Survivors' Stories

These are a few of the many stories behind the statistics. We demand immediate freedom for these survivors, and for all criminalized survivors of gender violence!

Valerie Seeley

Valerie Seeley is the only survivor of gender violence who has had her sentence commuted by Governor Cuomo. We demand the same for the other women whose stories are below! Listen to Valerie describe her experience in her own words.

Darlene Benson-Seay

Though she didn’t do it, Darlene Benson-Seay is incarcerated for killing her boyfriend, Ronnie, who abused her violently for years. He’d fallen into debt to two drug dealers, who came to collect one night—knocking Darlene out and stabbing Ron. After Darlene called 911 and tried to help Ron survive, she was charged with his murder.

Darlene had come from an impossible difficult background. She experienced abuse – sexual, physical, and emotional – by her grandfather, brothers, and boyfriends. As a child, Darlene was hit in the head so hard it left her comatose for three days. She was raped and held captive by a police officer. Her father lined Darlene and her siblings up against a wall as if planning to shoot them execution-style. When Darlene was eight years old, she lost her mother, who was stabbed to death while pregnant. Afterward, Darlene raised her younger brothers and sisters.

Darlene continued to suffer abuse as an adult, inflicted by boyfriends and neighbors. In a couple instances, she used a knife to defend herself. She met her partner, Ron, at AA and they dated on and off for 15 years. She enjoyed their relationship for the first decade, but then Ron reconnected with an old friend; he started doing drugs and became violent. Darlene found herself fighting him off every other day. She was in no shape to move because she was thrown down the stairs. He cut her and threw knives are her. Once, Darlene stabbed Ron in the foot to stop him from attacking her. She called the police repeatedly, but eventually they began threatening to arrest Darlene too—so she stopped calling. Darlene did what she could. She took long walks to give herself and Ron a cooling-down period. She would go away and stay with her family. She suffered two strokes because of the abuse.

Ron not only beat her—he fought with his old friend and another man, to whom Ron owed money for drugs. In 2012, Ron was being pursued for the money and Darlene couldn’t take it anymore, and started packing to leave. She was worried the men, who’d historically used gruesome violence to collect their debts from Ron, would hurt her too. As she and Ron fought over her plans, the med showed up and knocked Darlene unconscious; she woke up to find Ron had been stabbed. Ron’s eyes were open and he seemed to gesture for Darlene to take the knife out of his chest, in order to help him. She did and put pressure on the wound and called to her brother, who lived downstairs, to call 911 because she had no phone.

Darlene was told by police that she didn’t need a lawyer. Confused and traumatized when they asked if she’d stabbed Ron, she said yes—referring to a time years prior when she’d stabbed him in his foot in self-defense. This hurt her case at trial, and so did her ineffective counsel, who put Darlene on the stand despite her insistence she wasn’t in the right mental state. She felt coerced into a plea deal for manslaughter. She says she would never kill anyone—after the trauma and grief of her mother’s murder, she knows acutely what it’s like to lose someone. Darlene is strong after so many years of abuse, but she’s still incensed at the plain injustice of her incarceration.

Kelly Forbes

In 2001, Kelly Forbes immigrated from her native Trinidad with her young daughter to Brooklyn. She was a single parent with a history of trauma, and wanted to be near her family. She married Michael one year after meeting him in the doctor’s office where she worked as a medical assistant. She was 28, he was 48. After enduring several months of abuse, he was killed during an altercation in which she defended herself as he tried to choke her. Imprisoned since 2007, she has served eleven years of a 21 year sentence for his death.

Initially Kelly rejected Michael’s advances because they were very aggressive, and because of his age. After two months, she gave in, and they got married in 2007, the following year. Her thinking at the time was that she was better off married with a safe and stable home for her daughter. Supposedly he owned a barbershop, but she really knew very little about him.

After the wedding, Michael “surprised” Kelly with an enormous house in Merrick, NY (Long Island), where she had no desire to live. It was a very long commute to work, her daughter had to be placed in a new school, and she was completely isolated from her family. She felt that he was trying to control her every move. He didn’t want her to work and he didn’t want her to spend time with her daughter. He often fired the babysitters that she had to hire to look after her daughter after school until she arrived home from work. Then she would have to take the day off the next day, endangering her employment status. He began to abuse her emotionally, mentally and physically, telling her not to go see her brothers, because “he had enemies in Brooklyn.”

They argued constantly, and he started hitting her on a regular basis. At one point he almost pushed her down a flight of stairs, which her daughter witnessed. She called his parents, so they knew what was going on. She told him she wanted a divorce and he said “You’re never leaving me”. He started drinking heavily, which in combination with his health issues, his weight, and smoking, added to her concerns.

On Thanksgiving eve in 2007, they got into an argument about how much time she spent with her daughter. Kelly promised to talk to him after putting her daughter to bed. Michael was furious and forced her to sleep in another bedroom. She woke up and saw his hands coming toward her as he wrapped an electrical cord around her neck. She thought she was going to die. In the midst of a struggle, she managed to get the cord around his neck and pulled. He died from the injuries sustained. She remembers little from that night. She called a friend and then called 911. She was questioned for over 30 hours during which time she was not allowed a phone call, and she was told that he was still alive. A relative who knew about his prior abuse of his first wife said they would testify at trial but then changed their mind. Initially they tried to indict her for murder but had so little evidence they had to let her go. The second time, the charge was second degree manslaughter. Michael’s past convictions for rape and burglary came to light, but unfortunately the jury was not swayed. They deliberated for 3 hours, before convicting her. Having served more than half her sentence, Kelly just wants to go home to her daughter, who now lives with her parents in Trinidad. When she moved to this country it was to make a better life for herself and her daughter. She could not have imagined it ending this way.

Theresa Debo

Theresa Debo has survived a lifetime of horrific abuse. Now 14 years into a 22-years-to-life sentence for second degree murder, Theresa will turn 62 in November 2018. Unless Governor Cuomo grants clemency, she will remain in prison until she is at least 70 years old.

From early childhood, Theresa suffered severe physical abuse by her birth mother and sexual abuse by an uncle. After the state finally removed Theresa from that home, she was adopted into a loving family. However, her childhood trauma continued to haunt her and she became involved in a series of classically abusive relationships.

At age 45 Theresa began dating Richard. Initially he was “sweet as pie,” but soon he began drinking excessively and controlling what Theresa wore, where she could go, and whether she could see her family. When Theresa moved in with him, he demanded she quit her job to “take care of the house,” “have dinner on the table,” and “have his drink ready when he got home.” He threatened to kill both Theresa and her family if she disobeyed him -- and with four guns in the home, Theresa absolutely believed him. He called home constantly to ensure Theresa never left on her own. He began beating her anytime she fell short of his expectations. Theresa “learned” how to avoid a beating by doing everything exactly as he ordered it. After Theresa had back surgery and was on bed rest, he demanded she still clean, cook, and submit to sex. When she started receiving disability payments, Richard stole her checks. Richard completely controlled of every aspect of her life.

One night, about three years into their relationship, Richard and Theresa were arguing when he became violent. He slammed Theresa against the wall, hit her in the head with a beer bottle, and, terrifyingly, pulled a 44 magnum handgun out of the dresser. He had threatened her life so many times and now it seemed he was really going to kill her. She tried to run but he caught her, still holding the gun. Theresa screamed and pushed him away with all her strength. Richard fell back against the couch and dropped the gun. Desperate and afraid, she grabbed it before he could and shot him.

After shooting Richard, Theresa was in shock and “lost more than three hours.” She was taken to the police station, where she initially told police that someone broke in, beat her, and then shot Richard. She made up the story because she was terrified of the criminal justice system and ashamed to admit that she had let Richard hurt and control her for so long.

Prior to trial Theresa was offered a plea bargain of 13 years in prison. If she had taken it, she would be home today. However, she was overwhelmed by the complexities of an unfamiliar criminal justice system and didn’t understand what the deal meant or what the consequences might be if she didn’t accept it. None of the domestic violence was admitted into evidence at trial -- like so many survivors, she never reported it. The district attorney told the jury that Theresa shot Richard while he slept, which was simply untrue and unproven.

Theresa has accomplished much since being incarcerated. She trained service dogs in the Puppies Behind Bars program for 8 years, and is a certified Hospice Aide in the prison Regional Medical Unit. She volunteers in the long-term care unit, facilitates the Alternatives to Violence program, and works in the law library. Through her participation in the Family Domestic Violence Program, Alternatives to Violence Program, and Spousal Violence program, Theresa has gained insight into cycles of domestic violence and how to end them. She has lived in the prison’s “honor cottage” for four years.

The love and support of Theresa’s adoptive family has helped keep her going throughout her incarceration. She hopes to be granted clemency so she can be with her elderly adoptive parents and help her siblings care for them while she still can.

Connie Leung

When Connie Leung met Eric, a high school senior to her sophomore, she was dating another girl at her school. But she was frightened to be out about her sexuality; so she and Eric decided he would pretend to be her boyfriend to give her cover. The cover-up relationship was brief and childlike, transitioning quickly into friendship. But it was always clear to Connie Eric wanted more. Connie didn’t know it then, but that fake relationship would initiate years of lying, manipulation, and coercion that would ultimately land her in prison at age 17 for the murder of her parents, which she did not commit.

Connie was the youngest of many siblings, and had to work hard for her parents’ love. Connie’s parents physically abused her. As friends, she and Eric supported each other in dealing with their family dynamics. When Eric told Connie that his father kicked him out, Connie helped him find places to stay and offered moral support.

It slowly became clear that Eric wasn’t the boy Connie thought he was. Eric told Connie that he’d enrolled at New York University. She learned, too, he’d lied about enrolling in NYU, and lied about the reason his family kicked him out. She felt her sense of reality start to crumble.

Connie began losing friends—Eric had been threatening them into keeping their distance. She became increasingly isolated from anyone but Eric. He would hang around her school looking for her, and would attempt to walk her home at the end of every day. Connie started skipping class at the end of the day to avoid him. But her efforts to protect herself started to have negative consequences on her academic standing, which Connie was determined to remedy.

One day, when meeting with a guidance counselor to talk about how she could improve her grades. The counselor told her Eric hadn’t just lied about NYU—he hadn’t even graduated high school. This was the last straw. Connie was suddenly overwhelmed with fear and horror, reaching her breaking point with the extent of his dishonesty and manipulation. She called her father in a panic to ask him to pick her up. Showing up at school, he persuaded her to stay for the rest of the day and left.

Eric ran into her father as he was leaving the school. They got into a fight. Later in the day, Eric caught up to Connie, and told her of the fight. She convinced him to go apologize. If he didn’t, Connie knew, her parents would likely beat her later, blaming her for the fight. He agreed, and they went to her house, where, instead of apologizing, Eric jumped on her father, killing him. He killed Connie’s mother, too, when she came home an hour later. Overcome with panic, horror, and shock, she desperately told Eric she’d do anything if he spared her brother, who she knew would be coming home soon too. She helped him hide her parents’ bodies.

After several years at Rikers Island, Connie pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. She accepted the deal at the urging of her lawyer. The lawyer didn’t tell her she’d have to state in court that she’d killed her parents. Connie had an excruciating time saying it—she hadn’t killed them, though she feels tremendous guilt over their deaths. Arrested at 17, she’s now spent 18 years, more than half her life, behind bars.

Brenda Hartman

Brenda Hartman once wondered, “Do I have ‘Please abuse me’ written on my forehead?” Brenda grew up in a small town where everybody knew her family. She also grew up knowing everything about abuse: she witnessed both her father and her brothers perpetrate abuse, and witnessed her mother and her sister Mary, one of the people Brenda felt closest to, suffer from abuse. She sometimes thought she and Mary were the only people who could understand what each other was going through. Mary’s death, at 39 from a stroke triggered by her husband beating her, was one of the most tragic things Brenda says ever happened to her. In short, she grew up understanding love as being subjected to violence and manipulation.

As an adult Brenda went through a series of relationships in which she experienced unrelenting emotional and physical trauma, all leading to the incident for which she’s incarcerated: stabbing her longtime abuser in self-defense. Brenda has been in prison for the past 12 years, serving a sentence of 20 years.

Brenda’s first abusive relationship was with her first husband, whom she married at 18. From one partner to another, she experienced horrific waves of violence: Brenda was whipped with coat hangers, burned with cigarettes, was tied up and knocked unconscious , and lost one of her pregnancies as a result of a beating. The partner Brenda was convicted of killing broke her nose more than once, causing permanent sinus damage, broke her leg in two places, and would throw things at her. She’d sometimes wake to find him standing over her with a knife. He would degrade her, often telling her she should kill herself, that she was worthless, and would dump cans of beer on her head. Brenda feared every day, not just for her life, but for her three children, who were constantly forced to witness the violence. Frequent hospital visits, 911 calls, and orders of protection did nothing to help.

The night Brenda killed her husband wasn’t unusual—he was drunk, spitting in Brenda’s face, and throwing her around. For the first time Brenda, who is shy and quiet by nature, fought back: she put a knife against into his back meaning to threaten him, to convince him never to hit her again. When he shifted his body in surprise, the knife pierced his skin.

Brenda met her public defender only three times, once just a half hour before her trial began. In court, her attorney didn’t mention Brenda’s history of abuse in childhood and in her relationships, and disregarded assistance offered by domestic violence organizations. Before her second trial Brenda asked for a change in location, due to the case’s notoriety and her family’s reputation; she was denied, then convicted of manslaughter, assault, and criminal possession of a weapon.

In prison, Brenda is in distress. She suffers from PTSD and Battered Woman Syndrome, still has nightmares of her abuse, and gets scared by loud noises. However, she isn’t receiving the mental health care she needs. Two years ago Brenda applied for clemency from the governor’s office. She’s still waiting.

Laura Martin

Laura Martin is serving a 20-year sentence for killing her father, a man who had physically and sexually abused her since childhood and who threatened to do the same to her five-year-old daughter.

Throughout her childhood, Laura Martin’s father molested her. No family member ever intervened or even acknowledged the abuse. In response, Laura began drinking at a very early age and, by the age of 13, was struggling with alcoholism and, soon after, cocaine use. When she became pregnant, she decided to go into a residential drug treatment program, where she was living when her baby daughter was born. The two lived in the center for another year and a half while Laura finished treatment and then began to work there as a drug counselor.

Laura had been clean for several years when her father, who was homeless and struggling with alcoholism, asked to stay in her apartment with her and her daughter. His physical abuse resumed. He slammed her face into the sink and she went to work with two black eyes. Though her daughter never saw him hit her, she would hear him yelling at Laura in the next room and say “Grandpa, leave Mom alone.”

One evening in 2004, after he had been drinking and yelling, Laura told her father that he could keep the apartment but that she and her daughter were leaving. “My father threatened to kill me and do to my daughter what he did to me,” Laura recalled. “He came at me with a bottle and I blacked out. When I realized what I did my father was dead.”

She was arrested and sent to Rikers, without bail, for three years. Her lawyer told her that, if she took her chance at trial, she risked being sentenced to 25 years to life for intentional murder. She agreed to a plea bargain and was sentenced to 20 years.

Laura is now 57 years old. She has spent a total of 14 years behind bars and has two years and nine months left on her sentence. Tiffany is 19 years old and about to enter college. The two maintain a loving relationship despite the separation. But in prison, Laura’s health is declining. She suffered from a stroke; when she went to the clinic they gave her Motrin and sent her back. When she finally was taken to the hospital, medical staff found a blood clot in her brain. She has had a number of surgeries on her hands and her leg and has also been diagnosed with high cholesterol. Wth the limited foods available in prison, she has been changing her diet.

Laura has already applied for clemency once in 2013. After five years of silence, she received a form letter informing her that her application had been denied and that she would be eligible to apply again after one year.

In prison, Laura works as a facilitator and mentor in parenting classes and alternatives to violence programming. She is an avid reader and is earning her bachelor’s degree in sociology. Laura is passionate about making people feel welcomed and supported and is eager to get back to work as a drug addiction counselor when she is finally released. She hopes that, with her commutation, that release will come soon.

Cynthia Galens

Cynthia Galens is a survivor of three abusive relationships, including two marriages. The third relationship ended in the death of Kevin Stack, for which she is serving a sentence of 23 years. Cynthia acknowledges that she poisoned Kevin after he had threatened her life and the life of her young daughter. Her intent was for him to be taken to the hospital , so she could make her escape. She expresses tremendous heartfelt remorse for her action which resulted in his death. Cynthia is 60 years old and uses a cane after a knee replacement. She will be eligible for parole in 2030, at the age of 72.

Prior to this incident, Cynthia had never had any contact with the criminal justice system. She grew up in a small town and received an AA degree in graphic arts, and then worked for the Veterans Administration for 29 years. By 2004, she had been married and divorced twice (spanning 23 years) and had two children. Both marriages were characterized by abuse - physical violence in the first one and severe emotional and mental abuse in the second. Cynthia suffered years of abuse, and knew nothing else in domestic relationships. In 2005, she lost her son, then 19, to a drug overdose. She and her daughter, then 14, struggled alone to cope with this unthinkable loss. In her own words, against her better judgment and during a time of extreme dysfunction, she began a relationship with Kevin Stack who was being treated for substance use and psychiatric issues at the VA Hospital where she worked. She invited him into their lives and their home. Kevin physically, verbally, and emotionally abused her 14 year old daughter. She did what any mother would do -- go to any length to protect her child's life, after he told her “I’m going to show your daughter what it feels like to be hurt by a man”. She knew Kevin was serious about hurting her daughter after he showed up outside her school. Two months later, he told her “You’ll never be rid of me”. Despite numerous attempts to seek assistance, the restraining orders were ultimately dropped when she didn't cooperate fully with law enforcement. She did not want him to be incarcerated, she just wanted him to be unable to hurt her family. She admits that she poisoned him in the hopes that he would become sick and have to be removed from the home so she could escape with her daughter.

After Kevin died, Cynthia was arrested and charged with killing him. She chose to go to trial and took the stand to testify on her own behalf. Testimony by others as to Kevin’s abuse was not allowed by the Judge, and she was portrayed as a violent murderer who planned to kill Kevin and let him die a terrible death. This is an inaccurate portrayal of Cynthia who visited Kevin in the hospital until his family decided it was time to let him go.

Cynthia has been in prison since 2010. In that time her daughter has become a grown woman with a successful marriage, and Cynthia is the proud grandmother to two grandsons. The separation from her family, especially given the loss of her son many years ago, has been traumatic for all. Cynthia and her daughter remain close, but the prison is a five hour drive from their hometown and it’s difficult for the family to visit more than once or twice a year. Since being in prison, Cynthia has engaged in all programs that are available -- Alternatives to Violence, Parenting Through Film, and an Inmate Program Associate Program helping others to prepare for their GED’s. She works as the School Principal’s Academic Clerk and is currently in therapy, where she learns more about domestic violence and abusive relationships. When she’s not at work or therapy she spends her time in her cell creating beautiful artwork. After her release, her goals are to be with her loving family, with whom she is very close, and to be an advocate for other domestic violence survivors. She has learned a lot about how abusive relationships work and how to avoid them in the future. Currently, her earliest possible release date will be when she is 72 years old, but with a reduction in her sentence, she can once again be a part of her family and her community.

Breanna Simpson

Breanna Simpson is serving 25 years for defending herself against a man who tried to kill her on numerous occasions. She is a survivor of a long struggle to be free of drugs and alcohol, the loss of custody of her children, and severe abuse at the hands of men in three successive relationships. Breanna feels tremendous remorse for the death of Henry Perkins, and in her own words, never stopped loving him. She is now 36, has spent five years incarcerated, and will be 56 when she comes home unless her sentence is commuted.

Breanna grew up in Southern California, and was introduced to drugs by her mother. She became involved with Jack and had a daughter at the age of 19, whom she doted on. In her words, Jack “didn’t hit her that much.” Her struggles with drugs and alcohol became paramount in her life, and during that time her maternal grandmother orchestrated Breanna’s daughter being taken away from her. Feeling that she had lost everything, she went to Las Vegas where she met Joey, with whom she had a son. Joey abused her severely, resulting in hospital visits and numerous attempts to leave. Eventually, she fled to New Mexico. It was a terribly difficult time for her and she ultimately gave up her son up for adoption, thinking that he would have a better life. She became involved with Henry Perkins, who initially, like the previous two relationships, was charming and wonderful. Despite the beatings, in Breanna’s words he was better than the other two “because he didn’t cheat on me.” They moved back to Henry’s hometown in upstate New York.

Breanna has scars from the time he tried to strangle her and stab her with a knife in 2012. Ultimately she grabbed the knife and swiped at him, grazing his shoulder. As a result of the incident, she pled guilty to assault and received three years of probation. The abuse continued -- everyone in the small town knew that he beat her as she showed up to the hospital covered in bruises. Yet, she protected him from the police, not wanting him to be arrested. She was close to Henry’s family, who saw the beatings and the bruises. In an attempt to end the relationship, she moved into her own apartment, but continued to see him -- because he still “treated me nicely when he wasn’t drinking.”

In June of 2013, she was in her apartment taking care of a friend’s young daughter. She let Henry, who was intoxicated, into the apartment and he quickly became abusive. She was in fear for her life and the life of the child with her. He attempted to stab her and she grabbed the knife. As she was holding it he pushed into her and the knife cut him near his ribs. After the incident, the police requested to discuss the incident with her - during questioning they initially did not tell her that he died. She was devastated when she found out.

She opted to go to trial after being offered a plea of 20 to life. She wanted everyone to know that she loved Henry and what had happened was an accident. She felt certain that the truth about the abuse she had suffered at his hands would come out and that she would be given a sentence which made sense given the circumstances. This was not the case. Very few of the witnesses available to testify on her behalf were allowed to do so. She wanted to take the stand, but her lawyer advised her not to. At trial, Henry was portrayed as an angel, while she was spoken of as a monster who had tried to kill him twice. This was just untrue -- she continued to love Henry throughout, despite the abuse.

Since being in prison, in her words, she has become a different person. She reconnected with her father and her daughter, is free of drugs and alcohol, participates in courses on family violence and is working toward her associate degree in sociology. She is in therapy understanding more about abusive relationships and developing self-esteem. She works at reception in the prison store. She feels grounded and is now able to look at her past and understand more of what happened to her. When she is released, she plans to go back to Texas to be closer to her father. Keeping Breanna in prison for another twenty years serves no purpose, other than to deprive her of a life spent helping other young women stay away from abusive relationships, which is what she hopes to do.

Joanne Armour

Joanne Armour is serving 20 years to life for defending herself and her 14 year old daughter against an attack from her close friend of eight years, Lacandace Miles, in December of 2013. Despite her desire to go to trial, she maintains that she was pressured into taking a plea after she felt threatened with her daughter possibly being implicated in the incident. Joanne had suffered extensive abuse at the hands of her previous husband, and then more abuse while she was involved with Ms. Miles.

Joanne and her current, although estranged, husband lived together for more than 14 years, until 2013, during which time he often beat her, resulting in numerous hospital visits. She did not work outside the home -- her husband provided for her and her daughter, who is now 19. He would go away and come back frequently, leaving her with no money. At one point, he had left and she and her daughter were evicted. She decided that she had had enough of his abuse. When Lacandace invited her to move in, she decided it was her best option. She and Lacandace had a long friendship, and she often took care of Lacandace's four children, making sure that they were fed. Unfortunately, this relationship also began to be characterized by abuse -- with Lacandace slapping and punching Joanne. This resulted in Joanne trying to defend herself. However, with nowhere to go, and unable to find room in a shelter, she moved in with Lacandace, taking her daughter with her. They lived together as a family with the children. Even Lacandace’ own family acknowledged that Joanne cared for Lacandace’s young children as if they were her own.

The abuse escalated, and Joanne was in fear for her life and the life of her daughter, but also distraught about what would happen to Lacandace's young children if she left, especially her five year old son. Joanne contacted her sister who lives in Chicago, who purchased bus tickets for Joanne and her daughter. On the night of December 20, 2013, Joanne was ready to leave with her daughter. Lacandace attempted to wake up her young son at 9pm, and Joanne advised her to let the child sleep. Lacandace came at Joanne, and slapped her, causing her to fall and hit her head. At that point, she was weak and dazed. Lacandace got on top of her and continued hitting her. Joanne’s daughter intervened in an attempt to save her mother. Joanne was terrified when Lacandace started to bite and scratch her daughter. When she saw blood on her daughter, she “snapped” from fear and picked up a stick that Lacandace kept by the door and hit her, in an attempt to get her to stop biting her daughter. At one point, she did hit Lacandace in the head, but Lacandace was upright and still fighting. Lacandace passed out and Joanne took her child and fled to the bus station, still in fear. Joanne did what any mother would do feeling that her child’s life was threatened.

She was subsequently picked up in Chicago and brought back to stand trial. According to Joanne she was threatened with the potential implication of her daughter if she did not take a plea. She had no one to talk to and no support. In order to save her child, she pled to murder in the second degree, not knowing the implications of the charge. Her only intent was to leave and make a new life for herself and her daughter in a safe city. There were two coroners reports, both of which were inconclusive as to the cause of death.

Joanne feels tremendous remorse, but has tried in every way possible to use her time in prison for her improvement, completing classes in Alternatives to Violence and Family Violence. She is very involved with Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a group that brings theater into the prisons. She has starred in several productions and also writes poetry which has enriched her life in many ways. Joanne maintains hope that she will be able to come home and be with her daughter as she enters nursing school.

Patrice Smith

Patrice Smith was only 15 when she met Robert Robinson, a 70 year old bishop who initiated a sexual relationship with her. Just a year later, when she was 16, she acted in self-defense and protected herself from a violent assault by him. At the age of only 16, after a trial in which she expressed tremendous remorse for his ultimate death, she was convicted and given a maximum sentence of 25 years to life. As is often the case, no one believed her story of coercion and sexual abuse by a man 55 years her senior. Now 36 years old, Patrice has been incarcerated since 1998.

Patrice met Robinson in Buffalo several years after her mother had kicked her out at the age of twelve. As a young teenager she had experienced some behavioral health issues and needed help which she did not receive. She lived with her father, who at the time was grieving the death of his girlfriend – at an age when teenagers need support and love – Patrice had almost none. At first her relationship with the bishop was a great trade-off: she submitted to his sexual advances and he took her out, gave her money, and loaned her his car. It was very enticing for a young girl with little or no access to resources. Patrice wasn’t the only young girl Robinson pursued. When Patrice tried to end the relationship, Robinson threatened to tell her father she was a “ho.” She was terrified of this happening as her father was her only loving relationship, and Bishop used this as a way to intimidate her into staying with him.

One day Patrice, a friend, and the friend’s four month-old went over to Robinson’s house to visit. As Patrice’s friend watched TV, Robinson brought Patrice into his bedroom and demanded sex. Patrice refused; Robinson became angry and slapped her. As she struggled to get away from him, he threatened to get his gun—which she knew was under his pillow. Robinson fell to the floor while they fought. A phone cord became tangled around his neck. Patrice also got entangled in the cord and may have pulled on it, not trying to kill him but seeking to protect herself, her friend, and her friend’s baby—she feared for all of their lives. As Robinson continued to threaten her, Patrice remembers thinking that she was sure she might lose her life.

Not knowing he was dead, they went home. They were terrified and remorseful when they found out subsequently that he had died. Patrice was tried separately from her friend. As is often the case with a prosecutor seeking a conviction, Patrice was portrayed at trial as a “monster,” denying that her relationship with the bishop was sexual, and with no acknowledgement that she had been in need of help in her younger years. She was convicted despite the cause of death being inconclusive—it could’ve been a heart attack—and despite the fact that, as a minor, Patrice was unable to give valid consent. She herself was the victim of a violent crime.

In two decades in prison, Patrice has earned her GED and BA. She stays close to her family, and has learned how she was preyed upon by a system that doesn’t support girls and women—particularly Black, Native, and Latina women—who’ve experienced trauma and abuse. She’s asking for Governor Andrew Cuomo to commute her sentence and send her home, where she plans to mentor youth at risk of getting caught up in the criminal legal system.

Tanisha Davis

Tanisha Davis is a caring 32 year-old single mother serving a 14-year sentence in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women after acting in self-defense against her abusive partner. In 2013, she was convicted by a Rochester jury of first-degree manslaughter, after stabbing her violent abuser a single time in the shoulder in an act of self-defense after another brutal attack at his hands.

Tanisha met her abuser, Montreall Wright, when she was 19 years old and he was nearly 30. Although Tanisha did not know it at the time, Wright had abused other women in the past and was on probation for another domestic-violence case when they met. By the time Tanisha learned this information, Wright had started to abuse her. During the course of their nearly eight-year relationship, Wright became increasingly violent, controlling, and manipulative. He attacked her for any reason at all: because she wanted to put up her own Christmas tree in her house, because she left her high-heel shoes at a party, or because she did not want to drive with the window down in the cold Rochester winter. When Tanisha tried to break up with him, Wright stalked her, breaking the windows of her house, forcing his way in, and terrifying her young son. On one occasion, while driving with Tanisha and her son in the car, Wright swerved into oncoming traffic because she refused to tell him she loved him. Wright sexually assaulted Tanisha and choked her in her sleep. She now has a scar on her hand, a chipped tooth, and a bad knee as a result of his attacks.

Though Tanisha called the police often, it was to no avail. Eventually, they began to remove Wright from Tanisha’s house only to drop him off around the corner. On the night of the incident that led to Wright’s death, Tanisha had two orders of protection against him. Following a disagreement, he began beating and choking her. In a voicemail that captured Wright’s attack in the minutes preceding Tanisha’s act of self-defense, he is recorded yelling, “Is this what you want?” while hitting her as she cried for help.

Tanisha went to trial and testified about her act of self-defense. She was convicted after a trial ridden with errors and injustices. For example, the jury wasn’t properly instructed on how, under New York law, the imminent threat to Tanisha’s life justified her acting in self-defense. The prosecutor called Tanisha, a Black woman, a “hood diva,” and made racist remarks about “the culture she is from”—and no one objected or stopped him. Virtually no evidence was introduced regarding the abuse Tanisha suffered.

Tanisha has said that living with her abuser was like being in prison, and the trauma of her abuse continues to affect her. Tanisha suffers from PTSD and has nightmares that Wright is beating her. Sometimes feels that he is “still in control.” This trauma and control are now compounded by prison. While her avenues for direct appeal have been exhausted, she continues to fight for her release. She keeps in touch with loved ones, although the long distance makes it difficult for her family to visit. Tanisha’s son is now 13 years old, and she does everything she can to mother him from afar. She is doing her best to prepare for a better life for herself and her son once she is free by pursuing her GED and completing available programs. Tanisha also helps members of her family manage interpersonal disputes, and, inside the prison, she counsels other women trying to leave abusive partners. It’s work she hopes to continue once she's free.

Jacqueline Smalls

Jacqueline Smalls, 55, is a survivor of domestic violence who was charged in 2012 in Schenectady, New York, with first-degree manslaughter — after an altercation with her longtime abuser, Adrian King, whom Jacqueline stabbed once in self-defense. During their relationship King repeatedly choked Jacqueline, sexually assaulted her, assaulted her eight-year-old grandson, isolated her from friends and family, and broke or took away her phones when she called the police. Represented by a public defender, Jacqueline didn’t know she could cite King’s abuse as a factor in her defense; she accepted a plea deal and is serving a 15-year sentence in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women.

Born in the Bronx, Jacqueline dropped out of high school to take care of her sick mother and her younger siblings. She met her abuser when both were in recovery programs in Schenectady. He moved into her house in 2010 after falling behind on his own rent, and became abusive soon after, telling Jacqueline he would kill her if she told anyone. He didn’t allow her to seek medical attention for her injuries until 2011, when a staph infection sent Jacqueline to the emergency room. Noticing her bruises, her doctor asked if she was being abused; she told him she would “rather not speak of it.”

“My fear kept me silent,” Jacqueline said. “My embarrassment kept me silent.”

Her isolation deepened. King broke cherished objects or sold them for drug money. Jacqueline cut off contact with friends and family. When her grandson Andre moved in, she recalled, “he hit my grandson’s head up against the wall and then locked Andre and I in a bedroom and said that if we made any noise, he would kill us both, me first.” She estimates that in one year, she called the police 25 times. They often told her that they’d “have to arrest us both.” King broke her phones and, later, her fingers to prevent her from calling.

In 2012 King was arrested twice for choking Jacqueline—“my abuser’s hands were his weapons,” she said. He choked her the night she stabbed him, meaning only to frighten King off. (Jacqueline was under the influence of drugs and alcohol during the incident, and remembers being scared and disoriented.) When King climbed through a window of Jacqueline’s house that night, he had two orders of protection folded up in his pocket. The judge who arraigned Jacqueline for manslaughter was the same judge who, a month earlier, had sentenced King to a 30-day jail sentence and ordered him to stay away.

In court, Jacqueline wasn’t aware of sentencing guidelines that include provisions for victims of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse acting in self-defense. Following multiple unsuccessful appeals at the state level and feeling the legal system failed her, she’s applying for a certificate of appealability with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and seeking clemency from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Having entered prison with a fifth-grade literacy level, Jacqueline plans to go to college upon her release and become a social worker.

Shantell Green

Shantell Green is incarcerated for protecting herself against an abuser who would have killed her while her four children watched. She was pregnant at the time with her fifth child. Shantell, who is 30 years old, is serving a nine-year sentence in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

Shantell met her abuser, Dewayne Simmons, at the grocery store, where he offered to buy milk for her daughter. But he became violent and controlling shortly after they began dating. He hid her license plates, preventing Shantell from going to work or visiting her family without his permission. He demeaned Shantell constantly and in public. In the two months they were together, Simmons attacked Shantell 13 times, often drunkenly, and often in front of her children. He continued to beat her after she became pregnant, including with an aluminum baseball bat. Shantell had a warrant from a previous case, a fact Simmons held over her—he taunted her about not being able to call the police.

On June 12, 2017, Shantell believed she was going to die. They were at a picnic at Simmons’s family’s home, and he had her pinned against the kitchen sink with his hands around her throat. He had already knocked his own father unconscious for trying to intervene. Shantell’s young son pulled on her leg in an attempt to help her. She used a knife she’d been cutting the children’s food with to poke him in the chest. He punched her in the face and continued choking her, and she pushed the knife into his back. Finally, Simmons released his grip and collapsed to the floor. He died later that day, and Shantell was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.

Shantell and her attorney had planned to support their self-defense case with evidence of Simmons’s history of violence toward her and other women who had scars and broken bones from his abuse, and who agreed to testify on Shantell’s behalf.

However, in the prosecution’s framing of the case, Shantell attacked Simmons without provocation. Worried that her prior criminal record would make jurors assume she was guilty, and terrified at the prospect of losing her children if she received a long sentence—possibly a life sentence—Shantell accepted a plea bargain of nine years for a conviction of first-degree manslaughter.

Shantell gave birth to her baby in prison, naming her Faith. Faith can stay with Shantell in the nursery unit at Bedford Hills until she turns one, when she’ll go live with her older siblings at Shantell’s mother’s apartment in Rochester, a five-hour drive away. Due to the distance and her mother’s health issues, Shantell has only seen her older children once since she arrived at prison in early 2018. The separation from all her children is damaging to the entire family, but being separated from her baby will result in long-lasting trauma to both mother and daughter. Under Governor Cuomo’s arbitrary commutation criteria, Shantell wouldn’t be eligible for clemency until 2022. But the governor can change that now with the stroke of a pen.

Jessica

The first time Jessica’s partner hit her was when she picked him up from a stint in rehab, where he’d been trying to manage his drug addiction — he was angry at her for being late. Over the next ten years their relationship became only more abusive, both physically and emotionally. In addition to being abused, Jessica was coerced into participating unknowingly in a scheme her partner organized to defraud elderly people in upstate New York. She received the maximum sentence, seven to fifteen years, and has been incarcerated for three years.

Jessica met her abuser just out of high school. Her life was going well. She enjoyed a happy childhood, and had a good job and a car. Though their relationship first seemed promising, Jessica’s partner quickly became controlling. He isolated her so deeply from her friends and family that, eventually, he was the only support system Jessica had. She moved in with him and his mother. After a while her partner’s old addiction resurfaced and, when police raided their house and found drugs, Jessica was arrested as an associate. Though soon released, she lost her job and car as a result of the incident.

Her partner cycled in and out of prison. Whenever he was away, Jessica felt an incredible sense of relief. She went to school for cosmetology, obtaining a degree while raising their two young children. But the abuse always continued when he was out. Jessica found herself accused of cheating; she was degraded constantly, and beaten in front of the children. When he told her that nobody else would love her, Jessica started to believe it. She became deeply depressed, finding it hard to get through each day. She felt that under his control, she could never be the mother she wanted to be; but at the same time she was threatened that if she left him, she would lose her children.

Jessica's partner got by doing odd jobs. One day Jessica was questioned by the police after cashing $4,000 worth of fraudulent checks he told her he’d obtained legally — and then forced her to cash. The incident was enough to make Jessica’s partner want to run away — he took Jessica and their children to Virginia. Eventually federal agents caught up, and back in New York, Jessica and seven co-defendants faced two charges of attempted grand larceny and one hate crime charge related to the advanced age of the victims.

Jessica’s co-defendants, including her partner and her partner’s mother, had worked at the victims' homes; Jessica hadn't been at the work sites at all, but only cashed checks under threat of violence. She accepted a plea deal, but at sentencing the judge ignored the deal and gave Jessica up to 12 years in prison, with a minimum of 7 years that need to be served, because she broke parole when she was forced to flee to Virginia.

While she hopes her time will be commuted, Jessica feels the painful irony of her situation: that her unjust prison sentence also means that, for the first time in her adult life, she's free of her abusive partner. She's started to wear makeup, and can finally feel beautiful — but knows that she deserves better. She worries about her children, who are staying with her ex-partner's family, and whom, as a result, she only can see when her abuser’s family decides she can see them. They’ve only allowed her to see her children 3 times in the past 3 years.

She can't wait to get out and be their mother again. When she’s released, Jessica plans to spend her life fighting for women incarcerated for acts of self-defense against domestic violence.