Why Are So Many Abused Women Going To Jail In America?

Michelle Byrom was on death row for 15 years. Hours before her execution, her conviction was overturned. This story is not about the problems with the criminal justice system. This is about our ability to turn our heads away from abuse and punish the people who stand up for themselves. R29's Elisa Kreisinger takes a hard look at why women like Byrom end up in this situation. Welcome to episode 4 of our podcast, Strong Opinions Loosely Held. In 1999, Byrom was convicted of fatally shooting her husband, Edward Byrom, Sr. As more evidence rolled in, it was discovered that her son actually committed the murder in order to stop his father from abusing his mother. Even though she did not kill her husband, she took the blame for it to protect her son. Like Byrom, a staggering number of women who kill their spouses have been abused, research suggests. One study conducted in Georgia in 1992 found that in "60% of the cases where a woman killed her significant other, the woman claims the victim assaulted or abused her at the time of the crime." And if that doesn't hit close to your heart, corrections officials in New York reported that "67% of women sent to prison in 2005 for killing someone close to them were abused by the victim of their crime." In this episode, Refinery 29 features writer Vanessa Golembewski talks with Byrom weeks after her release and questions the bias baked into a system that’s supposed to protect women. We chatted with Kreisinger about this important podcast topic:

Statistics about the number of female prisoners who were abused by their victims are pretty staggering. Why do you think there is not enough attention brought to this subject?
"That’s why we decided to do this story using Michelle’s own words. Not enough attention is brought to the topic of female victims acting in self-defense against their abusers. And that’s because it’s not an easy one to dissect. To bring attention to the topic means unraveling a system of male privilege baked not only into our intimate relationships but into the criminal justice system we’re told is there to protect us. "It’s interesting how many recent cases where crimes committed by men in self-defense have been acquitted. Women don’t receive this benefit. There’s still the perception that female victims are to blame for their abuse. We live in a system that’s built to protect men from each other, and women’s experiences rarely factor in. And that fact doesn’t easily fit neatly into an episode of Law & Order."

Do you think the outcome of the case would have been different if this happened now, in 2016, instead on 1999?
"Unfortunately, no. I think the inconsistencies in the case highlight that this wasn’t an oversight or the result of bad local government. She was pressured by the sheriff to take the blame. The sheriff admits to personal gain with her arrest. Her son confesses to the murder both verbally and in a written statement and that wasn’t admitted at trial. "These circumstances surrounding her arrest lead me to believe that this is a deep systemic issue that highlights the privilege and power embedded in the criminal justice system at every level. In U.S. law, killing in self-defense is not a crime."

How did Vanessa find this story?
"I love that Vanessa found this story by questioning the accuracy behind Orange Is the New Black. [She told us:] 'I was just in the office at Refinery29 doing some research. I was thinking about Orange Is the New Black, which the new season was just about to come out, and I was doing research about women in prison. Because I thought, How accurate is this show, right? So I eventually found myself looking at women on death row. And a lot of the stories about women on death row are similar — pretty grotesque crimes. But I got to Michelle’s case, and it just seemed so different.'"
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