Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Convicted Survivors

Maria Suarez and Elizbeth Dermody Leonard

The Orange County Register recently ran an engrossing article about Maria Suarez, a sex trafficking victim who was imprisoned by her abuser for five years in the late 1970s and then imprisoned for 22 more years in the California Institution for Women for the 1981 death of her abuser. The abuser was murdered by a neighbor, but Suarez was unjustly convicted of the crime. The story does end happily, with Suarez now free (she was pardoned a few years ago by the Governor of California) and working to raise awareness about the very real issue of human trafficking. SUNY Press author Elizabeth Dermody Leonard met Suarez years ago, while doing research for her dissertation on women who had been imprisoned for the death of their abusers.

[Maria's] case also reveals a ray of hope. That's because someone—Elizabeth Dermody Leonard—was paying attention. And she helped kick off the process that would eventually free Suarez, now 49.

Friday, Suarez spoke before a group gathered at the Borders bookstore in Costa Mesa brought together by the nonprofit Live2free, a group that seeks to raise awareness about human trafficking. And it was Leonard, a sociologist and criminologist who teaches at Vanguard University, whom Suarez acknowledged as her "inspiration" during her talk.

"She's the one who actually started to open up files (of people who) were wrongfully convicted... And a lot of people started coming out, to be free. And... I thank you for that because you are part of my freedom," Suarez told Leonard, who was in the audience.

During the time that Leonard was meeting with Suarez, she was working on Convicted Survivors, which details the experiences of women imprisoned for killing their male abusers and their treatment by the criminal justice system. Leonard’s in-depth interviews reveal what Maria Suarez and countless other women experience in these situations: they are slow to identify themselves as battered women and continue to minimize the violence done to them, make numerous and varied attempts to end abusive relationships, and are systematically failed by the systems they look to for help. Ultimately these stories are ones of hope, and in the case of Maria Suarez, that hope of freedom sustained her for years.
The first time Leonard saw Suarez after Suarez' release was in the spring of 2006, when Suarez returned to her former prison to see a play based on Leonard's research. Leonard says she strives to either talk by phone or meet the former inmates in person at least once after their release. She notes that their voices, among other things, change dramatically.
"It's like they're 20 years younger."

When she saw Suarez for the first time as a free woman, Leonard noted the difference: Shoulders back; a confident stance, a smile.

"She came back to the prison to help others. I can't imagine the type of courage it takes to walk back (behind) those walls, to hear the sound of the door clanging shut," Leonard says.

"But she knew that it gave hope to the others, and she wanted to encourage hope."