When victims become killers: The last stop for some women in abusive relationships is prison

On the cool November night that Eileen Row shot her live-in boyfriend in the head with a Colt semi-automatic handgun, she drove three miles to the nearest pay phone, called the police and told them what she'd done.

It was 1997, and it was the first time in nearly five years that she'd left their secluded country house without him.

"I wasn't allowed to have a job. I wasn't allowed to go anywhere without him. We didn't have a phone. And he never let the keys to the pickup out of his sight," recalls Row, 62, who is 10 years into a life sentence at the Central California Women's Prison, or CCWP, in Chowchilla. "I remember shooting him but I don't. I remember it in flashes."

By the time she became a killer, Row had been torn down by years of verbal abuse and isolation. By every modern definition, she is a survivor of domestic violence. But that is an understanding she's only recently reached -- and only after being convicted of second-degree murder.

"I didn't know that there were other kinds of abuse besides the physical kind," says Row, a soft-spoken woman with wavy gray hair and a pale complexion. "For a long time, I didn't know that I was a victim of domestic violence."

Of all places, it is here, inside the walls of the nation's largest women's prison, that Row has found solace, validation and a true understanding of her past.

She is one of about 30 CCWP inmates who gather in a large room every Monday night to talk about domestic violence and how it has affected their lives. The support group is run by A Woman's Place, a nonprofit organization based in Merced that provides a wide array of services for victims of domestic violence. Most of the prisoners who attend are incarcerated for life, and most of them are here for killing an abusive husband or boyfriend.

They are unlike other victims of domestic violence. In addition to the trauma of abuse, they must deal with a host of additional loads -- guilt, shame, regret and all that comes with life on the inside.

"My hope for every (woman in the group) is that she stops beating herself up forever, that she realizes she is not alone and that she finds purpose in life, even if she spends the rest of it here," said Helen Mayo, a volunteer with A Woman's Place who has facilitated the Monday night support group since 1992.

Inmates in for life find help

At this week's meeting, women in light blue T-shirts begin drifting in from dinner a few minutes after 6 p.m. Mayo and another volunteer have already rearranged a mass of chairs into a large circle. By 6:15 p.m., only a dozen women have arrived -- far fewer than the usual 30 or so. Mayo explains that this week, the domestic violence support group is competing with a support group across the hall for long-termers -- two categories with a lot of overlap.

Mayo starts each meeting the same way. A veteran of the group, this time an articulate woman wearing glasses and a neatly arranged bun, is asked to explain the rules for first-timers. Foremost is confidentiality, says the woman, 56-year-old Marcia Bunney, who has been at CCWP for 25 years. She was convicted in 1981 of killing an abusive boyfriend. "What's said in this room stays in this room," she says. Be respectful, she adds. Don't talk over each other.

Mayo then asks if there are any announcements from the group. Bunney reports that she's heard from a former group member who was recently paroled, and that she is adjusting well to life outside. The news draws smiles.

Next Mayo poses a question: What would you like the world to know about who you are today? One woman struggles to find her words. Another named Lisa says she's more confident now that she's getting better at standing up for herself.

"Being in the group has been really good for me," said Ruth Ramirez, 64, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1995. "I've learned that the person who batters you is responsible for their own actions. It's not your fault, even if he told you that you deserved it."

Domestic violence support groups such as the one at CCWP are both necessary in state prisons and too rarely found there, says Andrea Bible, director of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Free Battered Women. "Our prisons are basically the state's largest domestic violence shelters," said Bible. "For a lot of victims of abuse, prison is the last stop."

While domestic violence support groups aren't uncommon in prisons, they are far from consistently available. And almost all are offered by nonprofit agencies like A Woman's Place, not by the prisons themselves. "These women are in such desperate need of support by the time they get to the prison system," said Bible. "So these groups are incredibly vital ... They're often the only source of validation and healing these women have access to."

Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but experts estimate that of the nearly 12,000 women imprisoned in California, a majority are survivors of domestic violence. Often, said Bible, there is a direct connection between the abuse an offender has endured and the crime she's committed.

Most obvious are cases like Row's, in which a victim ends up killing or seriously hurting her abuser. Less obvious examples include domestic violence victims who are forced by an abusive partner to commit a crime on the abuser's behalf, such as to carry drugs for him.

And Bible said she sees a surprising number of cases in which domestic violence victims are coerced by an abusive partner to confess to a crime that the abuser committed. "When a batterer is threatening your life or threatening to kill your family if you don't take the blame, it's hard to say no," she explained.

1992 law allows more evidence in court

While advocates says there is still much to be done in domestic violence law, a 1992 addition to the state's evidence code has meant important improvements. Before 1992, the decision of whether to allow expert testimony about domestic violence an offender has endured was left to individual judges, and many judges chose to keep it out, said Nancy Lemon, a co-founder of Free Battered Women who now teaches domestic violence law at UC Berkeley. Under the 1992 addition, such testimony is now always admissible.

Today, Lemon added, it is standard practice for defense attorneys to use witnesses with expertise in the dynamics of domestic violence in all cases where it might apply. Moreover, women convicted before the law took effect can now petition for release if such expert testimony was kept out of their cases. "The basic argument here is about fairness," said Lemon. "If domestic violence has played a role in a defendant's crime, that needs to be recognized."

For women who've killed their abusive partners, the new rules have meant more acquittals and lighter sentences. Still, advocates argue that many victims of domestic violence who acted in self-defense or under extreme duress have been slapped with penalties that are far too harsh.

Mayo is one such advocate. "I still think there's progress to be made," she said. She adds that one reason why many of the women in the CCWP support group have been incarcerated for so long is that many committed their crimes before 1992.

Most weeks, the meeting at CCWP breaks into four subgroups. A subgroup of veteran members usually runs itself and discusses domestic violence issues and cases that have been in the news. A group of newcomers gets an introduction to the dynamics of domestic violence and shares personal stories. Most members cycle in and out of a subgroup for victims of sexual assault. A few Spanish-speakers usually break off on their own.

This week, because of its smaller size, the group stays together. Discussion flows easily between issues related to domestic violence -- the stigma that still surrounds it, the need for control that drives it -- and issues related to life in prison -- the lack of privacy, the nosy, gossipy dorm-mates.

They talk about learning the art of patience, a valuable tool for anyone who lives confined. "It's not like anyone's late for a hot date," jokes one woman. Laughter erupts surprisingly often here.

To avoid becoming institutionalized, Mayo tells the women to commit one courageous act a day, no matter how small. Confidence and self-esteem are topics that the women often talk about.

Why Eileen Row became a killer

For Row, those are two virtues the Monday night meetings have restored. "The group has changed everything for me," she says.

A Merced High School graduate, Row went on to work at the Hershey's chocolate plant in Oakdale. She worked on cattle ranches in the county for several years and met her boyfriend through their mutual interest in team roping. They dated for about six months before moving in together in 1992 to a small house near the Merced-Mariposa County line.

The verbal abuse started soon after, Row remembers, as he slowly took control of every phase of her life.

"I know now that there were other options, but at the time, it seemed like the only way out," said Row. "In my generation, what went on at home stayed behind closed doors. You didn't talk about it. You didn't tell anyone."

Although Row says she will always feel withering remorse for what she did, the shame has subsided. "I take responsibility for my actions, but he's responsible too ... I don't have to carry so much guilt on my back." Row credits the support group, which she first attended at the urging of another inmate, with her progress.

So does Bunney: "It's enabled me to make peace with my past and to repair relationships with my family ... I'm stronger. I'm patient. I'm less self-centered."

Mayo, who worked as a counselor at A Woman's Place until her retirement, takes special care with women about to be paroled, making sure they understand how to stay safe once they're out. "A lot of times when women leave prison, they may be going back to a dangerous situation," said Mayo. "I've heard so many women say they feel safer here than they ever did on the outside."

She has seen four members of the support group released in the 15 years she's led the group.

CCWP rules limit the group's enrollment, and there is always a waiting list to join. After 36 weeks in the group, a woman must give up her spot to someone waiting. Most sign the list to get back in as soon as their 36 weeks are up.

"These women have amazing stamina," Mayo marvels. "They've lived through so much, and they continue to hope." And, she says, they help each tremendously.

"It's nice to hear that someone else has gone through the same thing as you," says Row. "It helps to know you're not the only one."

As 8 p.m. approached, Mayo dismissed the group. Outside, in a large courtyard enclosed by tall steel fences and razor wire, two women walked back to their quarters. They stopped and hugged. Then they walked on toward the dim light.

Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at 209-385-2477 or creilly@mercedsun-star.com.

About A Woman's Place

A Woman's Place is a nonprofit organization that provides a wide range of services to local victims of domestic violence and rape. Among its programs are a 24-hour crisis line, an emergency safehouse, temporary food and housing, counseling, a variety of legal services, transportation, support groups, training for law enforcement officers and treatment programs for batterers. Its services are among the most comprehensive in the state, and they are free to all victims.

To contact A Woman's Place, call 209-725-7900.

To reach its 24-hour confidential crisis line, call 209-722-4357.