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“In gaining our independence from our abusers, we lost our freedom, yet gained ourselves.
If just one of us walks away from our past, then my efforts have been successful.”

Brenda Clubine - Founder, Convicted Women Against Abuse

Beyond the societal excuses for domestic violence exists a visionary group of women who are determined to become more than a statistic. These women do not meet in corporate boardrooms, national crisis centers, or houses of worship.  Their meetings regularly occur under the institutional glare of California’s oldest female prison, the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Chino, California.

In 1989, Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA) was formed by several women serving life sentences for killing their abusers, and has since grown to a membership of nearly 60 inmates, most of whom stand convicted of first or second-degree murder.  This group was a historical landmark for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation because no funding is provided for inmates with a life sentence to receive any form of therapy while imprisoned. Brenda Clubine, an inmate of 26 years, knew that something must be done. There were numerous fellow inmates who shared her same story, struggles and heartaches of a past filled with abuse. She knew if they could just meet to talk, empower, and uplift one another that they would make progress towards the redemption of healing. However, petition after petition to officially establish the group kept being rejected by the prison board, and only after two years of persistence did Brenda’s dream finally became reality and CWAA officially began.

CWAA is the first inmate initiated and led group in the California prison system. They meet twice a month and provide a setting for abused women to share their past experiences of victimization and to discuss their legal cases. Yet, CWAA is more than a self-help or support group for its members and their lingering effects of abuse. The women also use the gathering to share current news events regarding battered women, current homicide cases, pending legislation, and pertinent court rulings. They share their experiences with the criminal justice system and advise one another on possible legal strategies to affect their potential release.

In the early 1990s, CWAA played an active role in a statewide effort to establish precedence for the psychological circumstances of battered women's lives.  Although battered women's syndrome came into public consciousness and academic debate in the 1980s, the legal system in the United States was slower to accept the syndrome as a mitigating factor in murder cases.  The women of Convicted Women Against Abuse decided to try to make change in a system that did not recognize the intricacies of an abusive relationship.  Through careful orchestration of letter writing campaigns, media coverage, and senate hearings, a movement was born and laws were changed.  In 1992, Battered Women’s Syndrome became legally defined to recognize, and mandatory for use in, the cases of battered women, to help explain to a jury the possibilities that might lead to their crime and circumstances.

Still, 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. 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 compared with their sentences of murder. 

Numerous media representatives from print and broadcast outlets visited the group, to record proceedings and interview individuals about their experiences with abuse and the criminal justice system. Lawyers and law students came to the aid of a number of these incarcerated battered women and more than thirty petitions for clemency were sent to (then) California Governor Pete Wilson.  Due to Wilson’s lack of response, and the Board of Prison Terms unwillingness to release these women, the clemency movement in California had lost much of its momentum by 1995, with only a small handful of the CWAA gaining freedom while many remained incarcerated.  However, the women of CWAA refused to accept their status as powerless prisoners.

In the early 2000s, the women were able to organize another legislative hearing at CIW and activists started petitioning on their behalf.  On January 1, 2002, Penal Code 1473.5 became law, making California the first state in the nation to permit battered women convicted of killing their batterers to file a writ of habeas corpus that challenged their original conviction if sentencing occurred prior to 1992. 

The CWAA efforts have resulted in many of their fellow inmates being released with cases being re-tried and convictions overturned. To-date, 22 women have found freedom because of their efforts. And the women who remain behind bars continue to create new means to have their voices heard.  For their voices are important: they represent the four women who die every day due to abusive relationships, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

CWAA Achievements

1989 - CWAA is approved by Sacramento and became a parole board requirement for those who had cases involving abuse.

1990 - CWAA members compiled a booklet of brief stories about their abuse, domestic violence resources in California and other States, the cycle of abuse, what to do to get help, how to see the signs of abuse, etc. This booklet was sent to every Senator, Legislator, and Governor in every state. The response from this collective endeavor was pivotal in helping politicians understand the plight of convicted survivors.

1990 - CWAA paired up with a local shelter, allowing the women in the shelter to come to CWAA so they could hear first hand the cost domestic violence can take.

September 1991 - Legislative member Jackie Spears of the California Women’s Legislative Caucus organized a public hearing on domestic violence that was attended by approximately 22 dignitaries from the Senate, Legislature and Congress as well as a large group of media.

1991 - Brenda Clubine spoke at The Women’s Clinic in L.A. on a request from the L.A. City Women’s Council with then Mayor Tom Bradley and the LAPD.  The result was a change for DV training of LAPD officers to be increased from 8 hours to 40 hours.

1991 - CWAA wrote a letter to Pete Wilson imploring him to review the cases of battered women and consider clemency.

1991 - The California Coalition for Battered Women formed to help convicted survivors and they began working on getting pro-bono attorneys to represent women eligible for a clemency petition to be filed.

1991/1992 - Media interviews with CWAA began and attracted the attention of outlets such as 20/20, Montel Williams, Sally Jesse Raphael, Time magazine, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

1992 - Legislative hearing was held at CIW and 12 CWAA women shared their testimony.  As a result of the legislative hearing, 1107 of the evidence code was enacted into law allowing Battered Women's Syndrome to be admissible into court. However, this law was not retroactive and did not include the re-trial of survivors convicted before 1992.

1992 - The first two Clemency petitions were granted. Regarding Brenda, the parole board was instructed to find her suitable for parole.

1993 - The first CWAA women were granted clemency: Brenda Aris and Frances Caccavale.

1994 to 2000 - 17 more CWAA women are paroled through the Battered Women's Defense.

2002 - A Senate Hearing is held at CIW and eight CWAA women shared they testimony about their conviction before Battered Women's Syndrome was mandated.  As a result, Penal Code Section 1473.5 passes to allow the filing of a writ of habeas corpus to challenge original convictions if sentencing occurred prior to 1992.

2003 to 2008 - The release of many more CWAA survivors.

2008 - Brenda Clubine, the Founder of CWAA, becomes the 20th survivor to be released.

2009 - The 20th anniversary of Convicted Women Against Abuse.

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