While the New York Democratic establishment breathed a sigh of relief to see Andrew Cuomo elected to his third term as governor, his victory also sparked calls from criminal justice advocates for prison reform—specifically, for Cuomo to free women who have been imprisoned for killing their abusers.
FreeThemNY, a grassroots campaign launched by Survived and Punished, a survivor advocacy coalition, has for the last year been lobbying on the issue's behalf. Cuomo's record on criminal justice and mass incarceration was a frequent topic during the gubernatorial race, and FreeThemNY advocates say his approach to jailing abuse survivors is particularly draconian. To wit: While Cuomo has commuted 12 prison sentences and pardoned 181 people in his eight years in office, only one of those commutations was for a domestic violence survivor.
Even though no government agency regularly gathers data on how many domestic violence survivors are incarcerated for crimes directly related to their abuse, advocates say it happens frequently. In fact, the New York State Department of Correctional and Community Services reports that 67 percent of women who are sentenced to prison for killing someone close to them had been abused by that same person. What's more, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence found that, while the average prison sentence for men who kill their female partners was two to six years, the average sentence for women who killed their male partners was 15 years. Yet, according to the NCADV's findings, "most women who kill their partners do so to protect themselves from violence initiated by their partners."
Despite legislative efforts to mitigate the criminalization of abuse survivors, since 2011, the New York Senate has dragged its feet on passing the state's Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act. If passed, the DVSJA would allow judges to consider the role of domestic abuse in a case during sentencing, and would avoid mandatory minimums set by the state. Under the DVSJA, judges could also give survivors shorter sentences, or keep them out of prison altogether by sentencing them to alternative-to-incarceration programs.
To better understand FreeThemNY's efforts and the organization's claims that the state is criminalizing abuse survivors, Pacific Standard spoke with Alyssa Smaldino, an organizer with Survived and Punished.
What message does the inaction from Cuomo send to abuse survivors who have been criminalized for defending themselves?
Cuomo's "M.I.A." status on commutations sends a message that he sees survivors of domestic violence as disposable. The evidence is so clear that the vast majority of people in women's prisons have survived domestic violence at some point, and often have children who need them at home.
How, in your view, does the judicial system fail abuse survivors?
The judicial system refuses to acknowledge the dynamics of abuse and why women often can't leave. In many cases, the survivor has contacted law enforcement about the domestic violence they've experienced multiple times. When it gets to the point that a survivor has to use violence to protect themselves, the documentation of prior complaints is often ignored or never even brought up in court. In many cases, the judicial system does not take time to hear the survivor's story and acknowledge their history of surviving domestic violence. For example, Nicole Addimando is currently in jail in Poughkeepsie, New York, after defending herself and her children, ages three and five, from her partner who had abused her for 10 years. Now she is charged with second-degree murder and faces a lifetime in prison.
The evidence of Nikki's abuse is extensively documented by medical, trauma, and domestic violence professionals. Dozens of witnesses have reported seeing Nikki injured in public—including bruising, burns, and limb dislocation. Nikki's case is scheduled to go to trial in January of 2019. Her family does not have the funds to sustain private counsel, and legal fees are estimated to reach over $500,000.
Tell me more about the tactics and goals of the Survived and Punished commutations campaign and #FreeThemNY.
The first tactic we take is building relationships with incarcerated survivors and organizing their stories on our website. These are the specific people whose sentences we want Cuomo to commute first, but as an abolitionist organization we ultimately want to see widespread decarceration of prisons. This should start with survivors of domestic and gender violence who have suffered immensely at the hands of the state.
Another tactic we take is calling attention to Cuomo's abysmal record on commutations. He has created specific commutations guidelines, but what we want the public to remember is that: A) his office does not do anything. They have only commuted 12 sentences total, only one of which was a domestic violence survivor. And B) these guidelines are completely arbitrary. They are not law according to the New York State Constitution. He can change them at any time and commute sentences with the stroke of a pen.
What impact has the campaign had so far?
We have been forging relationships between our organizers, incarcerated survivors, and survivors' families. These relationships are the starting point of collective movement and widespread community support.
We have mailed Cuomo thousands of postcards demanding he frees survivors, we've organized a phone zap where hundreds of comrades called his office about our demands, and we have delivered him a list of names of the people involved in our campaign so far. While he hasn't taken action yet, we know his office is highly aware of our campaign.
What more can state legislators do to protect abuse survivors?
We want to see legislators listening to survivors' stories and recognizing acts of survival—including self-defense, "failure to protect," migration, removing children from abusive people, being coerced into acting as an "accomplice," and securing resources needed to live—as reasons to find survivors innocent.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.