I Was Criminalized as a Domestic Violence Survivor. Here’s How We Reform the System

Aylaliyah Birru. Photo by Andrea Price.

Growing up in Ethiopia with a loving family, I never encountered abusive relationships. My father and mother devoted their lives to raising me and my four sisters. I never saw them fight, drunk or use drugs. If there was ever a conflict, my father would call a family meeting and resolve it in a calm and respectful manner. There was no favoritism or neglect.

I am forever grateful for growing up this way. But it meant that I didn’t learn to recognize abusive behavior until it was too late.

In 2014, I left my family, friends, career and everything I had ever known behind and moved to the United States for a relationship. A few weeks later, it turned abusive, and I felt trapped.

There were many reasons for this: My religious upbringing taught me that my first marriage would be my only marriage; I was ashamed and embarrassed about what I was going through; I didn’t have a support system of family and friends; I was financially dependent on my partner; and I was afraid of the unknown.

In December 2014, during an argument in which he threatened to kill me, I seized his gun, which I thought was unloaded, and held it close to myself in an attempt to scare him off and away from me. I will forever regret putting my hands on such a dangerous weapon and accidentally wounding him. I was arrested and ultimately convicted of felony assault.

But my side of the story was never fully heard nor understood by the police, prosecutors or judge. Instead of recognizing the trauma and abuse I had suffered as a survivor of domestic violence and offering help, I was handed a six-year jail sentence. 

There are many things that went wrong from the date of my arrest and continue to go wrong to this day. My criminalization and incarceration has led me to a serious awakening of how corrupt and broken our justice system is.

The system incarcerates Black and brown people like me at a much higher rate than those who are white, and often hands us disproportionately longer punishments. In my case, the justice system was dominated by white, powerful men exercising their privileges in real time.

But my story doesn’t end there. Although I did everything I could while in prison to prove my good character and avoid disciplinary action  — working, attending classes and getting my Asociates of Arts degree  — on my release date from prison I was handed to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. They detained me for an additional 18 months in a dungeon-like cell at the Yuba County Jail because I was a green card holder and not a U.S. citizen. There, the nightmare only got worse as I found out that I wasn’t even eligible for bail and was detained indefinitely.

While in ICE detention, my attorney connected me with Survived and Punished, a nonprofit organization that works to decriminalize efforts to survive domestic and sexual violence, and support and free criminalized survivors.  Whereas before I had remained virtually silent about my case, I became outspoken with the help and guidance of Survived and Punished members who publicly advocated and rooted for me. I am forever grateful for that because it showed me that I had a voice and that there is power in solidarity. 

Ultimately, my attorney filed a Habeas Corpus case on my behalf, challenging my indefinite detention as a violation of my constitutional rights. The judge allowed me to post bail and  continue to fight my case from outside of detention. While my battle is far from over, I am grateful that I have my freedom and no longer have to suffer the darkness. I have accomplished much and have come so far.  Mostly, I have the honor of working with those who secured my freedom and serving other survivors who are going through the experience that I went through. Sharing my story has been a wonderful avenue of healing.

Since my release from immigration detention, I have commited myself to helping other survivors and immigrants, and working to reform our broken system. I’ve held workshops, testified before the California State Legislature, and collaborated with UCLA on a report about the criminalization of survivors who act in self-defense.

In 2022, I graduated from CSU Sacramento, with multiple awards and and the University President’s medal of honor. Now I work as the administrative coordinator for Survived and Punished, a nonprofit that advocates for survivors who act in self-defense, and am preparing for the admissions exam to enter law school. My goal is to one day serve as an attorney for marginalized people who do not have adequate representation in immigration court.  

My story isn’t unique. I have come to know, personally, many people who share the same experiences. In fact, over 90 percent of women in prison have experienced at least one form of abuse as a child or adult. I have sat with countless women and listened to their stories. In a sad way, it was comforting to know that I was not alone. However, it also angers me that survivors are so commonly and devastatingly abused by the system that is supposed to protect them, yet California has not put serious effort into fixing it. 

What I am doing today as a community advocate and organizer, including by writing this essay, is calling for a reformed criminal justice system, one that treats all survivors of violence with dignity and doesn’t criminalize them. I call for public sympathy and solidarity. I urge prosecutors to use evidence of abuse as a mitigating factor in cases like mine, and for judges to exercise their discretion and consider the stories of survivors in their rulings. Everyone involved in decisions regarding survivors — from police to probation officers to support groups leaders — should understand the effects of trauma and how to intervene. Domestic violence is a serious and huge public health issue. Tackling it shouldn’t cost survivors their lives or their freedom.   

Aylaliyah (Liyah) Birru is the administrative coordinater for the Survived and Punished national coalition, where she is an advocate for herself and other criminalized survivors.

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