Of Women and Torture

Ever wonder what kind of women spend their lives in prison? In Michigan they are too often women like Barbara Hernandez. According to Carol Jacobsen, a professor at the University of Michigan, this is her story:

“Barbara has served over 11 years in prison for a murder she did not commit. It was committed by a sadistic, drug-addicted predator (her ‘boyfriend’) while Barbara, 16, was crouching nearby in fear of her own life.

“Law enforcement officers detained her for three days, in isolation, without permitting her to call counsel or anyone else.” Eventually, police brought in her abusive mother to pressure her. She hadn’t had much of a life; she had been beaten and raped from childhood, and was easy prey for an abuser.

They wore Barbara down — she “confessed,” was tried as an adult and was given four life sentences, “a clear violation of double jeopardy law.”

Today, she is one of dozens of women whose horror stories are as bad, or worse. Most of them should never have been sent to prison in the first place, and none should be there now. Most of them were convicted because, in Michigan, expert testimony about battered women’s syndrome could not be presented at trial until 1992. Fortunately, that’s changed.

But that did nothing to help women already in prison. That’s why the Michigan Battered Women’s Clemency Project came to be. They are not a bunch of softheaded bleeding-heart liberals. Though Jacobsen is a professor of art and women’s studies, most of her fellow coordinators are cold-eyed lawyers.

Their mission is to try to overturn obviously terrible miscarriages of justice. They think the majority of women in prison probably belong there. They turn down most applications they get from prisoners who want them to take up their cases.

But they have 19 women whose stories would make a stone statue of Richard Nixon weep. “These women were falsely convicted. These women were denied equal protection under the law simply and only because they were victims of domestic violence,” the leaders of the project wrote in a letter to Gov. Jennifer Granholm in June, asking Michigan’s first woman governor for help.

“These women suffered severe punishment before they went to prison, including permanent injuries and lifelong traumas inflicted by their abusers. Most of them would be dead if they had not defended themselves. Several are convicted for their abusers’ crimes.”

They include Anita Posey, a caseworker for children in Wayne County, who did in fact shoot her drug-addicted boyfriend after he picked up her baby and threw the infant against a wall, and Luanne Szenay, whose violent husband was killed by someone else who was trying to protect her.

Doreen Washington is doing life because her foster son, age 12, shot and killed her husband, who had beaten her and set her on fire. (Authorities couldn’t prosecute the child, so they decided she had put him up to it.) The judge who sentenced Karen Kantzler in 1988 has acknowledged he made a mistake, and that she should never have been in prison so long. But she is still there.

Many of these women suffer terrible health problems that have been made worse because of neglect and poor treatment. At least one is legally blind. Worse, some have actually been beaten, raped and tortured. (Try going to umich.edu/~clemency and reading for yourself.)

The Clemency Project, in fact, has a video, smuggled out of Robert Scott prison in Plymouth, which shows a nearly naked woman chained to a concrete slab under harsh white lights. Voices tell her this is “for her own protection.”

Setting these poor women free would seem to be a no-brainer. None of them pose any threat to anybody, at least not anybody not attempting to beat them to death or set them on fire. Some of them can barely feed themselves.

It costs, the Michigan Department of Corrections estimates, about $28,000 a year to keep someone in the slammer. The prisons are at near-capacity; there is a huge budget deficit and we spend nearly $2 billion on prisons each year.

However, Gov. Jennifer Granholm doesn’t seem interested. Someone told former Gov. William Milliken, a Republican (!) about these women, and he was properly horrified. Not only did he take up the women’s cause, he went to see his successor, and over dinner, asked her to look into their cases.

But she hasn’t got back to him, or to the Clemency Project. Last week, I asked about this. “We are following the same procedures that we follow in all cases of this kind,” her spokesman, Elizabeth Boyd, told me. “The legal staff reviews the entire file before making a recommendation to the governor.” Was this being expedited, I asked? Nope.

Now I realize that the governor, herself a Harvard-educated lawyer, has had a lot on her plate. She had to decide to break her word on killing mourning doves, for example, and then there was her speech to the Democratic National Convention, which was important to cement her star status in the party.

Plus, it isn’t clear, I suppose, just how freeing women prisoners would play in the polls. But waiting too long might not be good. The governor’s staff can forget reviewing the file of poor Mary Nemore, in the can since killing her violent husband in 1957 in a struggle over a gun. She died in March.

But there are still a lot of other women who could use help. You might write our governor: 2nd floor; Romney Building; Box 0013; Lansing, MI 48909.


Footnote: Remember when Granholm came in and attempted to install her choice, Butch Hollowell, as Democratic Party chair? The unions said we ain’t giving up our guy, and Michigan then had two party chairs, who spent much of their time sniping at each other. On primary election day, when nobody was looking, Hollowell was quietly offloaded onto the Kerry campaign.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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