October 13, 2011 / Law & Justice, Media - Entertainment, Safety, Sexism

Changing the world from behind prison walls

by

The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, filmmaker Olivia Klaus (biography), and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

I remember the first time I visited prison. I was nervous that night and my mind was racing with scenes from movies movies of barbed wire and hardened criminals. As the guard slammed and locked the gate behind me, I really had to wonder if I had made the right decision. I was going to begin volunteering for the group Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA) – a group of women serving life sentences for killing the men they once loved.

As I slowly entered the visiting room, florescent lights above seemed almost blinding. Yet, maybe it wasn’t really the lights, and more by utter shock at what I was seeing. My preconceived notions seemed to go flying out the barbed wire covered windows as I was introduced to women who looked like they could be my grandmother, mother or even….myself. Were these women really murderers?

The trailer for Olivia Klaus’s new film, Sin by Silence.

LaVelma Byrd shared how she tried to kill herself the night that she defended her life against her husband who was beating her with a telephone. He was a pastor and pillar in the community. She never spoke a word to her family, or church members, that her husband beat her on a regular basis. She was embarrassed what others would think about what was happening behind closed doors. She had faith that her husband would change.

Glenda Crosley shared that the first time her husband was physically abusive was when she was eight months pregnant with their second child. He shoved her into a wall. Eventually, she came to realize that the violence wouldn’t end until one of them was dead. During a fight one evening, in a public parking lot, Glenda ran over her husband with her car. He died at the scene. A cut and dry murder case. Yet, why would a 45-year-old woman with no prior criminal history brutally kill her husband?

Brenda Clubine endured broken bones. Skull fractures. Her face bruised and battered. By the time Brenda was put behind bars for killing her husband in 1983, she felt worthless. She received a sentence of 15 years to life. She had to give up her son for adoption. She thought she was the only one in her situation. But, Brenda soon discovered that she shared common experiences of love turning violent with many of her fellow inmates.

After years of meeting on the yard and telling each other their whispered stories, an inmate-initiated and -led group was born inside the prison in 1989, called Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA). Brenda’s revelation inspired this support group, the first group of its kind in the entire US prison system. The goal of the group is to help women inside prison break the silence about abuse and learn more about how they can help others stop the cycle of violence. And there I was sitting with the same women, nearly 20 years after the group had started, as they each continued to introduce themselves to me and describe the path that led to incarceration. I knew that these women were not murderers, but actually the victims.

Since that first meeting, I have been unable to turn my back on the women of CWAA. They opened my eyes to a part of the world that I never knew existed. Once that silence had been broken, I found that I could never pretend that life was the way it was before. Through attending CWAA meetings, I began to realize that these women were the experts on domestic violence and were willing to share stories of how they found themselves on such dark and desperate path. Yet, as months of meetings went on and relationships were built, the women soon learned of my background as a filmmaker, and approached me to help tell their stories. I knew with this request came a long journey, yet I knew if women’s stories could be heard beyond prison walls, countless lives would be saved…..and Sin by Silence was born.

Month after month, year after year, I drove the 70 miles to be at every CWAA meeting. I listened to experiences that were living nightmares. I began trying to raise funds. The women of CWAA believed that they could be a part of impacting the “outside” world and gave the first $1000 – a donation made up from average wages of only 10 cents an hour.

The women of CWAA became stronger as a result of the filming process. A surprisingly large amount of the women stated that this was their first opportunity to openly reveal their lives, their abuse, their experiences, and their perceptions. Many members who used to remain in the background started to find their voice and members started inviting other inmates they met on the yard. An entirely new sense of purpose was given to the women of CWAA, and a sense of empowerment came from finally being able to have their voices be heard. Empowerment that could lead to other women learning how to not follow in their footsteps. Empowerment that could inspire others to finally do something about the countless women being brutalized behind closed doors.

It has been 10 heart-wrenching years since my first visit to prison and now Sin by Silence will be having its world television debut on Investigation Discovery on Monday, October 17 at 8pm. Nearly 78 million homes will now have the opportunity to get to know the incredible survivors of Convicted Women Against Abuse. These women completely changed my life for the better, and their message of hope will be heard loud and clear beyond prison walls on television screens across the country. Through their stories of terror and hope, we can all better understand the cycle of violence, the signs of an abuser, and how each and every one of us is responsible for changing the tragedy of domestic violence that kills nearly 4 women every single day. Make sure to tune in!

ABOUT THE FILM: SinBySilence.com

ABOUT THE BROADCAST: InvestigationDiscovery.com/Silence