Profile of Marissa Alexander by Victoria Law
As the clock struck midnight on January 26, Marissa Alexander was finally able to pull off her ankle monitor. The Florida mother of three was officially done with her two-year sentence of home confinement and electronic monitoring.1 Despite the late hour, she drove to her sister’s house where she, her mother and her sister had a toast to her freedom. The next morning, she took her youngest daughter to breakfast before dropping her off at school; something that she’d never before been able to do with her six-year-old. That night, she took her 16-year-old twins to dinner. That weekend, family and friends threw a party in her honor. And finally, on Sunday, Alexander put a baseball cap on and headed to a local bar to watch the football game in anonymity. It was the first time the Jacksonville mother had been able to do so since her legal ordeal began in 2010.
No Justice When Black Women Fight Back
As reported previously on Truthout,2 in July 2010, Marissa Alexander gave birth to her baby girl. The previous year, she had separated from and obtained a restraining order against her then-husband Rico Gray, who had been violent toward her on more than one occasion. But when she learned that she was pregnant, she amended the order to remove the ban on contact. The two still lived in separate houses.
Nine days after the baby’s birth, Gray was in Alexander’s house and attacked her. “He assaulted me, shoving, strangling and holding me against my will, preventing me from fleeing all while I begged for him to leave,” Alexander recounted in an open letter.3 She escaped into the garage, but realized she had forgotten the keys to her truck. The garage door opener refused to work. She grabbed her gun, which was legally registered, and reentered her home to either leave another way or grab her phone to call for help. When Gray charged at her, she fired a warning shot. Gray left, then called the police and reported that Alexander had shot at him and his sons. She was arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
In court, Alexander tried to argue self-defense under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. But the pretrial judge ruled that Alexander could have left her own home through the front or back doors. In a 66-page deposition,4 Gray admitted to abusing not only Alexander, but also the other four women with whom he had children. At trial, several witnesses, including several family members, testified that they had seen injuries5 that Gray had inflicted on Alexander; Gray’s sisters-in-law also testified that he had a reputation for violence in the community. Nonetheless, the judge instructed the jury that, when considering whether Alexander had acted in self-defense, she had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Gray was committing aggravated battery when she fired. After 12 minutes, the jury returned with a guilty verdict.
In Florida, the prosecutor has the discretion to add a 10-20-Life sentencing enhancement6, which requires a 20-year minimum sentence when a firearm is discharged. The Florida Department of Corrections has noted that Black people are more than twice as likely as white or Latino people7 to have the enhancement added to their sentence. Alexander was no exception; prosecutor Angela Corey decided to add that enhancement, and Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Three months before Alexander was sentenced, stand your ground was interpreted very differently in Sanford, Florida. On February 26, 2012, police initially refused to arrest George Zimmerman after he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed Black teenager.8 The following year, Zimmerman successfully invoked Stand Your Ground as a defense, with the judge instructing the jury that Zimmerman had no duty to retreat. He was fully acquitted. The comparison thrust Alexander’s case into the national spotlight, garnering her support from around the country.9 Her story became a symbol of how domestic violence survivors,10 particularly women of color, are criminalized when they defend themselves.11
In 2013, an appeals court overturned her conviction, remanding her for a new trial. The court also stated that, if convicted, Alexander’s sentences must be served consecutively rather than concurrently. The prosecutor once again charged Alexander with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. If convicted, Alexander faced 20 years for each count, totaling 60 years in prison. However, the following year, Alexander agreed to a plea bargain12 that included time served for the 1,030 days she had already spent behind bars, another 65 days in jail and two years of house arrest.
The Cost of “Freedom”
On January 27, 2015, after 1,095 days behind bars, Alexander walked out of jail13. An ankle monitor was clamped to her left leg and she began her two years of home confinement.
Alexander told us there was no doubt that after prison, house arrest provided some relief. “Being at home and being able to be in the privacy of your own home and turn on a light and sit on a toilet by yourself with the door shut, you just cannot compare that to prison,” she said.
Under house arrest, no one told her to sit up and recite her prison ID number, and no one regulated her schedule or her meals. “I can go to the fridge and get what I want when I want,” she said.
Still, those small freedoms came with a price tag. In Alexander’s case, it was a fairly hefty one. She had to pay not only for the ankle device and cost of monitoring14, but also a monthly drug test, even though she only took one drug test during the entire 24 months. Alexander estimates that she paid slightly over $10,000 for those two years.
This number does not include the cost of electronic monitoring between November 2013, when she was released on bond awaiting her new trial, and November 2014, when she returned to jail to complete her 65-day sentence. During those 12 months, Alexander was responsible for paying $105 biweekly for electronic monitoring. Supporters raised the money covering those fees plus her living and legal expenses.
If Alexander fell behind on paying, or failed to pay the entire amount before her sentence expired, it would be a technical violation of her sentence15. “It wouldn’t be a new charge,” explained Alexander. But had that happened, Alexander would have ended up back in court where a judge could decide to either extend the length of probation or end it and issue a judgment. The judge could also decide to send Alexander back to jail for violating the terms of her probation. Fortunately, Alexander’s supporters had raised enough money to cover these costs.
There were other, non-monetary costs as well. For the first six months, Alexander was granted permission to leave her house only to take her children to and from school, look for employment and attend church services. “All the other things you’re able to do, like grocery shopping or upkeep and things like that, I wasn’t able to do,” she told us. Fortunately, family and friends stepped in and were able to help keep her kitchen stocked and run any other errands that Alexander and her children might need.
Six months later, Alexander filed a motion to have the terms of her confinement relaxed. The judge agreed and so, each week, Alexander turned in a schedule specifying where she planned to be at any given hour. “The idea is that you don’t deviate from your schedule,” she explained. The monitor worked via GPS, allowing the company to track her every location. The strict scheduling meant that, if the line at the grocery store was moving slowly, she would worry about getting home on time or risk getting a violation. “There’s been many a time that I’ve been cutting it close at getting home for whatever reason and I needed gas and my truck was on E [empty] and I was just like, ‘I’m going to have to have somebody else get the gas for me or wait for the next day to go back out and get the gas,’” she recalled.
Sometimes, her schedule was not entered into the company’s system correctly. “It’s human error, it happens,” acknowledged Alexander. She remembered several occasions in which she had specified on her schedule that she would be attending church, but when she walked out of her door and began making her way there her monitor began sounding an alert. On these occasions, her cell phone would promptly ring. “Hey, you’re not scheduled to be out. Why are you out?” the voice on the other line would ask. Alexander recalled, “In those instances, I’ll go back home. I wouldn’t go and do what I needed to do.”
But even when her schedule was entered correctly, the restrictions still prevented Alexander from fully participating in her children’s and family’s lives. After the first six months, she was allowed to attend parent-teacher conferences for her children, but not allowed to be at their extracurricular activities. “I missed my daughter’s entire basketball season,” Alexander said. Other family members would attend the games, but Alexander was not allowed to do so. At times, she arrived in time to see the last two or three minutes, but she was never able to sit on the bleachers and cheer for her daughter. She also missed her youngest daughter’s elementary school award ceremony. And there were many sunny days when she couldn’t take her children to the park or out for a bike ride. “Those things are always really difficult,” she recalled.
Electronic Monitoring Can Lead Back to Jail
“In the grand scheme of things, you cannot compare home confinement to prisons,” Alexander told us five days after her sentence was finished. But, she continues, the ways in which home confinement and electronic monitoring are structured are more likely to lead people back to prison than allow them to succeed. “Think of the people who didn’t make the news and don’t have that kind of support,” she said in a video to supporters one year into her house arrest16.
“I feel like it’s money-making. Period,” she told us. For electronic monitoring to be an actual alternative to incarceration, there would need to be “some type of pathway for people to really and truly get back on their feet and have resources available to them and some type of support system.” While Alexander had family and friends who supported her throughout those two years, most people lack that kind of support.
“You are putting people in the position that they are trying to pay for something that is difficult for them to pay for,” she said of the fees that most people on monitors are required to pay. Those that can’t keep up with the fees are sent back to jail. “Whatever money you paid to the system, they got, but you’re back in jail so now the taxpayers are paying for you. It’s a mess.”
In addition, she noted that having a felony conviction is frequently a barrier to employment and failure to find work is considered a violation of probation. Nationwide, over 150 cities and counties have “banned the box17,” or eliminated the question of conviction history on an initial job application. Florida’s Duval County is not one of them. Alexander, who has a bachelor’s degree in information technology and a master’s degree in business, was able to circumvent the degrading experience of checking the box and explaining her record by launching her own consulting business. Of course, she understands that not everyone has that option, and that for many people, securing a job while on home confinement is a formidable task.
“If you don’t have the support you need and the resources to get employment and somewhere to stay, then you are not going to be successful on it,” she said.
Looking to the Future
When we spoke, five days after shedding her ankle monitor and its accompanying restrictions, Alexander was still feeling the effects of the past two years. “I find myself wanting to stay in my house just like I was doing before,” she said, noting that she hasn’t become fully accustomed to the fact that she is free to go to the store or simply step outside her house when she wishes, without repercussions. She need not miss the next award ceremony or basketball game.
Alexander is also now free to advocate for changes in the system that punished her for defending herself. In February, she spoke before the Senate Rule Committee18 in favor of Senate Bill 128, which would shift the burden of proof from the defendant to the state in Stand Your Ground hearings. “I’m just going to give you three numbers,” she stated before the committee19. “Number one. Number 12. And number 20. For me, one shot, a 12-minute verdict got me 20 years. I did go through a Stand Your Ground hearing. And in that hearing, you could tell the court and the prosecution struggled with that because it was difficult. With that said, putting a defendant in the position where they have to bear the burden of proof, in my opinion, removes your Constitutional right, the Fifth Amendment.” In early March, she flew to New York City to speak on a panel examining women, violence and incarceration20 at the Beyond the Bars conference at Columbia University.
During her two years of home confinement, Alexander wrote a book manuscript about her experiences. She also started the Marissa Alexander Justice Project21, an organization that will work to end domestic violence, the criminalization of abuse survivors, mandatory sentencing, sentencing disparities, the school-to-prison pipeline and the adjudication of teenagers as adults22, for which Florida has the highest rate in the country.
Alexander already has connections with social justice advocates and groups that have supported her through her legal ordeal. She’s planning to utilize these connections to see how the Project can fit in with and bolster existing efforts.
“I’m going to be part of what’s already out there and use my experiences and my name to bring more to it,” Alexander said. “I’m not separate from anybody. This will be my contribution in solidarity.” n
Victoria Law is a freelance journalist who focuses on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. Her first book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, examines organizing in women’s jails and prisons across the country. victorialaw.net. © 2017 Truthout. Reprinted with permission.
6 10-20-Life sentencing enhancement http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?mode=View%20Statutes&SubMenu=1&App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=775.087&URL=0700-0799/0775/Sections/0775.087.html
22 https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us0414_ForUpload 2.pdf