I recently received a letter from Valerie Seeley, who is imprisoned at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York State’s maximum-security prison for women. She had been told that Governor Andrew Cuomo was going to start granting clemencies and asked if I would write to him on her behalf.
I met Valerie Seeley last year while writing about domestic-violence survivors incarcerated in New York State. Years earlier, Seeley had been living with a boyfriend who had grown more and more abusive since she had moved in. After three years of verbal, emotional, and physical violence, Seeley finally had enough and told her boyfriend that she was leaving. He tried to strangle her with a telephone cord. When she tried to escape through the front door, he threw her against the bathroom door, wrapped his hands around her neck and began choking her. Realizing that he would kill her, Seeley said that she began feeling around for anything that she could use to defend herself. She grabbed the first object she could and thrust it at him.
“I didn’t realize it was a knife,” she said. Nor did she realize at first that she had stabbed him. When she realized what she had done, she called 911 and tried to stop the bleeding. But her boyfriend died at the hospital. She is now 12 years into a prison sentence of 19 years to life. This is her second time applying for clemency.
State governors have the power to grant clemency to people who have been convicted under state law. Clemency can take two forms. A governor can choose to commute a person’s sentence, making that person eligible for parole earlier than her sentence date; in Seeley’s case, commutation might allow her to appear before the parole board seven years earlier. Alternatively, a governor can grant a pardon, allowing the conviction to be set aside, in some states wiping away a person’s criminal record.
During his five years in office, Governor Cuomo has granted five pardons—all to men who had already finished their prison sentences. Until recently, he has refrained from granting clemency to people still behind bars. The governor reversed course this past October, however, when he granted clemency to two people in prison—70-year-old Lydia Ortiz and 43-year-old Michael Correa. (Cuomo also granted pardons to two men who had already served their sentences). For Ortiz, who is now unable to walk without assistance, the governor’s action allows her to celebrate the holidays with family and friends—the first time she will be able to do so since her 1989 conviction for conspiracy and possession of a controlled substance. For Correa, convicted in 2010 of selling drugs to an undercover officer, clemency means that he will be able to spend the holiday season with his three children and three grandchildren.
With the news of clemency for Ortiz and Correa, Cuomo began what seems like a significant about-face. Around the same time, his office announced the creation of a “clemency project” to find people in prison who might qualify; the project will help them prepare petitions, which will be reviewed four times a year. And this past Sunday, the governor announced that his office plans to seek out and grant pardons to people who had been convicted of nonviolent crimes when they were 16 or 17 years old. These pardons would not fully expunge their criminal record, but will remove barriers from certain jobs because of their convictions. “It’s a way to help people get on with their life,” Cuomo told The New York Times. “When you’re young you can make a mistake, and maybe you don’t have to carry the burden for your entire life.”
Yet, while advocates praised Cuomo’s plans as a positive development to combatting the collateral consequences of incarceration, we have to wonder—are the only people who deserve a second chance those who have nonviolent convictions? What about those who are behind bars for defending themselves against abuse? What about Barbara Sheehan, whose story I wrote about earlier, who spent 25 years being terrorized by her police-officer husband?
In 2008, when her husband pointed his gun at her, Sheehan says she knew that he meant to kill her. She ran into their bedroom, grabbed the gun he kept there and shot him first. He fell, dropping his gun, then tried to reach for it. She snatched it and shot him again. Three years later, a jury acquitted her of murder and the use of one gun, but convicted her of using the gun her husband had planned to kill her with. She was sentenced to five years in prison.
“She went through hell with my father. When she was forced to defend herself, she was punished. She’s been through so much,” her daughter Jennifer Joyce recently told The Nation. Joyce and her son had just returned from a three-day visit with Sheehan at Albion Correctional Facility, not far from the Canadian border. “The holidays aren’t the same without her. She deserves, after all this time, to spend the holidays with her grandson.”
But Sheehan, who applied for clemency in 2014, has yet to receive a response. Unless Cuomo intervenes, she will not only spend Christmas behind bars, but will also miss her grandson’s second birthday.
The Nation called Cuomo’s office to ask whether his administration plans only to consider people convicted of nonviolent crimes—or whether it will also extend compassion to people who, after years of violence and trauma, defended their lives. Will the governor consider granting relief to survivors of domestic violence? When pressed for a response, Alphonso David, counsel to Cuomo, said the answer is yes. “We are actively looking at domestic-violence victims, as well as juveniles and elderly people in prison, to determine clemency,” he told The Nation.
Cuomo can take inspiration from former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, who recently granted clemency to 10 women who had been convicted and imprisoned for violent crimes after enduring years of abuse. Beshear pardoned the women before leaving office earlier this month, as part of a sweeping move that included granting a total of 201 pardons and six commutations. Four of the women were still incarcerated when the governor commuted their sentences to time served, meaning that they will be able to walk out of the prison doors and begin to rebuild their lives. Two of the women had already been paroled; the governor’s action commuted their sentences to time served. And the remaining four—one of whom was still in prison—received full pardons, meaning that their civil rights will be restored and they will be forgiven for the crime they committed. All 10 women had been recommended for full pardons by the Department for Public Advocacy and the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association.
Ten may not seem like a large number, especially given that Beshear received more than 3,400 requests for pardons from people who been convicted in Kentucky. But four pardons and six sentence commutations is more than the two clemencies that New York State has given domestic-violence survivors in its long history of granting pardons and clemencies. In 1996, Charlene Brundidge became the first woman in the state to be granted clemency after being convicted of and imprisoned for killing her batterer. Six years later, Linda White, who was serving 17 years to life, became the second battered woman to receive clemency. Both were granted clemency under Governor George Pataki. Since then, no other woman has been as lucky.
No agency keeps track of how many survivors are incarcerated for crimes related to their abuse, whether they struck out in self-defense or were coerced into illegal activities by abusive partners. In 1999, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) reported that almost half of all women in local jails and state prisons had experienced abuse before their arrests. No nationwide survey has been released since. In 2007, the New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCCS) reported that, among the 36 women entering prison for homicide in 2005, 12 (or one-third) had killed someone they were close to, and eight of those women (or 67 percent) reported experiencing abuse by the person they killed.
But the number of abuse survivors behind bars is much more than 12. “There are likely hundreds of women incarcerated—often for many years—for protecting themselves,” said Jaya Vasandani, co-director of the Women and Justice Project. “Not only is it despicable that our society’s response is to lock up these survivors, it is hugely problematic that no agency collects data on the correlation between domestic violence and a person’s conviction. Extrapolations of data from DOCCS and DOJ, however, suggest that in 2014, there were over 250 survivors of intimate-partner violence serving sentences for homicide or assault convictions in New York state prisons, some of which were likely directly related to the survivors defending themselves from abuse.”
Donna Hylton helps organize Candles for Clemency, an annual vigil outside the governor’s mansion demanding that Cuomo grant more clemencies. She is also a domestic-violence survivor who spent over 25 years in prison. During that time, she’s seen a number of domestic-violence survivors request clemency. She recalls the optimism accompanying each application. “It builds up so much hope,” she described. “It’s like a little kid who’s going to see Santa.”
Hylton points out that abuse survivors have often been told that their words and actions don’t matter, so the act of applying for clemency—and the possibility of being believed—shifts their self-perception. “You revel in that thought [that] ‘I’m going to be heard,’” she said.
Hylton was released from prison in 2012, one year after Cuomo assumed office. She keeps in touch with many of the women still in prison and says that the governor’s lack of clemencies has taken its toll. “Now there’s a strong sense of hopelessness, like it doesn’t matter,” she said. She points out that Cuomo’s plans to grant clemency to teenagers who have not been convicted of any other charges for at least 10 years focuses on people who have been out of prison and urges the governor to consider people still behind bars, particularly domestic violence survivors.
“They’ve been traumatized their entire lives and have [since] changed their lives. Some women have been in there since they were seventeen and now are 53 or since their 20s and are now in their 60s,” she said, recalling some of the women she had left behind. “When do they get a break? Where’s the compassion? You can’t talk about redemption if you don’t talk about compassion.”
In October, Cuomo signed legislation providing greater protection for domestic violence survivors, including strengthening order-of-protection laws. Shouldn’t he extend similar consideration to abuse survivors who have spent years, if not decades, behind bars simply for fighting to survive?