Aylaliyah (Liyah) Birru, Survived and Punished, reflects on her experiences as a criminalized survivor for the California Health Report. Excerpt below:

…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 Associate 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 committed 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.

Read the full editorial. Photo by Andrea Price


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