Tanisha Williams met Kevin Amos on December 29, 2002, the last day of his life.

Kevin, 19, lived with his parents, but sometimes visited his girlfriend and their infant daughter at the red-shingled apartment complex in Saginaw, a mid-Michigan city where Tanisha, 20, and her 32-year-old roommate, Patrick Martin, shared a basement two-bedroom. It was a dry, frigid winter, and a thin layer of snow coated the ground. That evening, Kevin came by for a drink. Patrick introduced him to Tanisha. She poured two glasses of Crown Royal on ice. Patrick had already been drinking all day. In a bedroom, three of Patrick’s children were watching TV. After a time, Tanisha headed to the kitchen. She heard Patrick’s voice rise and stepped back into the living room, where she saw Kevin bleeding from the mouth and Patrick’s hand raw, ...

...investigating the story of Nicole Addimando, a young mother in upstate New York who had killed her abusive partner in what she said was an act of self-defense. In the course of that reporting, I came upon dozens of cases across the country in which a woman insisted that she had been trying to protect herself or a loved one, while the state countered that she was a cold-blooded killer and sought a harsh prison sentence. The stories were voluminous but anecdotal. Race and socioeconomic circumstances often played a prominent role, which is fitting given the history of gender-based criminalization in the United States. One of the first recorded cases occurred in 1855, when an enslaved Missouri 19-year-old named Celia killed her master, who had raped her since she was 14. She was represented by a slave owner, convicted by a white male jury, gave birth to a stillborn baby, and was hanged.

I found limited studies, conducted in single prisons or states, consistently showing that up to 94 percent of people in some women’s detention facilities experienced physical and sexual violence prior to incarceration. However, I couldn’t find systemic data to support what experts told me, and what I witnessed while reporting: Women’s prisons are populated not only by abuse and assault survivors, but by people who are incarcerated for their acts of survival.

About 230,000 women and girls are incarcerated, an increase of more than 700 percent since 1980. The female prison population is dwarfed by the larger population of more than two million men, on whom conversations about mass incarceration center. For most people in prison, the criminal legal system has stripped away context and circumstance, leaving only a conviction on record. 

Women must also navigate gendered binaries in a system designed by and for men: Offenders are violent, victims are docile; offenders kill, victims die. Female victims should fit a paradigm of innocence: a petite, heterosexual white woman with a clean record. Tanisha does not conform, though she has been unyieldingly victimized. But even women who do square with the paradigm struggle because they survived. “Lawyers say the only correct battered woman when talking about self-defense is a dead one,” Sue Osthoff, co-founder of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, told me. By engaging in violence in order to live, a woman cannot be a victim. Her survival itself becomes reason to condemn her.

In January 2019, I interviewed Rachel White-Domain, a post-conviction attorney for incarcerated survivors of domestic violence in Illinois. I pressed her, as I had others, for data on women in prison for defending themselves. White-Domain did not know the statistics. “If you’re so interested, you could just ask the women directly,” she said. That comment was the seed from which this work has grown.

In consultation with Thania Sanchez, then an assistant professor of political science at Yale University, I designed 16 questions to assess the abuse and trauma backgrounds and unique pathways of women into U.S. prisons. (Sanchez now works in the ACLU’s data and analytics department.)

My two-page survey asked for demographic information—age, race, and sentence length—and posed qualitative questions. Those who speak of abuse are subject to doubt and skepticism; in a courtroom or a prison, they are often accused of trying to avoid consequences by making “the abuse excuse.” To reduce any appearance of dishonesty, I did not ask “priming” questions about domestic abuse, sexual violence, or self-defense. Instead, my queries concerned the respondent’s relationship to the person they were convicted of killing; the days leading up to the event; factors they believed contributed to their conviction.

I contacted the media liaison or public information officer at the departments of corrections in the majority of states and requested a list of all women incarcerated on murder and manslaughter charges. Some officials denied my request, but many sent names: more than 1,000 in Florida, just 11 in Maine. Once I had the lists, I filled in each salutation by hand.

As in any data collection effort, the majority of recipients did not respond. People in prison face particular hurdles in corresponding: censorial mailroom staff, fear of retribution from staff and administration, distrust of media, legal concerns, and constraints that include count times, chow calls, and lockdowns. Incarcerated respondents had to pay for a 55-cent stamp despite working jobs that were unpaid or, in some states, began at less than 4 cents an hour.

Mental illness, which affects nearly half of those in prison, was another hurdle: “Every prosecutor describes women convicted of murder as cunning, diabolical, monster, and evil,” Kwaneta Harris wrote from Texas. “I’ve yet to encounter these ‘monsters.’ Although I’ve met plenty of women with mental illness, untreated and undiagnosed … the ones who you really need to talk to are too mentally damaged to talk to you.”

Still, 604 cisgender women, one transgender woman, and three transgender men replied. They said that they wanted their stories told: sometimes anonymously, sometimes with their identities central. Many wanted to make known their own experiences and those of others. One woman serving life in prison, who had transferred between state and federal facilities for 17 years, repeated a common sentiment: “I have lived amongst thousands of different women prisoners from different countries, ethnicities, and cultures. I have probably come across six of these women whom I would even think were murderers. Many of us were defending ourselves, with the wrong people at the wrong time, taking cases for someone else, or not guilty completely.” 

The racial breakdown of responses roughly mirrored that of the larger female prison population, which is majority white but disproportionately women of color. My respondents were 53.7 percent white; 32.7 percent Black; 8.8 percent Hispanic; 3 percent American Indian and Alaska Native; 1 percent mixed race; and 0.8 percent Asian. Their ages spanned 18 to 83. The median age was 43, which skews older than the median age, 36, for all incarcerated people. Nearly 30 percent were serving life sentences, including life without the possibility of parole. Overall, the average sentence, including life sentences (weighted at 100 years) was 55 years.

Seventy-two percent of respondents had been represented by state-appointed defenders, meaning they most likely qualified as indigent. A 2015 Prison Policy Initiative analysis found that the median annual income for a woman prior to her incarceration was $13,890, 58 percent of the income of a woman who was not incarcerated and 34 percent of the income of a man who was not incarcerated. “No money for attorneys, unfamiliar with the legal system,” one respondent summarized. Another woman wrote that her case was her lawyer’s first-ever murder trial. One wrote that the judge fell asleep and her attorneys “said it was okay.”

Sixty percent of respondents reported experiencing abuse—physical, sexual, emotional, or some combination of the three—before entering prison, much of it during childhood, while only 9 percent reported no abuse. (Thirty-one percent did not give enough information for a determination.) The fact that a majority of respondents had been abused suggests a nexus between abuse and incarceration for women. Abuse is also most likely underreported.

“I have yet to meet a person who hasn’t been sexually or physically abused,” wrote Kwaneta from Texas. Later, Kwaneta told me that she had been kidnapped and gang-raped as a child, and the perpetrators were never charged. (Her mother confirmed this.) Kwaneta is incarcerated for killing a boyfriend who, she told me, abused her. Her attorney, she said, didn’t want her to “disparage” the dead at trial. She did not push back. “The stigma and shame of allowing myself to continually accept abusive behavior is stronger than the shame of being a convicted murderer.” 

Having a female body had opened the respondents up to harm long before they were considered to have harmed others. They reported being raped at gunpoint, raped while being driven home from babysitting, raped by fathers, stepfathers, brothers, grandfathers, cousins, uncles, foster relatives, and sometimes sisters and mothers. “Raised for sex,” wrote one woman. “Ruined before I had a chance,” wrote another. “Not sure how I got off the beaten path, but I was molested by a sheriff from age 7 to about 9 years old, think that pretty much did it.”

“It was supposed to be me,” one woman wrote. “I never thought I would be the survivor and he ‘the victim.’”

They wrote, too, of enduring physical violence: forced to kneel “on uncooked grits until my knees were bloody,” kicked “with steel-toed boots,” hit in the head with “a tire wrench.” They wrote of crushing poverty and upheaval....

“That morning he said, ‘One of us is going to die today,’” wrote a woman who had been brutalized for decades. “I just snapped.” 

Respondents found it hard to prove that they had been abused, because domestic violence and rape are private violations, usually without witnesses. But even if they had evidence, they faced another problem: There was a dead body, and it wasn’t theirs.

Jema Donahue wrote from Missouri, asking me to contact her mother, who shared legal files with me. The files showed that in 1999, Jema, then 13, was raped by a 20-year-old man. Jema’s family was devastated by their attempts at seeking justice. The man’s mother was the town mayor, and police and prosecutors, Jema said, resisted investigating and prosecuting. The perpetrator eventually pleaded guilty to statutory rape, though Jema said he had used force, and experienced bleeding and physical pain for days. The rapist’s friends harassed the family. Jema was bullied and switched schools. Later, Jema fell into abusive relationships. Her husband physically, sexually, and psychologically terrorized her for eight years—attacks that she sometimes reported to authorities. In 2017, Jema’s mother took out an order of protection. Within two weeks, Jema’s husband broke into the family home and attacked Jema. Jema shot him. A judge sentenced her to 10 years, noting that “everybody stayed in the relationship” and “somebody died.”

 “It was supposed to be me,” Jema wrote to me. “I never thought I would be the survivor and he ‘the victim.’”

Of my respondents, 30 percent reported that they, like Jema, were in prison for trying to protect themselves or loved ones from physical or sexual violence. If my findings are representative of the population incarcerated for murder and manslaughter in all U.S. women’s detention facilities, they suggest that, conservatively, more than 4,400 women and girls are serving lengthy sentences for acts of survival, and that there are most likely others in similar circumstances serving time on lesser charges. While many claimed straightforward self-defense against a romantic partner, others wrote of trying to survive in ways that exist outside the typical ideas of gender-based violence.

“In a lot of cases, the women are not blameless,” Carol Jacobsen, director of the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project, told me. “They played some part, many times under terrible duress. Many times, they didn’t have a whole lot of choices.” A woman was often convicted for a man’s actions or for her involvement with a man who had committed a crime. Thirty-three percent of respondents said that they had been convicted of committing their crime with a male partner, and 13 percent said that they had been convicted of committing their crime with their abuser—often, like Tanisha, under duress.

“I should get prison time, but not 50 years,” wrote a woman who had driven a car for her abusive boyfriend after he’d killed a man during a burglary. “Fifty years for driving a car under duress … with the threat always there to kill me and take away my kids for talking or leaving him.” 

Motherhood figured prominently in a woman’s decisions; 64 percent of my respondents said they were parents, 22 percent said they were not, and 14 percent did not answer the question. “One topic … affects the majority of female prisoners: Our children,” wrote Kwaneta in Texas. “We care about our children. Bars and razor-wire don’t erase motherhood.”

Some women said they were in prison for trying to protect a child. A white woman was serving 40 years in the South for shooting the man she said had beaten her daughter and raped her toddler grandson, and a Black woman was serving life in a mid-Atlantic state for shooting a man she witnessed molesting her five-year-old son.

Other women were convicted because they had not protected a child. In Michigan in 2010, Corrine Baker, a 25-year-old survivor of childhood sexual abuse, threw her body in front of her four-year-old son in an attempt to bear the brunt of her boyfriend’s attack. Corrine and her son were hospitalized after the beating. The boy died, and Corrine gave an interview to a local TV station; in the video, she has two black eyes and wounds dotting her face. She is serving 13 to 30 years for her failure to save her child.

In Florida, Mary Rice wrote that she was forced to accompany a man on a multistate killing spree, during which she was starved, drugged, and raped. She never tried to escape, she told me, because her kidnapper knew where her mother and three children lived. In the end, he shot himself in the head, and police took Mary, who had injuries across her face and body, into custody. Mary was prosecuted. The assistant state attorney told the jury “she wanted a bad boy and she got one.” Mary was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. “I just lived through it,” Mary wrote to me. “The state needed to blame someone. I was the person they blamed.” 

Mary went to trial, but about half of respondents pleaded guilty—often because they were marginalized or did not trust their lawyer. I received a response from an indigenous woman in the Northwest, who said she had pleaded guilty to murder, despite acting in self-defense against a man who was “abusive physically, emotionally, verbally, and mentally,” had raped her daily, and threatened to keep her child if she left. I called her public defender. He told me the woman had a weak case and added that in court, women often played the victim. “Women get a lot of fuckin’ benefit of the doubt,” he said.

“I see a lot of pleas,” White-Domain, the Illinois attorney for incarcerated domestic violence survivors, told me. “People who have lived their whole lives not being believed— if they are women, people of color, maybe also a sex worker, maybe a drug user—think they won’t be believed by a jury. And they are correct.” In my data set, those who went to trial received a sentence nearly two times higher than those who did not, and were approximately five times more likely to receive a life sentence. Black women, whether they went to trial or took a plea, received a sentence length that was roughly 10 percent higher than all others.

Tanisha, for her part, pleaded guilty in 2010 to second-degree murder while held in Saginaw County Jail, a situation she found herself in largely because she had tried to make amends for Kevin’s death. “I was ignorant to the system and its workings and it worked against me on every facet,” she told me. “The rules weren’t articulated for a person with zero understanding to understand.”

In late December 2002, Patrick wrapped Kevin in a blanket and put him in a closet. Within days, aided by two associates, he removed the body and dropped it down an embankment on the outskirts of town, above a river. About three months later, on March 23, 2003, during the spring thaw, two fishermen came upon Kevin’s corpse. On March 24, Kevin’s family was informed. Police made no arrests. The case went cold.

Two weeks after the killing, Tanisha and Patrick moved to a more isolated apartment. Tanisha had no car and no money. She slept during the day, when Patrick was gone, and kept a gutting knife tucked in her waistband. “Something was gonna happen bad for someone,” she told me. “Most likely me.” Within two months of Kevin’s death, Tanisha gathered some $200 and four outfits and fled to a roadside motel.

“I sat on that ugly bed,” Tanisha said. “I had to make a decision.” She was 20, without a home or anyone she trusted enough to talk to. She had been involved in a murder with a known drug dealer who threatened to kill her and knew where her family lived. Tanisha decided her only chance was to stay moving, and be quiet. “I pushed what happen to me to the deepest depths of consciousness,” she recalled. For the next two years, she fell into a cycle of sex work, drug use, and dealing. She lived on the run, involved with men who hurt her.

“I didn’t dream,” she said. “It was just darkness.”

But in 2005, Tanisha was pregnant and determined to get clean and make a change. In November, she gave birth to her third daughter, whom she named Hon’Esty. As Tanisha raised Hon’Esty, she began to see a man around town who bore an unnerving resemblance to Kevin. She thought constantly of Kevin’s mom. She feared intensely for her daughter’s safety, concerned that by having a fixed address, they were a target. Each time Tanisha entered her home at night, she left her child locked in the car, on speakerphone with her sister, as she swept the place with her gun cocked. Only once it was clear would she carry Hon’Esty inside. Later, two people testified at trial that Patrick said he was thinking about killing Tanisha; he worried that she would talk to police and had unsuccessfully attempted to convince her to meet up with him several times.

Tanisha made a New Year’s resolution for 2009: She would tell the truth. That February, she called an attorney she’d heard of named Steven Snyder. Tanisha told Snyder that she wanted to talk to police but needed immunity. Snyder called Lisa Speary, a Michigan State Police detective who had been handed the cold case in 2006. On February 17, 2009, Snyder, Tanisha, and a Saginaw County prosecutor signed a proffer, a written agreement that allows a person to speak of a crime with the assurance that their words won’t be used against them in criminal proceedings. After an initial proffer, a client typically provides a piece of evidence that allows authorities to determine their value; then a better deal is negotiated. But Tanisha signed a single agreement that offered her no protection from charges. Then she gave Speary a two-hour interview, the first time she had ever spoken of the crime.

I showed the proffer letter to David Moran, co-founder of the Michigan Innocence Clinic. He characterized it as “lousy.” I asked Moran if it was unusual for an attorney to allow a client to give a full statement to police without discussing the content beforehand. “The lawyer would want to hear the client’s story before having her tell it in a proffer,” he said. (Snyder, who no longer practices law, did not respond to my interview request.)

Over the next months, Tanisha worked with Speary. They met in person at least five times, Tanisha underwent two polygraph exams, and she led Speary through the crime scene. She told Speary that Patrick “had this rage … he frightened me ... he was more dangerous than the average guy that I have been involved in ... he was dangerous without maybe knowin’ it.” And she told Speary that following the killing, she had “spiraled like super down.” Tanisha explained that she was coming forward to give closure to Kevin’s family—and to get closure for herself. “I just wanna apologize to the family … for even takin’ this long to get the strength to tell ’em what happened.” 

Though Tanisha remained terrified of Patrick, she was also liberated. “I started having joy in my life,” she told me. She thought Snyder and Speary would protect her, and that a prosecutor would recognize her courage and commitment to justice.

“Why did you think that?” I asked.

“Because this is America.… I thought if I was just honest, the truth was going to set me free based off American values.”

Speary interviewed witnesses widely and collected evidence. Then, on June 22, 2009, Patrick called 911 to report that his girlfriend, a 44-year-old nurse named Debra Kukla, was unconscious in the garage. When police arrived, they found Kukla bludgeoned to death.

Tanisha told me that Speary had called her days before Kukla’s death; on the call, Speary asked for Tanisha’s permission to tell Patrick that she had been speaking with police. Petrified, Tanisha refused...  In March 2010, Tanisha was arrested at her job at a golf course. She was charged with first-degree murder and booked into Saginaw County Jail. Hon’Esty, then four years old, went to stay with relatives. “She just was always looking for me [after that]... Michigan’s indigent defense systems studied sample counties and found that none of their public defender services were constitutionally adequate. The fixed-rate system, which also exists across the United States, created “a conflict of interests between a lawyer’s ethical duty to competently defend each and every client and her financial self-interests that require her to invest the least amount of time possible in each case to maximize profit,” according to the report.

Since 2011, legislative efforts have led to indigent defense reform in Michigan, and in 2019 Saginaw opened its first public defender’s office. Steve Fenner, a former prosecutor who heads the new office, told me that $1,000 to work a homicide was “insane,” and that the previous system meant that attorneys “basically lost money” on major cases. But Fenner didn’t understand why Tanisha needed an attorney at all. “Why was she charged though? I don’t get it. That part is real baffling. She cooperated to solve a cold case, then the attorney general’s office turns on her? I’m virtually speechless.”

Tanisha had little interaction with White, her attorney. One day, White brought Sanders, Tanisha’s former stepmother, to a courthouse meeting. Sanders told me that she had arrived for what she believed was a hearing and was surprised to be taken aside by White, who asked that she convince Tanisha to testify at Patrick and Terrance’s trial.

Deputies brought Tanisha, in an orange jumpsuit, into the room. Sanders started to cry. “I say, ‘This has been going on for a long time, and it need to come to an end … release all of us from all of this ... whatever it is that they seeking, you need to give it to them.” Sanders had no experience with the legal system and was caring for one of Tanisha’s daughters. She told me that she believed she was helping Tanisha and knew nothing about a plea deal. “I thought they was gonna let her come home … because she had gave them what they wanted.”

Tanisha, after two hours of Sanders’s exhortations and nine months in jail, agreed to testify in exchange for a second-degree murder plea that she originally believed was 20 years flat, not 20 to 40 years. “I took the plea ’cause I was sick of being in there, hearing my momma beg me,” she told me. White did not respond to a request for comment.

In January 2011, Tanisha testified for the prosecution. For the attorney general’s purposes, Tanisha needed to inhabit contradictory roles: moral and credible enough for a jury to trust, but blameworthy and sufficiently deplorable to exist as an extension of the man who killed Kevin and to therefore merit her own conviction. Doug Baker, the prosecutor, characterized Tanisha and the others as “jackals.”

Baker questioned Tanisha as a key witness over two days, using her testimony as a basis for a larger narrative. Then in his closing arguments, Baker alternately diminished and commended Tanisha. He told the jury that when Tanisha met Patrick, at 20, she was living “a wasted life … she is prostituting herself. She has children that she’s not living with.” Tanisha was “not a very reflective or thoughtful person.” But she “had some conscience” and had come forward. Tanisha had acted under duress, he said, but “that’s not a defense to homicide.… The law says, no, you can’t do that. You’ve got to resist. You’ve got to—you’ve got to take your chances.”

In Michigan and many other states, the reason duress cannot be used as a defense for homicide is based on British common law, as summarized by Matthew Hale, a Puritan jurist, who wrote in an influential treatise in the 1600s that even “if a man be desperately assaulted, and in peril of death … he ought rather to die himself, than kill an innocent.” Hale also put forth other enduring writings and decisions. In one, he sentenced women to death for sorcery, one precedent used to justify the Salem witch trials. In another, Hale stated that by signing a marriage contract, “a wife hath given herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.” A marital exception to rape law, based largely on Hales’s work, existed in England and Wales until 1991 and in North Carolina until 1993. The criminal legal system still treats spousal rape with leniency.

In 2019, Patrick Jr., then 27, shot MoeNeisha Simmons-Ross, Tanisha’s 26-year-old niece and a mother of three who was also pregnant with Patrick Jr.’s child. MoeNeisha and the baby died. Her brother told local media that MoeNeisha’s other children “were in the apartment and they saw what happened.”

“The system is a freaking violence-producing factory,” Bierria, the Survived & Punished co-founder, told me. “Relentless.”

A theme emerged in my research: As in Tanisha’s case, incarcerated women, before their involvement in the legal system, were regularly disregarded or damaged by state systems, from Child Protective Services to schools to police. Families and individuals in desperate situations did not have access to quality services, or to sustained services—and were often scared of seeking outside help. “In the Black community you don’t go to the cops,” Tanisha told me. “You just solve your own shit. And then with a crime, the code is you never talk, don’t ever talk, and I see why.”

Sandra Brown, a Black woman in Illinois, wrote of years of terror, beginning in childhood. She was beaten, spit on, and bullied at school. When she fought back, she was expelled, labeled “aggressive” and “dangerous.” At home, she was whipped. After she explained why she had welts on her legs to a trusted teacher, she says she “paid terribly for it.” Sandra was later a victim of domestic violence and rape. As a young mother, she was arrested for killing a woman in what she says was an act of self-defense. She was sentenced to 22 years in prison. “The tragedies we suffered as little girls and young women in a sense ‘groomed and doomed’ us to this current state of modernized slavery,” Sandra wrote me. “I have been the recipient of acts of violence since I was a child, and the law was virtually nowhere to be found. But the one time I fight back because I am afraid for my life, I am now a ‘violent’ offender.”

Bierria observed that stories of gender-based criminalization were the result of the legal system’s design and function. “It’s not, ‘Oh what a sad story, the prosecutor didn’t care, the defense was bad,’” she said. “Those things animate the system we have.… What you see are formalized acts of profound, life-ending violence.”

What was the alternative, particularly for women?

“We have to build it,” Bierria said. Across the country, she said, people have long been engaging in concentrated, community-based anti-violence and transformative justice work, training, and education. “There’s no magic answer that will get us where we need to go. All we have is us.… I think people are on it, and therefore I think there is a chance.”

The respondents to my survey offered various solutions, including childhood intervention, decriminalizing poverty, treating mental illness and addiction, effective protection for sexual and domestic violence victims, changing incentives for police and prosecutors, engaging offenders and victims in restorative justice processes, and capping sentence lengths. One woman suggested that people be permitted to tour prisons and jails: “Allow the public to see who is in their prisons.”

Tanisha, for her part, wanted to be seen—as a way to advocate for herself and others. I asked her why she responded to my letter in the first place. “I know everything I’ve been through,” she said. “This matters for women.… I felt that every little bit helps.”

Tanisha understood that at each turn she had been failed: as an abused child, homeless teenager, traumatized young mother, and perhaps most significantly by a state apparatus that reduced and exploited her story and good-faith efforts to bring closure to Kevin and his family. But she remained hopeful. She never complained about the abysmal conditions at Huron Valley, with its endemic black mold, repeated scabies outbreaks, and waves of Covid. She meditates, does yoga in the mornings, pores over legal papers, and works disinfecting the facility at night.

I asked Tanisha how she remained so persistently optimistic. “It’s some favor,” she said. “Something in my spirit that sustains me.” She thought of her efforts to shine a light on injustice in biblical terms: as a mustard seed. In Scripture, the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds, but, when sown, becomes a tree, its branches filled with birds. “As long as we got a mustard seed, we can make it grow.”

This story was produced in partnership with The Appeal, and was supported by the Pulitzer Center.