Today around noon you will see me on the Diag as a blindfolded police officer, flanking two women in chains, next to Gov. Jennifer Granholm wearing earmuffs. We are students in Carol Jacobsen’s art and women’s studies activism class drawing attention to the Michigan Battered Women’s Clemency Project rally at the state Capitol this Friday.
The Clemency Project has filed petitions for clemency from Granholm on behalf of 20 women serving life sentences in Michigan’s prisons. Eighteen have been waiting for a response from the governor for two years – the other two for one year. Most of these battered women, many of whom have already served over 20 years in prison, should not have been convicted for acting in self defense or for crimes their abusers committed.
Jacobsen, coordinator/director of the Clemency Project, began video-documenting incarcerated prostitutes in Detroit in 1986 and women in state prisons in 1989. She has advocated for women prisoners ever since. She told me, “I was hooked because I went in and saw myself. I couldn’t believe who was in prison for murder. Most of the women in there are women who acted in self defense.” At the age of 17, Jacobsen married into an abusive relationship and had to take drastic measures, including breaking the law, in order to escape.
The public and the law don’t understand self defense in the context of battered women, Jacobsen said. The common perception of self defense is of two men duking it out at a bar. There’s no adjustment in the law for the different sizes and strengths of battered women, who often need a weapon to defend themselves. Some people blame battered women for not leaving, but when threatened by imminent danger, they have the right under the law (in theory but not practice) to protect themselves. Nevertheless, many women do leave and leave and leave, but without sufficient social support, and often to protect families threatened by the abuser, they return.
Having recognized a kinship with battered women in prison, Jacobsen began using video to document their stories. This medium allows her subjects “to speak, to be represented, a way to bring them outside the prison walls and bring them face to face with an audience who could see them close up, experience their emotions and hear their stories – and their social critiques of the systems that failed them.”
These videos, used by advocates of women and human rights around the world, are heart stopping. One of the two I saw in her class, “Segregation Unit,” is perhaps the most disturbing video I have ever seen. The footage, acquired from the Michigan Department of Corrections through the Freedom of Information Act, depicts a woman being chained naked to a bed in a four-point restraint and gassed randomly in a segregation unit at Scott Women’s Prison. The woman describes – all of Jacobsen’s videos are narrated by the subjects themselves – being left to urinate on herself, being denied women’s hygiene products, going crazy under the 24-hour white lights and being raped by a guard. She successfully sued the Department of Corrections upon her release, but women (and men) are still being tortured in segregation units across Michigan – and nobody knows. Or, like Granholm and the state legislators to whom Jacobsen sent her videos, people know but don’t care enough to act.
The goal of the rally, primarily, is to get Granholm to care. Some of the speakers and artistic projects at the rally will challenge the governor directly – such as a variation of the Diag demonstration – while others will appeal to the humanity of the incarcerated women and the injustices surrounding their cases. Jacobsen didn’t sugar-coat her indictment of Granholm: “People are sick of her cowardice, pretending to take a stand on issues and then doing nothing – She’s afraid to do the right thing.”
Toward the end of our interview, Jacobsen asked me why I cared. Unlike her, I’ve never been the victim of domestic abuse – nor have I ever been imprisoned. But when I learned last year that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, I was shocked by my ignorance and knew I had to learn more. Last winter, I facilitated a theater workshop at a boys’ correctional facility, and last week I just started creative writing workshops at a boys’ and at a girls’ facility in Detroit. I agree with Jacobsen that it’s important to experience the emotions and stories of those we encage in this society and hear their social critiques of the systems that failed them.
When a woman suffers years of abuse as a prisoner of her own home, then through justifiable self defense or a wrongful conviction, suffers abuse as a prisoner of the state, we have indeed failed her. When I asked Jacobson what her goal for Friday’s rally was, she let out a deep sigh and spoke tenderly: “I just want them out. They deserve to be out.”
Cravens can be reached at email@example.com.