No Choice but to Do It: Why Women Go to Prison

Country/area: United States

Organisation: The Appeal, The New Republic

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 17 Dec 2020

Credit: Justine van der Leun

Project description:

For this piece, I conducted the first-ever national survey of women in prison for murder and manslaughter and learned that at least 30 percent are incarcerated for defending themselves or a loved one from physical or sexual violence. I interwove my findings and analysis with a deep investigation into the case of Tanisha Williams, a Black mother of three serving 20-40 years for taking part in a murder while her abuser held a gun to her head.

Impact reached:

My statistical analysis showed that a majority of my respondents had been abused, found evidence of racial disparities in sentencing, and showed that revictimization – both by partners and the state – was prevalent. I also uncovered deep trauma histories and identified patterns of systems failures long before the women were criminalized. Most notably, my initial numbers showed, for the first time ever, that, at minimum, 30 percent of those held in women’s prisons on murder and manslaughter convictions had been convicted for the act of protecting themselves or loved ones against physical or sexual violence.

My 8,000-word piece, published in December 2020, was widely circulated, and featured on Longreads, Longform, Politico, The Marshall Project, and Bloomberg News, among others. Law professors and attorneys wrote that they would be citing me, and the American Bar Association included the piece in their newsletter and on their site. The journalist Pamela Colloff called the article “groundbreaking,” and the activist and educator Mariame Kaba called it “a real public service.” Several people reached out to speak with me, including government officials and advocates in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and New York. Through my reporting, the piece’s main subject secured pro bono legal representation by one of the top clemency lawyers for incarcerated survivors  in the US, as well as support from several organizations, including the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project at the University of Michigan, Survived & Punished, and the American Friends’ Service Committee’s Michigan branch. In January 2021, her lawyer submitted her clemency application, along with my article, to Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Techniques/technologies used:

Through years of reporting, I learned from attorneys, educators, and advocates that abuse often played a role in the crimes of incarcerated women; and that a significant portion were serving time for defending themselves or a loved one. But there was no research to show the numbers. In order to find them, I decided to reach out directly to women in prison. In January 2019, with the guidance of a Yale political science professor, I designed the first-ever non-priming nationwide study of women serving time for murder. It was a simple 16-page survey that included 16 questions, as well as an area in which the respondents fill out their name, state, age, and race. For the purposes of the article, I gathered and analyzed 608 responses from a total of 5098 surveys sent to all women serving time on murder and manslaughter charges in 22 states. I read each survey and assessed abuse and trauma, as well as demographics, legal situations, etc. I coded everything by hand, and then entered those codes into an extensive Excel spreadsheet. I then hired a person with statistics experience to help run the data. He cleaned the data first, then ran correlations through STATA to look at relationships, and any promising correlations, then performed regression analysis. The method of analysis depended on how the dependent variable was coded. 

What was the hardest part of this project?

The research for this piece was exhaustive, a nearly two-year process. As an independent journalist, I did not have a research assistant or the resources of an institution: I FOIA’d nearly 50 states on my own, followed up with them for months, printed surveys in batches, hand-addressed envelopes, hand-wrote the salutations, and signed each letter. For the purposes of this article, I sent out over 5000 surveys and received over 600 lengthy responses, often pages long — because I did not prime the respondents, much of the key information was contained in their writings. I coded them by hand, and entered them into a spreadsheet; I had the statistics run by four different data scientists and fact-checked. For Tanisha Williams’ story, I FOIA’d the Michigan Attorney General, and then spent months combing through nearly 3000 pages of trial transcripts, as well as lengthy police files and background documents. I interviewed witnesses, family members, attorneys, experts, educators, and organizers. 

No government entity keeps this data, or even necessarily recognizes the existence of such cases, and this population is regularly “disappeared” into prisons, their voices silenced and experiences erased by the state. This is the first-ever research project conducted to understand the depth and breadth of criminalized survival in women’s prisons. Not only did it unveil the sheer quantity of women serving time for surviving, it amassed an immense amount of qualitative data about their lives and pasts. It was intended to be narrative, but also to be useful, and can be employed to shift policy and public perception.

What can others learn from this project?

Data is not just for the people with polisci degrees or institutional backing, and data journalism doesn’t have to be extremely high-tech or involve elaborate graphics; data can be used. Any journalist can learn how to employ data, as I did with this project. It is an especially important tool for helping tell the stories of marginalized people, who are so often dismissed, and for demonstrating the existence of an entrenched widespread issue. In my case, I was dealing not only with abuse survivors, who always face skepticism, but with incarcerated people, who are systematically denied their own narratives. There is strength in literal numbers, and so I was able to utilize data as a form of storytelling, as a way to support a larger argument, as a way to expose a structural issue, and as a way to center the voices of the silence. 

This piece of work shows how a reporter can blend traditional, rigorous reporting and fact-finding with a unique approach to gathering information that is typically hidden or out of reach (especially when it comes to those who are incarcerated). It also demonstrates the possibilities for using data gathering in fresh ways, to bring forward new voices, to better center suppressed stories, and to make systemic arguments, all without relying on the permission of government officials or on larger institutions. The piece, which interweaves research and human stories, also shows how a deeply-investigated and beautifully-written narrative can humanize data, create a propulsive and emotional story arc, and expose the nuances and intricacies of entrenched injustices. 

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