October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. According to various studies, the female incarceration rate is increasing at alarming rates and one reason is that battered women are being imprisoned for defending themselves. In response to this, amnesty projects such as the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project are also on the rise to bring justice to these women.
In this scene in Picture Me Rollin’, 24 year old Esperanza Cepeda travels from NYC to Chowchilla, CA to visit her mother Brenda who is serving 25 years to life for killing her abusive boyfriend Roland. She asks her mother if she could do anything differently, what would that be. Brenda’s answer is not what she had expected. The excerpt starts below the book cover.
“Ay, Mami, you still doing that?”
The same shit got her transferred out of New York in the first place. Esperanza understood Brenda’s desire to help others who could have the second chance she might never have. But becoming a jailhouse lawyer meant becoming a target for the system and even the helpless inmates, who lived by the credo Do your own time.
But like Isoke, Brenda felt she had no choice. Advocacy became her purpose in life, and it gave her a reason to live while behind bars. “But let me tell you, Espe. These women came to see me ’cause they want to take up my case. They gonna argue that the system failed to protect me, so I had no choice but to protect myself. They got cases just like mine all around the country, and they’re gonna do it pro bono.”
“Pro bono is what got you here in the first place, Mami.” She hated being so negative with Brenda, but no more than she hated Brenda’s being naive.
“No, negrita, these are not your run-of-the-mill public defenders. They got a different idea about what’s justice in my situation.” Brenda placed her hand over her heart and patted her chest. “Every time they win, they get paid right here.”
Esperanza finally saw her chance to ask what she had long wanted to know. “Mami, do you ever regret what you did?” She wondered this many nights as she lay on her bunk during her yearlong bid. Would she have preferred to die that night than to have caused his death? Did she miss Roland? If she had to do it all over again, what might she have done differently? Esperanza leaned toward Brenda so she could whisper with honesty, because as even Jesus knew though he had never done time, there were no secrets in the penitentiary.
Brenda squeezed her hand and said, “When anybody makes it clear it’s you or him, negrita, you always choose you,” says Brenda. “If I had done that from the start—the first time he called me a bitch, the first time he said I was nothing without him, the first time he forbade me to do something that I knew was in the best interest of our family, the first time he hit me—I would’ve never had to kill him. He said and did many things warning me all along that eventually it would be him or me, but I didn’t pay attention until much too late. That’s my only regret.” Then she repeated her initial advice. “Anybody whose words or action tells you it’s you or him, negrita, always choose you.”
Want to read the rest of Picture Me Rollin’? You can order it here.