Domestic violence victims in NY prisons may get some relief

67 percent of women in prison for killing someone close to them were abused by that person; new bill could offer mercy

Valerie Seeley in white, her daughter Iacha Moore, in black, and her two grandchildren ages 17 and 13, seated behind her.

NEW YORK — Valerie Seeley has been behind bars since 2003. But her troubles started much earlier, in 1995, when she first met Oliver Williams and his 10-year-old daughter while visiting a friend in Brooklyn. “I thought it was a really cool thing that he had his child with him all the time,” she says in a conference room at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York state’s maximum-security prison for women.

Attracted to Williams, who seemed like a responsible, caring father, she began dating him and soon moved in with the pair. But Williams quickly changed — drinking heavily, passing out in the street, using drugs, accusing her of sleeping with other men, “all kinds of crazy things,” Seeley recalls. And then the violence began. The first time he hit her, she told him, “Don’t ever put your hands on me again.” But he did — again and again.

Seeley’s adult daughter, Iacha Moore, who only met her mother’s boyfriend after Seeley and Williams had moved in together, tried to help, but couldn’t. Moore remembers receiving calls from her mother when Williams was in a rage. “You’d hear him in the background calling her all sorts of names and she’d be crying,” Moore says. But her mother never admitted what was happening. “I was in denial for a long time,” explains Seeley. “I felt ashamed. My self-esteem was so low. I was afraid that people would blame me.”

In 1996, a year after they started living together, Williams tried to choke her. Seeley finally called the police, who arrested him and took him to jail. Williams’ daughter, who had been in the apartment the entire time, began crying when her father was handcuffed. The police told Seeley that the girl would be placed in foster care if no relative picked her up. “I didn’t want that,” Seeley says. “So I stayed to make sure she would be OK.” Thinking back, she says, “I should have left.” If she had, she might not be in prison today.

Two years later, Seeley was arrested for the murder of Oliver Williams, which she says was done in self-defense after he tried to choke her. Sentenced to 19 years to life, she has spent the last 11 of them at Bedford. 

Every time we visit a prison, we meet women who have been locked up for decades because they protected themselves. It’s a devastating example of the overuse of incarceration and it needs to end.

Tamar Kraft-Stolar

Women in Prison Project

Survivors of abuse and trauma are incredibly common in prisons across the country. The U.S. Department of Justice found that more than half of women in jails and prisons were abused prior to incarceration. According to the New York state Department of Correctional and Community Services, 67 percent of women sent to prison for killing someone close to them had been abused by that person. A full 90 percent of prisoners at Bedford Hills have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes.

“That we continue to punish survivors in this way, with as much as we’ve learned about domestic violence over the years, truly shocks the conscience,” says Tamar Kraft-Stolar, director of the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York, an advocacy organization that monitors New York state prisons. “Every time we visit a prison, we meet women who have been locked up for decades because they protected themselves. It’s a devastating example of the overuse of incarceration and it needs to end.”

The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act was introduced in 2011 to address these concerns and is now in the state legislature’s codes committee, which votes on any bill that would increase or decrease penalties. If the codes committee approves the bill, it is sent to the entire legislature for a vote. Sponsored by Assembly member Jeffrion Aubry and Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, the act would allow incarcerated abuse survivors to apply for resentencing if their crimes were directly related to abuse. Not only would survivors like Seeley, who harmed or killed their abusers, be eligible, but so would survivors who were coerced into crimes, such as robbery or burglary, by abusive partners. During the past decade, California has passed a series of similar laws, while a narrower bill is making its way through the New Jersey Legislature.

Using DOJ statistics, advocates estimate that the act could affect approximately 185 women and 175 men currently in New York state prisons. For cases in the future, the act, if passed, will enable judges to consider the role of abuse during sentencing. Instead of requiring mandatory sentences, judges would be allowed to sentence survivors to shorter prison terms or an alternative to incarceration like the one offered by STEPS to End Family Violence, which provides counseling, advocacy and support programs for abuse survivors. Based on the DOJ numbers, advocates also estimate that approximately 365 women and 115 men facing abuse-related criminal charges could be affected each year.

'I thought, I'm gonna die'

After his arrest in 1996, Oliver Williams spent seven days behind bars. A judge ordered him to attend a 28-week domestic-violence program, which he often skipped, says Seeley. Other times, he attended while drunk. Seeley recalls a few mornings when police arrived at their apartment after he had missed a session. Each time, they brought Williams to court, where the judge immediately let him go.

Meanwhile, the abuse continued. When Seeley called the police to the house, they talked with Williams, then left, she says. Seeley tried domestic-violence hotlines, to no avail.

In an attempt to gain some distance, Seeley began sleeping on the couch. By then, Williams’ abuse had escalated from physical violence to threats to kill her. Some nights, she woke to find him standing over her with a pillow, seemingly ready to smother her. Other nights, he would threaten to strangle her with an extension cord. She was often too afraid to go to sleep. She also stopped eating; her weight dropped from 115 to 86 pounds.

By December 1997, the violence had become more frequent. On New Year’s Eve, Seeley says, she arrived home to find Williams in bed with another woman. Williams and Seeley argued; the argument ended with him hitting her. Seeley, who had been prescribed medications for anxiety and depression, took her pills and fell asleep. The next morning, Williams woke her to tell her she had a phone call. That was when she realized that her underwear was gone. “I told Oliver that I didn’t appreciate him having sex with me after he had sex with that girl on New Year’s Eve.”

That day, Seeley decided she had had enough. “I told him I was tired, I wasn’t doing this no more,” she says. Her words unleashed a torrent of violence: Williams tried to strangle her with a phone cord, threw her against the bathroom door and began choking her. “I thought, ‘I’m gonna die,’ ” she remembers. Terrified, she grabbed the first object she could — a knife — and stabbed him. Williams let her go and held his hands to his chest, saying, “You stabbed me,” Seeley recalls. When she realized what had happened, she tried to stop the bleeding, applying pressure to his wound. She called 911 but was so distraught that she had to ask Williams’ daughter, who had been watching television in another room, to give the police dispatcher their address. When the cops arrived, she begged, “Please help him. Don’t let him die. It was an accident.” But Williams did die, at the hospital, and Seeley was taken to the 88th Precinct, where she was questioned, arrested and charged with second-degree murder.

Sharon Richardson of STEPS to End Family Violence speaking at the Coalition for Women Prisoners 2013 Advocacy Day, Albany, New York.
Courtesy Correctional Association of New York

'Like looking in the mirror'

“People always talk about the end. They never talk about the beginning,” Sharon Richardson says. Sitting in the conference room of STEPS to End Family Violence, where she works with other survivors released from prison, Richardson points out, “Had I not gotten involved with this man, had I not bailed him out, I would not have been in that situation.” The man Richardson is referring to is Jeffrey Bridges, the abusive boyfriend she was convicted of conspiring to kill.

In 1990, Richardson was working as a correctional officer at Rikers Island, New York City’s island jail complex, where she met Bridges, a drug dealer being held on a weapons charge. “He was very charming, very handsome, a great talker, very convincing,” she recalls. Richardson, who was ending what she described as a bad marriage, bailed him out and brought him to live with her and her two children in Brooklyn. 

That wasn’t the only change to Richardson’s life. Bridges frequently beat her. He also beat her 2-year-old son and molested her 8-year-old daughter. But “I didn’t realize I was being subjected to domestic violence,” she says. “It’s very common for survivors in abusive relationships not to recognize that they’re being abused,” says Kraft-Stolar, noting that denial and victim blaming are frequent abuse tactics. “Forcing survivors into denial or self-blame is part and parcel of the abuse.”

Soon after moving in, Bridges met Dwayne Mitchell, a 17-year-old from South Carolina, and took him under his wing. Because Mitchell had nowhere to live, Bridges invited him to stay in the apartment too. But the two fought frequently, and four months into Bridges' relationship with Richardson, Mitchell and three other men killed Bridges. Richardson says she thought the men only intended to beat him. “But he ended up getting killed in my apartment.”

Richardson was arrested for second-degree murder and conspiracy to murder. Following a one-week trial, in which Mitchell testified against her in exchange for a reduced sentence, Richardson was sentenced to 20 years to life. At Bedford Hills, she attended a monthly support group for abuse survivors run by STEPS, where she met Valerie Seeley. It helped her come to terms with what had happened and showed that her experience was far from uncommon. “Their stories sounded like mine,” she says. “It was like looking in the mirror.” 

'I was abused by the system'

Valerie Seeley waited five years for her case to go to trial, the first two of which she spent in jail before a judge released her on the condition that she participate in STEPS’ domestic-violence programs. The organization also worked with Seeley’s attorney to prepare a defense, using evidence of her abuse.

In 2003, Seeley’s case went to trial and she was convicted of second-degree murder. “I went through this abuse for so many years,” Seeley says. “I still feel like I was being abused — by the system.

“Domestic violence is one of the most fundamental pathways to women’s incarceration,” says Kraft-Stolar, who is also a member of the statewide Coalition for Women Prisoners, which advocates policy change regarding women’s incarceration. Recognizing this, the Women in Prison Project and coalition members, including currently and formerly incarcerated survivors as well as advocates working to end domestic violence, partnered with Jeffrion Aubry and Ruth Hassell-Thompson to draft a bill. The result was the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act.

Applying for a resentencing hearing requires an initial two-step process, explains Jaya Vasandani, associate director of the Women in Prison Project. If prisoners meet certain criteria and can prove that abuse by a loved one was a “significant contributing factor” to their crime, they can apply for resentencing. The final decision, however, rests with the judge.

The only significant opposition to the act has come from the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, which charges that it fails to consider the rights of people who were harmed who did not abuse the defendant (such as a victim of a robbery that the defendant was coerced into committing by an abusive partner) and expresses concerns about the cost of resentencing.

As a result of the midterm elections, however, the political terrain has changed. “Passing this legislation with the Republican control of the Senate is going to be an uphill battle,” says Vasandani. “Many people don’t yet fully understand how domestic violence drives survivors into the criminal-justice system and just how frequently that system doles out inhumane punishment in these instances.” However, she remains confident about the bill’s passage, citing the 126 women’s organizations and criminal-justice and domestic-violence groups that support it. “Public opinion and public support are on our side.”

To deepen understanding about the issue and the bill, advocates have been holding public-education events and speaking with lawmakers. And its most passionate campaigners are women who have been in Seeley’s position, such as Sharon Richardson and Maria Ventura. 

'When I said no, he beat me'

When Maria Ventura met Lawrence Ham, she was 15 and living on the streets; he was 28. He took her in and introduced her to drugs. When the money ran out, he told Ventura she needed to prostitute herself. “When I said no, he beat me up,” she recalls. The beatings soon became a daily occurrence. Ventura tried calling the police, but says the only time Ham was arrested was when he had a crack pipe or other drug paraphernalia on him. Otherwise, officers told him to walk around the corner and cool off.

When she told Ham that she was pregnant, he threw her down a flight of stairs. She tried to flee several times, but each time he would find her and physically drag her back. The last time, he strangled her in a parking lot. She grabbed for the closest object — a rock— and hit him in the head. When his grip loosened, she ran. Two days later, she was arrested for murder.

Because she would turn 16 in a few weeks, she was charged as an adult. Told that she was risking a sentence of 25-to-life if she took her case to trial, she pled guilty. She was sentenced to 15 to 25 years and sent to Bedford Hills. A Marine had witnessed and filmed Ham’s attack, but the following day she was deployed to Iraq. It was only on her return four years later that she turned over her footage to the district attorney’s office; 10 days after that, Ventura was released on parole.

DVSJA sponsor Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson (in red) with Maria Ventura and other members of the Coalition for Women Prisoners, April 2014.
Courtesy Correctional Association of New York

For years, Ventura stayed silent about her experience. In 2014, she began an internship at the Women in Prison Project. As she helped contact legislators about the domestic violence bill, she decided to share her experience. In April 2014, she cried as she told her story publicly for the first time at a press conference to garner support for the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act. But she plans to keep telling it and keep pushing for the bill’s passage. “I’ve left women in Bedford Hills who are doing life for killing their abusers. These women should be home,” she says. “I think my story can help open people’s eyes and hearts so that they say, ‘We want to help too.’”

Twenty years after she entered prison for murder and conspiracy, Sharon Richardson was released on parole in 2010. She returns to Bedford Hills once a month to facilitate STEPS’s domestic-violence support group, whose meetings Seeley still attends. Richardson has also joined the Coalition for Women Prisoners and has been advocating for the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act. “It feels good to be able to work on this bill,” she says. “Now that I’m out, I’m fighting for the people I left behind.” She pauses, perhaps thinking of the women at the prison’s monthly support group, then adds, “I want to see the looks on people’s faces when they hear there’s something that can shorten their sentences and bring them home early.”

'C'mon grandma, time to go'

The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act is not without precedent. Between 1991 and 2005, California enacted three laws that together allow expert testimony about abuse when a person is charged with crimes relating to his or her abuse and thatenable incarcerated survivors to file petitions challenging their convictions if expert testimony was not allowed during their trial. In 2012, California passed two laws related to domestic violence — one that allows survivors to file a writ of habeas corpus if their trial had only limited expert testimony; the other requires the parole board to accept evidence of abuse during hearings. Both laws took effect on January 1, 2013. Since then, six women have been released while at least 10 others have been able to submit writs of habeas corpus, challenging the lack of or limited expert testimony about battering at their trials. Others in prison are still searching for attorneys to help file the paperwork necessary to utilize these laws.

In January 2014, New Jersey state Sen. Loretta Weinberg introduced S995, a bill that would allow survivors convicted of crimes against their abusers to participate in a supervised community-reintegration program. The Law and Public Safety Committee unanimously approved the Assembly version of the bill (A1677) in September. The Judiciary Committee will consider it in early 2015. The Senate unanimously passed the bill on October 23, 2014.

Valerie Seeley will turn 60 in June. Since she entered prison in 2003, her older brother and her son have both died. Her daughter Iacha Moore does not own a car. Each visit from her home in Jamaica, Queens, to Bedford Hills requires her to take a city bus, two subway trains, a Metro-North train and then a $5 taxi. A single mother of two, Moore can only afford infrequent trips. The last time she and her children visited was the day before Mother’s Day 2014, when they took a photo together. It is the only picture Moore can find of Seeley. “My mother was the one who kept pictures,” she explains.

Visits, Moore says, are painful, particularly when they end. “My daughter, when she was younger, would say, ‘Come on, Grandma. It’s time to go,’ ” she recalls. “That would set my mother off and then set everyone off.” Her daughter, age 13, now understands that her grandmother cannot leave with them, but even without the tears, saying goodbye is difficult. Moore hopes that the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act will allow her mother to come home sooner. “It would be good to have my mother home. She’s been in there long enough.”

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