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‘We are not monsters’: Women in Illinois prisons who allege they were victims of domestic violence see their struggle in film as they face limits of law designed to aid them

Inside a rec room at the downstate Logan Correctional Center, a projector screen leaned slightly forward but was upright enough as an audience gathered in front of it to watch a film.

A large speaker on the floor would provide sufficient if not perfect sound. And as the sun set, staff quickly created makeshift curtains to darken the room.

Given the limitations of a prison, the showing of “And So I Stayed,” was, as the filmmaker would say later, not the best technical presentation.

But it was by far the most meaningful.

The film — which documents efforts to pass a law in New York that allows survivors of gender-based violence to present the abuse they suffered as consideration for new, shorter sentences — was being shown for the first time to an audience inside a correctional facility, and specifically to people who had been convicted of serious crimes they argue were related to abuse.

As the group, mostly women, watched the film’s stories of three survivors, including the abuse and torture they suffered, the anguished 911 calls they made to report their crimes and the strained phone conversations with their children from prison, those at Logan nodded in agreement and shook their heads in frustration. They wept openly but silently, passing tissues to each other. They reached for support, holding hands or touching each other’s shoulders in shared grief.

In fact, sentencing relief for victims of domestic violence has been possible in Illinois since 2016, when the state became one of the first in the nation, ahead of New York, to pass legislation. It offers the chance not to reargue underlying criminal charges in a case, but rather that a resentencing is in order to consider whether domestic violence played a role either directly or indirectly in a conviction.

Some of the sentences that could be reconsidered are long — more than 20 years in some cases.

But while more than two dozen people in New York have benefited from the law, advocates here are aware of just four women who have been helped in Illinois, a figure they find unacceptable considering they know of some 60 in the state who have filed petitions.

The filings are being turned back by both technicalities and a legal system that has struggled to evolve and recognize how perpetrators of violence can be victims too, advocates said.

“What I think a lot of you know is we do have a domestic violence resentencing law in Illinois, but that it is not working,” attorney Alexis Mansfield told the group at Logan. “Over half the people in this room right now have filed petitions. … If only four people benefit, it is not working.”

Legislation to refine the law has made its way through the Illinois House, but it has so far stalled in the state Senate, which the sponsor attributes to “reform fatigue” around criminal justice.

‘We are not monsters’: Women in Illinois prisons who allege they were victims of domestic violence see their struggle in film as they face limits of law designed to aid them

“The most glaring difference for me is the original bill was a collaborative effort,” said Rep. Kelly Cassidy, who added that now in Springfield some are refusing to engage at all on the proposed fixes. “They say, ‘haven’t we done enough?”

The screenings of “And So I Stayed” last week at Illinois’ two female facilities marked a rare opportunity for the incarcerated to gather and absorb the film together, with reporters from the Tribune and the New York filmmakers also present.

What followed was part support group and part organizing session as the group made plans to push for improvements to the Illinois law and also shared painful personal details about the lasting impact of abuse, how fear affected their decisions and how they never felt heard.

“Nobody believed me. I never had a voice. … So who fights for me?,” asked Laconda McDonald, 45, who has filed a petition, from the back of the auditorium at the Decatur Correctional Center, where she is serving a 20-year sentence for murder.

“I did not deserve to be treated like that,” McDonald continued, her voice, breaking. “They made me believe … it was OK for me to get beat up. I didn’t have nobody to fight for me so I just took my plea. Because I felt like I deserved that. I took his life but what about my life? … Who fights for me?”

‘We are not monsters’: Women in Illinois prisons who allege they were victims of domestic violence see their struggle in film as they face limits of law designed to aid them

In the minutes before the film started at Logan, an excited Janet Jackson, 68, with her gray hair styled, bounded into the room to say hello to old friends who were in attendance. She introduced herself to a reporter, detailing the divinity degrees she has earned while in prison.

“Oh, I’m serving life without parole,” Jackson answered effortlessly when asked when she would be released.

Jackson, convicted in Mercer County in 1987 of killing her husband, is among the many who have filed a petition for a resentencing under the Illinois law.

After the film, Jackson reflected about how much has changed in the time since her case played out. There were certain allegations around abuse, she told the group, you could not even make in court then.

Still, the criminal justice system has only slowly changed to recognize the trauma and the links between incarcerated people, particularly women, and gender-based violence.

In recent years, statewide panels have been convened to study the issue. A clinic to provide criminal legal assistance to incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence launched by attorney Rachel White-Domain. And the reform and direct service organization Ascend Justice, which focuses on gender-based violence issues, is now providing civil legal assistance for currently and formally incarcerated people.

The Illinois legislation was considered a landmark moment too, with the state leading the nation in creating a way for incarcerated survivors to return to court, armed with evidence and a request for sentencing reductions.

So far four women have benefited. They include Willette Benford, who was serving a 50-year sentence for murder and was released in 2019 after her resentencing in Cook County, which included evidence that she had suffered years of abuse and was defending herself.

Last week, Benford made history when she was appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to serve as director of reentry services for the city, a newly created role that is part of a $13 million initiative around citizens exiting prison for a return to society.

Benford, in an interview with the Tribune, said she does not think of herself as having been “convicted” but rather “survived.” And she plans to use her new position to advocate for understanding about gender-based violence.

The only petition believed to have been subject to a lengthy resentencing hearing was that of Debraca Harris, who was convicted in Cook County of killing her landlord in 2006, said White-Domain, her attorney. After a three-day hearing a judge agreed that Harris, a mother of five young children, suffering abuse and sexual assault by an intimate partner and her landlord, who had threatened her with eviction in exchange for sex, White-Domain said and according to a court transcript of the judge’s ruling.

In the ruling, the judge acknowledged how the law pointed to a new understanding of the impact of domestic violence.

“Society’s understanding of and response to sexual abuse and sexual harassment allegations has changed,” according to the transcript. “And the legislature’s passage of these new factors in mitigation dealing with victims of domestic violence relating to those items reflect that greater understanding, both in society and in the law.”

Harris’ sentence was reduced from 30 years to 27, which means she will be released in 2033.

White-Domain said she appreciated the judge’s recognition that Harris, 43, had been harmed, but said it was still just a “small victory.”

Advocates say there are dozens more people at Logan and Decatur who have yet to even get a hearing, largely due to how the law is being interpreted.

For one, there have been mixed legal findings about its language, with some courts interpreting it to mean that any petition not filed within two years of sentencing is not allowed. Further, courts are also relying on a narrow legal definition of domestic violence that excludes situations including human trafficking and sexual violence by non-intimate partners, attorneys and experts said.

Some cases have also been rejected for resentencing if there was even minor evidence of domestic violence presented or discussed during the original court case.

Now proposed amendments to the law would make clear that if any evidence was presented when the original case was heard, it would need to have been “substantial and complete” to bar a filing today.

Advocates and attorneys also said they often face resistance from the state’s attorney’s offices that brought the original charges and who formally respond to the current petitions.

Sara Block, an director of advocacy for Ascend Justice, said reorienting a system that turns on stark definitions of victim and offender, guilt and innocence, has proven difficult.

“There is a defensiveness,” Block said, referring to instances when inmates face resistance from local state’s attorney’s offices. “They almost fight harder because they want to preserve what they did.”

Block added that the cases challenge stereotypes about a “perfect victim,” which doesn’t include women who fight back or who stay in a dangerous place. This theme was a constant at both correctional facilities where the film was shown, with some women admitting they’d only recently come to understand how they’d been controlled and abused.

“We didn’t talk about it 22 years ago,” said Carrie Pierce, 48, who was convicted of murder and has filed a petition in Winnebago County for a resentencing on account of years of alleged abuse and violence. “This wasn’t something you discussed. It was cloaked in weakness.”

So far, Pierce’s petition has been challenged on the two-year limitation, said her attorney, Michael Soukup, who said he agrees the law needs to change.

“I would like to see the bill fixed for her and others,” Soukup said.

Also, even with the latest legislation, more reform will be needed, Mansfield, a senior adviser to the Women’s Justice Institute, later explained. Some of the people in attendance at the screening, even with the new law, could be denied a reduced sentence because they were sentenced to the statutory mandatory minimum, something advocates hope to address with more legislation.

The newly renovated and swanky rooftop event space of the Old Post Office downtown offered sweeping views of the city in each direction. And bright sunlight bounced off the mirrored buildings as clouds floated by.

Kim Dadou Brown and Natalie Pattillo sat on bar stools, addressing the crowd of 200 who had gathered for the annual celebration for Ascend Justice.

‘We are not monsters’: Women in Illinois prisons who allege they were victims of domestic violence see their struggle in film as they face limits of law designed to aid them

Pattillo, a survivor of domestic violence herself and co-director of the film, profiled the advocacy work of Dadou Brown, who served 17 years in prison after killing her abuser and is now trying to make the criminal justice system more responsive to people who suffer from gender-based violence.

Though the film has been shown at festivals, the showings at Decatur and Logan were the first time it was viewed by a large audience inside a prison. Neither woman seemed prepared for the impact it would have.

Dadou Brown called the Logan viewing the hardest and most important, and she was moved at how the audience had picked up on things that only someone behind bars would notice.

“It broke my heart,” she said of the visit. “But I know it’s for the greater good. Because my ultimate goal is what I achieved. That was to bring love and light and hope to every single woman in there. … We are all we have.”

‘We are not monsters’: Women in Illinois prisons who allege they were victims of domestic violence see their struggle in film as they face limits of law designed to aid them

Since New York passed its law, an estimated 28 people have been resentenced there, including seven who were serving indeterminate life sentences, said Kate Mogulescu, a law professor at Brooklyn College who also runs the Survivors Justice Project.

Those who were resentenced had been convicted on a range of charges, including murder, robbery and a serious drug offense.

In an interview before the showings, Pattillo said she and co-director in the film project, Daniel A. Nelson, found hundreds of cases where either coercion or defense was potentially at play.

“Women are getting criminalized every single day for being coerced, for fighting back,” she said. “I want people to really think hard about some of the things they don’t see in the courtroom.”

Over the course of the day the film was shown in Logan and Decatur, anger and sadness was expressed over and over about how stories had been ignored or misinterpreted by they system and then simply forgotten.

Nearly every hand at Logan went up when the group of about 40 was asked if they tried to tell someone about their abuse when they faced criminal charges. And they remained up when they were asked if they were told by someone in the legal system not to share it because it would look like they had a motive to act.

“The world didn’t step up for me,” said Skyla Miller, 44, who during the filming shared stories of repeated physical abuse and is currently incarcerated at Decatur for second-degree murder.

About three hours later and 40 miles away at Logan, after the screening and as the group was finishing eating dinner together, a woman walked up to a reporter and whispered a request.

It was Debraca Harris, who successfully argued for a sentence reduction but still has a decade more to serve.

“Let them know that we are not monsters,” she said. “We are just women and mothers trying to survive.”

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