LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)–For 16 years Flozelle Woodmore has been behind bars in the California prison system.
In 1987, she was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting her boyfriend, who she said had burned, bruised and beaten her since she was 14 years old.
At age 18, after being incarcerated for eight months, she gave birth to her second child, Janisha Townsend. The next day her baby girl was taken away to live with relatives. To this day the daughter doesn’t remember ever seeing her mother, but she has one wish. She wants her released so she can be with her by December 21, her 16th birthday.
“They should let her come home,” says Townsend, hopefully. “I want to see her, to be able to hold her hand. We write letters, but they aren’t the same.”
Prison Board Recommends Release
For the second time in two years, Woodmore, 35, has a chance at freedom. Once again her fate lies in the hands of Gov. Gray Davis, who has the power to grant her parole. After reviewing her case last year, the Board of Prison Terms recommended her release.
Davis, however, turned her down, dismissing the support of the sentencing judge, members of the victim’s family, domestic violence experts and state legislators. The prison board recommended her release again in April, indicating that battering and its effects was a factor at the time she killed her boyfriend.
By Sept. 11, Davis must decide again whether this first-time offender will be released. With Davis facing a possible recall, opinions vary on whether the timing is right for a favorable decision for Woodmore. Davis is the subject of a recall election on Oct. 7 and has 135 opponents battling to replace him.
Woodmore’s attorney, Olivia Wang, thinks that releasing Woodmore could be politically smart because it would show that Davis is easing up on his hard line “no parole” policy, which has come under attack from women’s groups whose votes she says he desperately needs.
But Gray’s vulnerability “could hurt Flozelle because no Democratic politician wants to publicly pressure him to release her for fear of making the party seem divided,” says Wang of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.
Pressing for Release of Battered Women
Woodmore’s situation is being closely watched in a state that has been in the forefront of the movement to release female prisoners who killed their abusers as a result of battering and its effects. Nine other such prisoners have been recommended for parole by the prison board. Three were recommended to Davis–and denied by him–twice.
The women in this category have been behind bars since the 1980s, before evidence of battering and its effects were officially recognized under California law. Current legislation requires the parole board to determine at the time of a woman’s hearing if she was suffering from “battered-women’s syndrome” when she committed the crime and to consider this evidence in making parole decisions. (Battered-women’s syndrome was defined in 1984. It draws on the theory of “learned helplessness” to explain why some women feel unable to leave their abusers and begin to see lethal force as their only means of escape.)
Another law allows a battered woman convicted of killing her abuser before 1992 to submit a writ of habeas corpus directly to the court if testimony on battered women’s syndrome was not introduced at her trial. With the annual $30,000 cost of keeping a woman in prison, the state pays a high price for these offenders’ continued incarceration.
Since taking office in 1998, Davis has approved parole grants for 7 out of some 295 people sentenced to life imprisonment who were recommended to him by the prison board. Three of them–Cheryl Sellers, Rose Ann Parker and Maria Suarez–were women convicted of killing or conspiring to kill their batterers.
Protests to Apply Parole PressureBattered women’s advocates in California have held public protests to keep pressure on Davis to free these prisoners. Both Woodmore’s daughter and her sister, Juliette Lett, have participated in organizing rallies, making flyers and rallying supporters to send thousands of pro-release signatures to the governor’s office in Sacramento. Lett spent five months in prison on drug charges with her sister four years ago and feels the experience was a blessing in disguise.
“She inspired me to go into treatment and I’m 28 months clean from cocaine now,” Lett says. “Flozelle said I could help her more on the outside taking care of our family and getting out letters of support than if I stayed in prison.”
Family and friends of the incarcerated women help to put pressure on the governor but some advocates for parole believe the politicization of the process has made release almost impossible.
Since the governor appoints members of the prison board and has final parole approval, the possibility of release may have nothing to do with the merits of the case, said Gloria Killian, chair of the Action Committee for Women in Prison in Pasadena.
“Immediately following his election five years ago, Davis said that no prisoner convicted of murder would be paroled during his term unless he did so ‘in a pine box,'” Killian says. “The process has nothing to do with justice.”
Kevin Ryan, the U.S. Attorney for Northern California, told Women’s eNews that Davis hasn’t reviewed Woodmore’s case yet and that each parole decision is decided on a case-by-case basis.
Cheryl Sellers, who was given a 25 years-to-life sentence and released in June after serving 19 years for killing her abusive husband, insists that political backing was the reason she was paroled. “You have to have a politician stand up and fight for you,” says Sellers. “Senator John Burton stood up for me, wrote letters and said I deserved a second chance. If he hadn’t, I would still be in prison.”
Commended for Achievements in Prison
Woodmore is preoccupied with Davis’ pending decision as she carries on her daily prison life at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. She shares a cell with up to eight women, some of whom have serious mental-health illnesses. The prison board has commended her for earning her high-school equivalency degree, completing dozens of educational and vocational programs and maintaining a spotless disciplinary record since 1992. She’s currently writing a book about her life and wants to donate the proceeds to help other abused women.
“She has accepted responsibility for taking the life of someone she both loved and feared,” says Wang. “All she wants is to be reunited with her family and to be an advocate on the outside for other battered women.”
Wang, who visited Woodmore last week, says the prisoner’s spirits go up and down.
“Woodmore’s freedom is in Davis’ hands,” says Wang. “The question is will he decide again to use her life for his own political agenda or will he show some compassion and let her go home?”
Pamela Burke is a television producer and freelance writer living in Los Angeles.
For more information:
Free Battered Women:
Women’s eNews–“Gov. Davis Commutes Battered Woman’s Sentence”:
Women’s eNews–“Davis’ Right to Deny Parole to Abused Women Upheld”: