A residential complex in San Francisco gives victims of domestic violence a fresh start

On her Chesterfield sofa, with her electric wheelchair at hand, Rosemary Dyer gazed at the glittering peacock figurines she'd gotten hold of on her first solo trip to San Francisco's Chinatown after she was released from prison, and admired the bright, silk-flowered tablecloth in her new one Living room .

Dyer, a quick-tempered woman with a mischievous sense of humor, brought these and other valuable possessions to Home Free, a new complex of temporary housing in San Francisco. It is designed for women who have been jailed for killing their abusive partner or for being on the scene of a crime under the coercion of an abusive spouse or friend. Dyer was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for murder in 1988 because her husband, who abused and tortured her for eight years, was shot dead in 1985 at a time when evidence of domestic violence and its effects was inadmissible in court most states.

The insidious malice that defined her life included being repeatedly beaten and sodomized with a loaded handgun. Her husband had dug a grave in the back yard and said he would bury her alive.

Home Free – Where Dyers 2020 Commutation From Gov. Gavin Newsom Proudly Hanging on the Wall – was founded by Five Keys Schools and Programs, a statewide nonprofit that provides education, professional training, therapeutic programs, and shelter for incarcerated and newly released people. The complex of five two-bedroom apartments is the result of years of advocacy from survivors of intimate partner violence and organizations that work with them. Their efforts enabled women like Dyer to obtain their release through grace or by retrospectively presenting evidence of their abuse to the state probation board or the courts.

"The fact that women subjected to unspeakable violence were not allowed to produce evidence of abuse is the essence of injustice," said Sunny Schwartz, founder of Five Keys. "We are committed to creating a living, dignified, and safe home, a place that says you are worth it."

Previous transitional housing options for women were largely limited to addicts. Home Free on Treasure Island, a former naval base in San Francisco Bay, was forged with a tight starting budget of $ 750,000 including staff during last year's pandemic. The formerly dirty apartments were renovated with the help of almost 100 volunteers – architects and landscape architects, floor and furniture installers, plumbers, freight forwarders, electricians and urban construction apprentices. They all gathered on this somewhat bizarre island, originally built for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exhibition.

Interior design students at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco devoted a semester to the project, joining Mini-Charettes on Zoom with Irving A. Gonzales of G7 Architects. They also brainstormed the women, whose requests included full-length mirrors (they had been prevented from watching their form in prison for years).

"We wanted paint!" Said Dyer, who visited the site when it was still in makeshift accommodation. She and others had a particular dislike for gray, a shade associated with metal prison bunks and lockers.

Dyer, a 69-year-old cancer survivor with congestive heart failure, has been using a wheelchair since her hip injury in prison. A giant pirate flag – a nod to the Treasure Island theme – greets visitors upon arrival. Her barrier-free apartment borders on an inner courtyard where she grows pots with tomatoes and radishes.

The landscape itself was designed by Hyunch Sung from Mithun, who selected 10 different tree species. (Because the Treasure Island soil is contaminated with industrial chemicals, the trees are planted in brightly painted containers.) Sung said she approached her work there like designing for high-end customers. "The idea of ​​beauty is underestimated for disadvantaged communities," she said.

Nilda Palacios, 38, who lives upstairs, said it was "emotionally moving" to join the complex. She grew up with a history of abuse: she was abused by an uncle and stepfather as a child and then raped by a high school teacher when she was 15. The stressful trial of the teacher led her to rely on drugs and alcohol ("I've tried to sleep through my life," she said). Palacios became desperate and suicidal. One day when a beggar cornered her, she said she thought he was going to attack her and "whipped" him and strangled him. She was convicted of second degree murder. She was incarcerated for 17 years and benefited from therapists in prison who helped her understand "how the depth of my crime was related to my story," she said. "I mistook someone who wasn't a threat for someone who was."

Palacios was released on parole. She has benefited from a broader vision for Home Free that now welcomes women like her whose crimes have been directly linked to their abuse.

When she moved in, she was "shocked" at the prospect of a private bedroom after years of sharing a 2 x 3 meter cell and stuffing all her belongings into a six cubic foot box, as one current inmate puts it , "Your panties right against the noodles and peanut butter."

“No way, is this my room?” Palacios reminds me. "It felt like a real home to me."

The idea for Home Free came about during a conversation between Schwartz, its founder, and the Californian treasurer Fiona Ma, then a state representative. Ma & # 39; s law, signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2012, allowed women who had suffered domestic violence and were convicted of violent crimes related to their abuse to have their cases reported using Battered Women Syndrome (as it was then was called) to be heard as a defense. The law also gave them the right to produce evidence of intimate partner abuse during the probation process. It applied to those convicted before August 1996.

The number of Rosemary Dyers still behind bars is unknown. According to Debbie Mukamal, the executive director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School and the director of the Regilla Project, a three-year study examining the frequency with which women in the United States are jailed for killing their perpetrators . Small studies, including one in Canada, suggest that 65% of women serving life sentences for the murder of their intimate partners were abused by them before the crime. The link between abuse and violent crime was underscored by dismal statistics in a 1999 US Department of Justice report that showed that a quarter to a third of women incarcerated were molested as adolescents and a quarter to nearly half as adults.

Despite increasing public awareness, "there are still large numbers of defense lawyers who fail to understand how intimate partner violence creates the context for a crime," said Leigh Goodmark, director of the Clinic on Gender-Based Violence at the University of Maryland School of Law.

In New York State, the 2019 Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act was put to the test in the high-profile case of Nicole Addimando, a young mother of two in Poughkeepsie who fatally had her living friend and father of her children in 2017 after years of harrowing years Abuse (the case is captured dramatically in the documentary "And So I Stayed").

Sentenced to 19 years of life for second-degree murder, Addimando was entitled to a subsequent law hearing at which her allegations of abuse could result in a reduced sentence. The district court judge denied these allegations, believing she had "had the opportunity to leave her perpetrator safely". In July, the Appeals Division of the State Supreme Court overturned this decision and reduced Ms. Addimando's term to 7 ½ years.

For Kate Mogulescu, associate professor at Brooklyn Law School and director of the Survivors Justice Project, the case illustrates "the impossible burdens we place on survivors to prove their victimization." Women are tested very differently in court than men, she added. “Women are bad mothers or promiscuous. Tropics are carried out on women and the penalties reflect this. ”However, 16 women have been convicted again in New York so far.

By far the most common reason why women who have been abused by intimate partners end up in prison are the so-called complicity laws, which force a victim to be at the scene of a perpetrator's violence, for example while driving the getaway car, said Colby Lenz, Co-founder of Survived and Punished, a national advocacy group.

That was the case with Tammy Cooper Garvin, who was sexually trafficked at the age of 14 and jailed for 28 years for sitting in the car while her pimp murdered a customer. Her sentence has been commuted and she has been hired as a housing coordinator by Home Free.

Another advocate – and a driving force behind the founding of Home Free – is a fellow survivor named Brenda Clubine, who founded a weekly support group at the California Institution for Women. About 72 women soon joined. Dyer was one of the original members, though until Clubine encouraged her she was so afraid of life that she could barely speak.

Clubine herself was ill-treated for years, including fractures and stab wounds, by her husband, a former police detective. She hit him on the head with a wine bottle and he died of a blunt violent trauma. She served 26 years of a 16 year prison sentence. Her violent retelling of the stories of the women in the prison squad – which she sent to state lawmakers and governors – led to public hearings and the 2009 documentary, Sin by Silence, which in turn inspired California law.

Clubine's close friendship with Dyer has continued and is critical to Dyer's self-confidence. At Home Free, Dyer now indulges in making homemade chicken pasta based on her grandmother's recipe. Clubine, her best friend, found that a safe and empowering place for her "sisters" has been a long time coming. "I can't tell how full my heart is to have it available to you now," she said.

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