Prison offers little to ease domestic violence trauma. This program tries to fill the gaps

The number of women behind bars has risen dramatically in the U.S. over the last four decades. Amna Nawaz and producer Lena Jackson examine why so many women in prison are survivors of domestic violence, and why the trauma left behind from those relationships have such devastating consequences. It’s part of our ongoing series, Searching for Justice.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The number of women behind bars has risen dramatically in the U.S. over the last four decades. And many of those women are survivors of domestic violence.

    Tonight, Amna Nawaz and producer Lena Jackson examine that connection and the scars that remain for many.

    It's part of our ongoing series Searching For Justice.

  • Rosemary Dyer, Domestic Violence Survivor:

    I was afraid. And after so many years of conditioning, you just don't do — I didn't sing, I didn't laugh, I didn't whistle, because it was forbidden.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For more than eight years, Rosemary Dyer says she was relentlessly and brutally abused by her husband.

  • Rosemary Dyer:

    I wasn't allowed to talk with my husband. Speak when spoken to.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What would happen if you did speak?

  • Rosemary Dyer:

    Oh, I got beaten.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    After another violent episode in 1985, Dyer says she feared for her life, she fought back, and ended up shooting and killing her husband.

  • Rosemary Dyer:

    I am extremely sorry that my life came to that, that I had to take his life, because he had been the love of my life.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    At 33 she was sentenced to life in prison, served 34 years, and was released in 2020, when her sentence was commuted. At the age of 69, Dyer is now free. But three decades in prison did little to address the trauma of the abuse that put her there.

  • Rosemary Dyer:

    I didn't know that there were battered women. I didn't know that there was a term for it. I didn't know that other women were being treated like this. I thought it was just me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dyer's story is one of many. According to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, an estimated 70 to 80 percent of incarcerated women are survivors of domestic violence.

    And experts say very few services exist for these women in prison or when they're released.

  • Women:

    God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This program is one of the few, part of a network called A New Way of Life. It offers subsidized housing, legal help, and therapy. Sixty women live in 10 different homes across Los Angeles County. All are formerly incarcerated. Many are survivors of domestic violence.

    It's a safe place for survivors like 33 year-old Vanessa Soto to come after incarceration and a chance to heal.

  • Vanessa Soto, Resident, A New Way Of Life:

    I have been through a lot in my life. You know what I mean? But one thing I can tell you, I am a good mother and I'm a proud mother of six.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Soto has been here seven months. For seven years before that, she struggled with an addiction to crystal meth, cycling in and out of prison for drug and theft-related charges.

    Here, Soto says she has the support she needs to get her life back on track. She's found a job and now has legal support to try to regain custody of her children.

  • Vanessa Soto:

    I love my kids. I do. And I'm determined to get my kids back.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Experts say the kind of services provided here are rare, but badly needed. Women not only make up the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population, but the vast majority of them report having suffered some kind of abuse, either as children or adults.

    Susan Burton, Founder, A New Way of Life: These are women who are really struggling just to survive, and survive through these different experiences, different abuses.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Susan Burton founded A New Way of Life in 1998. She knows the struggles of these women because she's lived them. After her 5-year-old son was run over and killed by a police car, she says she started drinking heavily and began using crack cocaine.

    She went to prison on drug charges, before turning her life around. Burton says poor women of color are especially vulnerable. In fact, more than 40 percent of Black women experience physical violence by an intimate partner, compared with about 30 percent of women overall.

  • Susan Burton:

    Their experiences of coping with abuse, coping with trauma, coping with ill treatment are — is criminalized. It would be so much more effective to support people to recover from abuse, to learn how to navigate around abuse, to support them to live full and hopeful and satisfied lives.

    Renee Wyatt, Social Worker, A New Way of Life: I know you have been having some struggles with some issues in your family.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Social worker Renee Wyatt meets with every single resident here.

    When you finally have a chance to sit down with them one-on-one, how many of them have ever had a therapy session, have been able to talk to someone like you before?

  • Renee Wyatt:

    Oh man.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Very few?

  • Renee Wyatt:

    Very few, because a lot of the ladies that we have weren't safe. They have been molested. They have been trafficked. They have been homeless. They have been beat up. They have been everything.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Many struggle with depression, anxiety, and PTSD from their abuse. For Wyatt, it's familiar ground.

  • Renee Wyatt:

    I was a heroin addict, and I'm a domestic violence survivor. I was homeless in downtown L.A. on Skid Row for 15 years. So, I know. So, my passion is real. I really, really want to help.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In fact, most of the staff here have walked similar paths. Ingrid Archie was abused as a child. As an adult, she fled an abusive relationship, taking her baby with her.

  • Ingrid Archie, Domestic Violence Survivor:

    So, trauma on top of postpartum depression.

    And I made the mistake of leaving my child in the car, because I couldn't take her in a store because it was too overwhelming. I had been asking for help, and it seems like I wasn't getting it. And the response was to remove all of my children and to punish me by incarceration.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Archie first served time for a drug charge, later for shoplifting and child endangerment, then landed here when released in 2015.

  • Ingrid Archie:

    A New Way of Life was like, we're not going to let the system do this to you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The organization helped Archie get her kids back. She now lives with her fiance and two youngest children. She worked in advocacy for a new way of life for five years. And just this month, she left the organization for a new opportunity.

  • Ingrid Archie:

    When you're around people who have been through some of the same things and you have overcome it, it allows for healing much easier.

    It allows for you to not feel so much as a victim. It allows you to take accountability, and it allows for you to move forward in your life and make better decisions, and then go pull in other people.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But reentry programs like this are the exception, and more are needed, says UCLA Professor Jorja Leap.

    Studies show roughly a third of formerly incarcerated women return to prison within three years of their release. Leap's upcoming book, "Entry Lessons," examines the experiences of women released from prison.

    Jorja Leap, Author, "Entry Lessons": The best programs give women a sense of community, that they're not alone, that there are others who have been victims of sexual abuse, victims of domestic violence, that other women know and understand what they have gone through, and they support one another.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And without those services, what could happen?

  • Jorja Leap:

    If they don't have a home to go to, they often go back to the home of the perpetrator. The domestic violence starts again. The self-medication starts again. The criminalization of trauma starts again. And it is a revolving door.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Rosemary Dyer is ready to move on with the help of another program, Five Keys Home Free, for women like her. She's now in free transitional housing near San Francisco.

    What kind of a difference does it make having a place like this?

  • Rosemary Dyer:

    I can breathe. I can lay my head down on the bed and sleep. I am proud of my freedom.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So moving, these extraordinary women.

    And, tomorrow, we will conclude our weeklong Searching For Justice series with a look at one man's efforts to rebuild his life after being wrongly imprisoned for more than two decades.

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