saying to her cell mate.

Eleven years later, Mitchell was released from prison after being granted clemency in 2013 with the aid of legal advocates from the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence.

Though women commit murder far less often than men, they typically receive longer sentences for killing their male partners than do men who kill female partners, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. While these women average 15-year sentences, men’s sentences are between two and six years. Roughly 90 percent of women behind bars for killing men were physically abused by their victims, according to the Purple Berets, a California-based organization that advocates for equal justice for women. Part of the disparity in sentence lengths has to do with women being more likely to kill with weapons, bringing harsher sentences than a homicide caused by beating or strangulation might.

“For a lot of women who do ultimately kill their abusive partners, it’s a last-gasp effort,” Robert Knechtel, chief operating officer of the Arizona-based Sojourner Center, one of the largest domestic violence shelters in the country, told TakePart. “Many women at the shelter don’t have the financial means to move out of the state and have an either neutral or negative relationship with the police.”

One domestic violence shelter that Mitchell sought refuge in told her she had to go elsewhere, after Jimmy and his friends repeatedly threatened it. Her husband’s ties to local law enforcement, she said, made it impossible for her to seek help and left her feeling like she had no legal recourse.

“Oh lord, I couldn’t even count how many times I tried to leave,” Mitchell told TakePart in a telephone interview. “Sometimes I’d be gone for days, sometimes months, but he’d always find me.”

Many battered women are afraid to call the police because a domestic-disturbance drop-in can escalate a dangerous situation. Even a protective order from a court offers little aid: “It’s just a piece of paper, really. It’s not going to stop a bullet,” Knechtel said. When battered women do call the police, it doesn’t always help. Studies have found that in 85 percent of domestic homicide cases, police were called by the abused woman at least once before the killing occurred, while in half they were called at least five times, according to a study conducted in Detroit and Kansas City by the Police Foundation.

Mitchell describes her relationship with her husband, who rode a motorcycle into her life when she was just 19, as either “really good or really bad.” She had fallen into an abusive relationship, punctuated by beatings and drug use, that she would spend the next 20 years trying to escape. “Even from the get-go, he was mean,” Mitchell told TakePart. “But for the first 10 years, when he beat on me, I fought back. I didn’t realize I was in a dysfunctional relationship.”

When friends started moving on to more functional relationships and calmer lives, Mitchell wanted a change too. Friends and coworkers helped her secretly photograph and document the bruises and wounds from Jimmy’s beatings so she would have evidence against him.

The plight of battered women in prison came to light again this week when Tondalo Hall, an Oklahoma woman serving 30 years in prison for failing to prevent her abusive boyfriend from hurting her children, requested to have her sentence shortened and was denied by the parole board. A BuzzFeed News investigation found that while Hall was also repeatedly abused by her boyfriend throughout their relationship, he received only a two-year sentence after admitting to beating their two children. Hall pleaded guilty and was convicted of multiple counts of permitting child abuse in 2007 after bringing her 20-month-old to the hospital when she noticed his leg was swollen.

Tondalo Hall. (Photo: Courtesy Oklahoma Department
of Corrections)

Hall’s case is another example of the way women who are abused can wind up serving longer sentences than their abusers when both parties survive. Hall is one of 28 women in 11 states who are serving 10 or more years for failing to protect their children from abusive partners or family members, BuzzFeed News found.

It is difficult to track the number of women in prison for killing their abusers because abuses are not always raised as part of a woman’s defense strategy, and no federal agency tracks the number of women sentenced for murder who were abused by their victims, according to the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women. Two state-specific studies, in California and New York, show that the majority of women incarcerated for killing significant others had been abused by them: 93 percent in California and 67 percent in New York.

Mitchell wasn’t alone in her situation in Missouri—at least eight or nine other women had similar convictions for killing their abusive partners, and they often discussed their entanglements with the criminal justice system. She is featured in a film called The Perfect Victim, released in 2013, that chronicles her story along with those of three other women convicted of killing their abusive husbands in Missouri. The four have collectively spent more than 85 years in prison. The film captures a slice of the nationwide crisis involving a justice system that struggles to help battered women and often ends up punishing them when they’re pushed to the last resort.

She wants other women to know that there is life after abuse.

“You just have to get out,” Mitchell said. “You’re either going to wind up dead or you’ll go to prison.”

As increasing attention is paid to America’s booming prison population, experts are sifting through which segments of the population don’t pose a threat to public safety and should potentially be released.

Though the majority of women in prison are there for nonviolent crimes such as drug offenses, analyses of state and federal women’s prison populations estimates that as many as 4,500 women may be doing time for killing abusive male partners. The murder of an abusive partner is often a woman’s first offense, and for women who have prior offenses, they tend to be nonviolent. In one California study, the most common prior arrests for women convicted of homicide were motor vehicle violations.

“People sometimes don’t understand that in the vast majority of cases in which victims of battering use force against their abusive partners, they do so in a confrontational situation in which they have to act immediately to protect themselves or their children,” Dot Goldberger, a member of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, told TakePart. “They don’t just snap out of the blue.”