When Brenda Clubine’s husband Robert died, there were 11 restraining orders against him
Brenda knew she should have trusted her instincts that night, when she met him to sign their divorce papers. She knew the abuse would never end. Defending herself, she hit Robert on the head with a wine bottle and fled for safety.
In 1983, Brenda Clubine received a sentence of 15 years to life after refusing a plea bargain that would have imprisoned her for only eight years. Brenda knew she was innocent. Her husband was twice her size, a retired police detective respected in the community, but a terror behind closed doors. During the years of abuse, Brenda endured broken bones, skull fractures, nights in hospitals. She had medical records, photos and witnesses, yet was still found guilty of murdering her abusive husband.
Upon incarceration at the California Institution for Women in Chino, Calif., Brenda was sure that she was the only one in her situation. Yet Brenda soon discovered that she shared common experiences of love turning violent with many of her fellow inmates. They shared their whispered stories in the yard, but didn't have a way to work through their pain and learn from it. Brenda knew this was a crucial step in their recovery and she decided to organize a group where the women could learn about the cycle of violence and free themselves from its clutches.
A prison support group had never created from the inside, and Brenda endured a three-year battle with the prison bureaucracy to ensure that the women who needed help could find solace. In 1989, the first weekly meeting of Convicted Women Against Abuse began with just a few inmates and has now multiplied to over 60 members.
This support group, the first of its kind in the entire US prison system, began to help women inside prison break the silence about abuse and learn more about what they needed to do to help others stop the cycle of violence. Brenda, and many others, wanted to heal from their past and look forward to a promising future…even if that was in prison.
Brenda, and the CWAA women, played an active role in a statewide clemency movement for battered women in prison in the early 1990s. By 1992, Battered Women’s Syndrome had become legally defined to recognize the psychological condition that describes someone who has been the victim of consistent and/or severe domestic abuse. This defense had become widely used in the cases of battered women who kill because it helps explain to a jury the circumstances that might lead to their crime.
Yet there was cause for protest from the women of CWAA since the majority were convicted prior to the availability of the Battered Women’s Syndrome defense being given its proper weight in court. Brenda, and the women of CWAA, took a stand for what could be their improper convictions, since battered women who kill would now be receiving, on average, a 6-8 year sentence of involuntary manslaughter.
In 2007, after spending 11 years at an institution in Northern California, Brenda was transferred back to the California Institution for Women and became involved in the documentary SIN BY SILENCE. The filmmakers, who were completing what they thought would be their last shoot inside the California Institution for Women, realized Brenda completed a missing piece of the film, and they continued production in order to include the legacy of CWAA from the founder herself.
As Brenda came back into her own as the founder of CWAA at meetings, the son she had been told was dead by his adoptive parents found his mother through the SIN BY SILENCE website. A story of perseverance and belonging began to take shape. Through this story of the reuniting of Brenda and her son Joe, the film captured an incredible unfolding universal truth - the struggle to survive and be with the ones you love.
In October 2008, Brenda Clubine became the 20th CWAA member to be released from prison and now continues her advocacy efforts on behalf of domestic violence survivors beyond prison walls. Life in the free world is not easy, yet Brenda is experiencing moments she had only dreamed of: seeing the ocean for the first time, savoring food she’d only been able to see in magazines, being excited to sit in traffic, learning how to use a cell phone, and finally being able to hold her son in her arms for the first time since her incarceration. But she also faces many new challenges to bring the CWAA voices into the free world as she embarks on a new quest to help not only incarcerated survivors, but also victims on their path to independence.
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