NEW YORK ― Her mother couldn’t be there to tell her story, so Nikki Smalls-Williams, 29, did it for her.
On a warm Thursday evening, she sat at the front of a crowded room of prison reform supporters and recited the dark details of the abuse that her mother experienced before she ended up behind bars.
Smalls-Williams said that her mother, Jacqueline Smalls, 55, was beaten by her boyfriend and he strangled her on more than one occasion. When she tried to call 911, he broke her phone. Then one night Smalls killed him in what she said was self-defense; he had an order of protection telling him to stay away, folded up inside his pocket.
Smalls-Williams shared her mother’s story at an event intended to highlight the plight of New York women incarcerated for acts of self-defense and to pressure Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to grant them clemency. It was organized by the New York chapter of Survived and Punished, a prison abolition organization that works with imprisoned survivors of gender-based violence.
In 2018 the group kicked off #FreeThemNY, a campaign calling on Cuomo to use his clemency power to free survivors of gender-based violence held in New York prisons. On its website, the campaign is lobbying for four incarcerated women, and it says there are many others with similar stories who it believes should have their sentences commuted.
Smalls, one of the women spotlighted by the campaign, is incarcerated at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. She is serving a 15-year sentence for first-degree manslaughter.
“Just send my mom home,” Smalls-Williams said in a tearful appeal to Cuomo.
Cuomo is seeking his third term this year. He is challenged by Cynthia Nixon, the former “Sex and the City” actress who has cast herself as the progressive alternative. She has pledged to pardon and commute the sentences of survivors of domestic violence and rape who are incarcerated for acts of self-defense.
At a Wednesday event at the Fortune Society, an organization that provides re-entry services for people coming out of prison, Nixon gently dinged Cuomo for not using his clemency power more often and said she would start by considering cases of women in prison for fighting back against their abusers.
“If you look at the record of our current governor, in terms of offering commutations and pardons, he is very spare with them, as opposed to say, someone like Jerry Brown in California,” she said. “We need to end mass incarceration, and one way to do that is to look at who is in prison right now and who can be pardoned and whose sentenced can be commuted and who shouldn’t be in there.”
Advocates who spoke to HuffPost said they hoped Cuomo will feel pressured to act on the issue because of Nixon’s progressive stance. Since she jumped into the race, he has moved left on a number of issues — a phenomenon that Nixon’s team has dubbed the Cynthia effect.
During his time in office, Cuomo has commuted 12 prison sentences and pardoned 181 people.
One of the people he set free was domestic violence survivor Valerie Seeley in 2016. She was sentenced to 19 years to life for killing her abusive boyfriend. She was granted release at the age of 61, after serving 15 years behind bars.
In an email, Cuomo spokesman Colin Brennan defended the governor’s record, saying he has issued more clemencies than any other New York governor in the modern era. Brennan added that under state guidelines, a person must serve at least half the minimum prison term to be eligible for clemency. He noted that of the four women put forth by the campaign, three are not yet eligible because they haven’t served enough time.
Ericka Persson, an advocate with Survived and Punished, called the guidelines “ambiguous and arbitrary” and said they could be changed.
“Cuomo has the power to free these criminalized survivors of gendered violence right now, and that is what we are urging him to do,” she said.
While data is scant on how often domestic violence survivors are incarcerated for crimes directly related to their abuse, advocates said it is a common occurrence. One study by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision found that 67 percent of women sent to prison in 2005 for killing someone close to them were abused by that person.
Nationally, women in prison have high rates of victimization from gender-based violence. More than half the women in state prisons and local jails report having been physically or sexually abused.
Over the past few years, organizers with Survived and Punished have been pivotal in bringing national attention to cases in which women or girls were prosecuted for acts taken to protect themselves. They advocated in support of Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot near her estranged husband, and Bresha Meadows, a 14-year-old girl who was charged with murder for shooting her abusive father in the head.
Despite some media attention on high-profile cases, advocates say incarcerated women are still waiting for their Me Too moment.
In an interview with HuffPost, Smalls-Williams said she is struggling to make decisions about the future while her mother is still incarcerated. She doesn’t want to have kids if her mother won’t be around to be a grandmother to them, for example.
“I feel like I have to put my life on hold because of things I want her to experience with me,” Smalls-Williams said.
The day her mother is released, Smalls-Williams said, it is her dream to pick her up in a limousine and take her to a hotel for a spa day.
“Just make her feel like a woman,” she said.
The story has been updated with comment from Ericka Persson, an advocate with Survived and Punished.