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San Francisco housing complex gives victims of domestic violence a fresh start

Tucked away on her Chesterfield sofa, her power wheelchair close at hand, Rosemary Dyer examined the glittering peacock figures she had purchased on her first solo trip to San Francisco’s Chinatown after her release from prison, and admired the bright tablecloth with silk flowers in her new living room.

Dyer, an effervescent woman with a mischievous sense of humor, brought these and other prized possessions to Home Free, a new transitional apartment complex in San Francisco. It was designed for women who have been jailed for killing their abusive partner or being at a crime scene coerced by an abusive spouse or boyfriend. Dyer was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole in 1988 for the shooting death in 1985 of her eight-year-old husband, who abused and tortured her, at a time when expert testimony related to domestic violence and its effects were not permitted. in court in most states.

The insidious villainy that defined her life included being repeatedly beaten and sodomized with a loaded handgun. Her husband had dug a grave in the backyard, saying he intended to bury her alive.

Home Free – where Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2020 Dyer’s Switch is proudly hung on the wall – was created by Five Keys Schools and Programs, a statewide nonprofit that provides education, training professional, therapeutic programs and housing for inmates and new releases. The five-bedroom, two-bedroom apartment complex is the result of years of advocacy by survivors of intimate partner violence and the organizations that work with them. Their efforts have enabled women like Dyer to secure their release by pardon or by retroactively presenting evidence of their abuse to the state parole board or the courts.

“The fact that women who have suffered unspeakable violence against them have not been allowed to provide evidence of the abuse is the epitome of injustice,” said Sunny Schwartz, founder of Five Keys. “We are committed to creating a vibrant, dignified and safe home, a place that says ‘you are worth it.’ “

Previous transitional housing options for women were largely limited to those dealing with substance abuse. Home Free, on Treasure Island, a former naval base in the San Francisco Bay area, was forged during the pandemic last year with a tight start-up budget of $ 750,000, including staff. The once grimy apartments have been renovated with the help of nearly 100 volunteers – architects and landscapers, flooring and cabinet installers, plumbers, transporters, 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 dedicated a semester to the project, joining mini-charettes on Zoom with Irving A. Gonzales of G7 Architects. They also reflected with the women, whose desires included full-length mirrors (they had been denied in prison to monitor their form for years).

“We wanted color! said Dyer, who visited the construction site while still in temporary accommodation. She and others had a particular aversion to gray, a shade associated with bunks and metal prison lockers.

A 69-year-old cancer survivor with congestive heart failure, Dyer has been using a wheelchair since she injured her hip in prison. A huge pirate flag – a nod to the Treasure Island theme – greets visitors as they arrive. Her accessible apartment adjoins a patio where she grows pots of tomatoes and radishes.

The landscape itself was designed by Hyunch Sung of the Mithun firm, who chose 10 different tree species. (Because the soil on Treasure Island is contaminated with industrial chemicals, the trees are planted in brightly colored containers.) Sung said she approached her work there as if designing for high-end clients. . “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 resort. She grew up with a history of abuse: she was assaulted as a child by an uncle and a stepfather, then raped at the age of 15 by a high school teacher. The teacher’s stressful ordeal made her dependent on drugs and alcohol (“I was trying to sleep my life,” she says). Palacios became distraught and suicidal. When a beggar cornered her one day, she said, she thought he was planning to attack her and “went on a rampage”, strangling her. She was convicted of second degree murder. Incarcerated for 17 years, she benefited from therapists in prison who helped her understand “how the depth of my crime relates to my story,” she said. “I confused someone who was not a threat for someone who was.”

Palacios was paroled. She benefited from a broader vision for Home Free, which now welcomes women like her, whose crimes were directly linked to their abuse.

Upon moving in, she was “shocked” at the prospect of a private room after years of sharing an 8 x 10 foot cell and cramming all her things into a six cubic foot box, with, as one inmate put it, current. , “your panties against noodles and peanut butter.”

“No way, is this my room?” Palacios recalled. “It felt like a real house to me.”

The idea for Home Free arose during a conversation between Schwartz, its founder, and the state treasurer of California, Fiona Ma, then the deputy of the state. Ma’s legislation, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012, allowed women who had experienced domestic violence and been convicted of violent crimes related to their abuse the opportunity to have their cases heard again using Women’s Syndrome. beaten (as it was called then) as a defense. The law also gave them the right to present evidence of abuse by intimate partners during the parole process. It applied to persons convicted before August 1996.

The number of Rosemary Dyers still behind bars is unknown. About 12,000 women are currently incarcerated for homicide nationwide, said Debbie Mukamal, executive director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School and director of the Regilla Project, a three-year effort to study the frequency with which women in the United States are jailed for killing their attackers. Small studies, including one in Canada, suggest that 65% of women serving a life sentence for the murder of their intimate partner had been assaulted by them before the offense. The link between abuse and violent crime was highlighted by grim statistics in a 1999 US Department of Justice report showing that a quarter to a third of incarcerated women had been abused as minors and only a quarter to almost a half in adulthood.

Despite increased public awareness, “there are still a large number of criminal lawyers who do not understand how intimate partner violence creates the context for a crime,” said Leigh Goodmark, director of the gender-based violence clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law.

In New York State, the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, enacted in 2019, was put to the test in the high-profile case of Nicole Addimando, a young mother of two in Poughkeepsie who shot and killed her baby friend and his father. children in 2017 after years of heartbreaking abuse (the case is dramatically captured in the documentary film “And So I Stayed.”)

Sentenced to 19 years in life for second degree murder, Addimando was entitled to a subsequent hearing under the law, where her allegations of abuse could be factored into a reduced sentence. The county court judge dismissed the allegations, saying she “had been given the opportunity to leave her attacker safely.” In July, the appeals division of the state Supreme Court overturned the decision, reducing the length of Ms. Addimando’s detention to 7.5 years.

For Kate Mogulescu, associate professor at Brooklyn Law School and director of its Survivors Justice Project, the case illustrates “the impossible burdens we place on survivors to prove their victimization.” Women are scrutinized by the courts in a very different way than men, she added. “With women, they are a bad mother, or promiscuous. The tropes are trotted on women and the punishments reflect this. However, so far 16 women have been punished in New York.

By far the most common reason that women who have been abused by intimate partners end up in prison are accomplice laws, in which a victim is forced to be at the scene of an abuser’s violence, like driving the getaway car, said Colby Lenz, co-founder of Survived and Punished, a national rights organization.

This was the case with Tammy Cooper Garvin, a victim of sex trafficking at the age of 14 and jailed for 28 years for being in the car while her pimp murdered a client. Her sentence was commuted and she was hired by Home Free as a residential coordinator.

Another advocate – and a guiding force behind the founding of Home Free – is another survivor named Brenda Clubine, who started a weekly support group at the California Institution for Women. Some 72 women quickly joined. Dyer was one of the original members, but until Clubine encouraged her, she was so terrified of life that she could barely speak.

Clubine herself had suffered years of abuse, including broken bones and stab wounds, by her husband, a former police detective. She hit her head with a bottle of wine and he died of blunt trauma. She served 26 years of a 16 life sentence. Her fierce retelling of the stories of the women in the prison group – which she sent to state lawmakers and governors – led to public hearings and the 2009 documentary “Sin by Silence,” which in turn inspired California laws.

Clubine’s close friendship with Dyer continued and is essential to Dyer’s rebounding confidence. At Home Free, Dyer now delights in making homemade noodles with chicken from his grandmother’s recipe. Clubine, his BFF, found that a safe and strengthening place for his “sisters” was long overdue. “I can’t say how full my heart feels that he’s available to them now,” she said.


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Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.