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

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

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.

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 doseek 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. 

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