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October 6, 2003

Student finds her passion giving 'voice' to women in prison

By Jennifer McNulty

Not many college seniors discover their passion and then get a chance to talk about it on national television.

This article is part of Profiles in Excellence, an ongoing series highlighting the outstanding educational opportunities and achievements of UCSC students and graduates. Other profiles are posted on the Profiles in Excellence web page.

With a double major in community studies and women’s studies, Kolleen Duley first learned about the needs of women in prison when she took a course called Women’s Health Activism. Photo: Jennifer McNulty

But that’s what happened to Kolleen Duley, a senior at UCSC who was recruited by producers of The Sharon Osbourne Show to discuss her work with women survivors of domestic violence who are jailed for crimes they commit related to their abuse.

Although media attention, including Osbourne’s, tends to focus on the small number of women who kill their abusive husbands, domestic violence is the top reason women commit crimes, according to advocates for battered women.

Duley met Osbourne during a visit to the California Institution for Women in Chino, where she meets regularly with members of the prison’s Battered Women’s Support Group.

“I don’t watch TV, so I didn’t really know who she was,” Duley recalled of the fateful encounter with Osbourne, the wife of rocker Ozzy Osbourne who recently launched her own talk show. But Duley recognized the potential opportunity to draw media attention to the plight of battered women in prison, and she initiated a conversation with one of the show’s producers.

Osbourne was promptly drawn into the conversation, and a few days later, Duley received a call inviting her to appear on the show.

“I think that’s what organizing is all about--making connections,” said Duley. “They said they really appreciated my energy and wanted to fly me down to Los Angeles.”

Taping the show was an almost surreal departure from the world in which Duley chooses to work. “They even have a ‘green room,’” laughed Duley, as she recalled the studio’s lounge for guests, the first-class flights, limousines, and makeup.

With a double major in community studies and women’s studies, Duley
first learned about the needs of women in prison during her junior year, when she took a course called Women’s Health Activism from Nancy Stoller, a professor of community studies who is now Duley’s academic adviser.

In April, Duley began a six-month field study with Free Battered Women (FBW), a San Francisco-based nonprofit that focuses on the needs of incarcerated survivors of domestic violence. FBW works on multiple fronts to increase public understanding of how domestic violence contributes to crime and to provide support to women in prison.

The group’s Habeas Project lobbies for the release of incarcerated women who had been abused but could not present the abuse as evidence during their trial. FBW has helped four women gain their release since legislation allowed women convicted of murder before 1992 to challenge their convictions.

Duley had never visited a prison until last year.

“It’s a totally different world,” she said. “The overwhelming feeling is the ultimate sense of guilt that you get to leave.” But Duley bears the guilt in exchange for the satisfaction she gains from helping women who’ve been largely forgotten by the rest of the world.

“People don’t understand domestic violence,” said Duley. “They ask, ‘Why didn’t she just leave?’ And there are 1,000 reasons why women don’t leave. A lot of women don’t have the money to leave, or a place to go, or they actually don’t believe they’re battered women. They often still really love their partners, and if they have children, they want to keep the family together.”

Many women suffering domestic violence end up incarcerated for crimes committed out of desperation, said Duley. “It’s not just women who killed their partners,” said Duley. “It’s women who took drugs to escape the violence in their lives, who committed economic crimes like writing a bad check, or women whose partners forced them to transport drugs or participate in an armed robbery.”

Cheryl Sellers served almost 20 years in prison for killing her abusive husband, Norman. Asked why she didn’t leave Norman, Sellers invoked her marriage vows, saying, “I could break a promise to a man, but I couldn’t break a promise to God.”

Another woman was imprisoned for the death of her son because her husband, who’d beaten the child, consented to take him to the hospital only if she took the blame.

“Oh, the stories make your heart lurch, they make you want to throw up,” said Duley. “But they also make you want to do something.”

Duley is the lead organizer of an October 12 event at the Women’s Building in San Francisco. “Our Voices Within: Healing from the Inside Out” will combine music, dance, poetry, and the personal testimony of incarcerated women to celebrate the women who’ve been released and to facilitate the healing of women who remain in prison.

She has worked closely with a planning committee of 11 incarcerated women to create an event that honors their vision. Duley has made repeat visits to each of California’s three women’s prisons to record testimonies and gather the artwork of nearly 100 women prisoners.

“Many of these women killed the man who was trying to kill them, or their child,” said Duley. “They killed the man they loved, and they’re paying for it in guilt. They feel like they’re awful people, even though they acted out of necessity. They’re just like you and me. They’re not murderers.”

Duley also contributed last spring to a UCSC teach-in about women’s prison issues. She wrote, produced, and performed in Prison Monologues, a play about abused women based on research by Stoller and Sadie Reynolds, a UCSC doctoral candidate in sociology. And she received the first Women’s Studies Community Service Award, which included a gift of $2,000.

A native of upstate New York, Duley credits UCSC with introducing her to a “different way of thinking.”

“I’m from a conservative town, and I was ready for a big change,” said Duley. “When I went away, it was like jumping into my own skin. Going to Santa Cruz was the best thing I ever did for myself.”

As Duley’s academic adviser, Stoller is struck by Duley’s impressive creativity and energy. “Kolleen stands out in every class and situation I’ve seen her in, with her commitment to creating new, engaging forms of activism,” said Stoller. “She studies hard to understand what’s actually going on, and she has an infectious enthusiasm that engages people, so that even hearing about these terrible issues, they open their eyes instead of squeezing them shut.”

Duley has already surpassed the six-month field-study component of her community studies major, but she doesn’t plan to reduce her work with FBW. In fact, she hopes to produce a video documentary about women in prison, and she hopes to remain involved with FBW indefinitely.

“I’ve always been intensely impassioned to end violence against women, including state-mandated violence in the form of prisons and interpersonal violence in the form of domestic violence and rape,” said Duley.

In the spring, Duley will teach a student-directed seminar on women in prison, tentatively titled Unlocking Incarceration: A Feminist Fight Back. “I spent all summer working on the curriculum, because I want to be totally present during the class,” said Duley. “I’m really proud of it.”

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