Survivors of prisoner abuse recount stories, offer solutions

Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 14, 2003

A crowd assembled in the Henderson Room of the Michigan League
yesterday to hear accounts of the physical and psychological abuse
victimized women suffer at the hands of their husbands, boyfriends
and the U.S. prison system.

“Speak up and speak out,” presented by the Michigan
Battered Women’s Clemency Project and the V-Day Campaign,
addressed the brutality of women’s prisons.

“You were abused enough in your life — we need to
abuse you more. This is the attitude of the U.S. prison
system,” said Susan Fair, founder of the Michigan Battered
Women’s Clemency Project, who addressed the overwhelmingly
female audience. Fair, who served 10.5 years for second-degree
murder, said she “rarely talked to a woman who had not
suffered sexual abuse as children and adults.”

Fair and other women, including keynote speaker Susan Rosenberg,
depicted female inmates as victims of a system that failed to
intervene when the abuse was occurring and that placed those women
in an oppressive system.

Rosenberg was in prison for over 16 years, until former
President Bill Clinton granted her clemency two years ago. She
attributed the success of her clemency plea to activists who
campaigned in the name of justice to free a stranger from a flawed

“I don’t think we can get justice until we dismantle
the system brick by brick, bar by bar, crack by crack,” she

Rosenberg proposed nonviolent solutions to the prison dilemma,
suggesting that the various prison reform movements need to work
together for a solution.

“We need a mass movement of people taking political and
social action,” she said.

Lara Brooks, a sexual assault and outreach advocate, tried to
explain why so many battered women are inside prisons.

“In many ways, the prison system is a replication of the
power and control relationships the women experienced in their
abusive relationships,” said Brooks. She added that a
majority of female inmates have been the subjects of domestic abuse
and were wrongly convicted, acting in self-defense or protecting
their children.

She said that her organization, the First Step Project Against
Domestic and Sexual Violence, is “working to free women who
killed abusers in self-defense, who are now serving long-term or
life sentences. These women have suffered a lifetime of rape,
battering, molestation and abuse,” she said.

Fair echoed her comments in her speech.

“By and large, women in prison are there because of prior
abuse.” But Fair also offered hope for these women.

“We’re at a point in Michigan’s history where
we can turn things around.” She identified the budget crisis
as a possible source of clemency, saying, “Prisons are as
much on the cutting block as any other program.”

Brooks recited a poem inspired by the women in the Scott
Correctional Facility in Plymouth. In the poem, a victim of abuse
gave preference to the relative security of prison over “the
hell” of spousal abuse. The piece decried the appalling
medical conditions of the facility and presented a chilling
portrait of the debilitating horrors of abuse.

Audience members were selected to recite similar stories of real
women in the prison from printed slips of paper. One recurring
theme included in the stories was the cycle of violence that led
women into a series of abusive relationships.

In her film “Clemency,” art and women’s
studies Prof. Carol Jacobson told the painful stories of 11 of
these women. The women in the documentary recounted how society had
failed them.

“It’s a man’s world,” said one inmate.
“Put them in a skirt and let them get beat on.”

Alycia Welch spoke as a representative of the V-day campaign,
which aims to stop violence against women. Welch reported how the
effort raised $20,000 last year. The annual production of
“The Vagina Monologues” is one of V-Day’s many
events. This year, V-Day will be donating proceeds from the
campaign to First Step.

At the event, V-day also presented RC student Coert Ambrosino,
who performed a piece of slam poetry that addressed rape and the
consequences of an unwanted pregnancy.

Brooks said that these issues are relevant because “a
large proportion of female prisoners in Michigan committed crimes
against abusers.”

“They are the victims of a misogynist society,”
Rosenberg said. “Battering is one place where law and justice
don’t meet.”