Free at Last, But Justice Still Slow for Women in Prison

By Dalila-Johari Paul

Mary Virginia Jones, or "Mother Mary" as friends know her, is finally free. But it took 32 years and four trials to get the 74-year-old released earlier this week. A group of USC law school students persuaded the district attorney to reopen her case.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge agreed to exchange Jones' first-degree murder conviction without possibility of parole for a no contest plea to voluntary manslaughter with a time-served sentence, reported the LA Times.

According to the Post-Conviction Project:

In the 1981 crime, Mary Jones was held at gunpoint and ordered to drive two kidnapped men to an alley where they were later shot, and one of the men died as a result of his injuries.

PCJP students representing Jones argued that she would not have been convicted if the jury in the case had heard expert testimony on the effects of Battered Women’s Syndrome, also known as intimate partner battering, according to the release.

Although Jones's release is being celebrated, there are still many other women who are getting sentences that don't fit the crime.

It's also a sobering reminder that in the last 25 years, the number of women and girls incarcerated has skyrocketed.

The increase has been as high as 646 percent between 1980 and 2012, rising from 15,118 to 112,797. There are now more than 200,000 women incarcerated, and most are non-violent offenders.

What's even more interesting: there has been a dramatic shift in racial disparities among women. According to the report released last year, "The Changing Racial Dynamics of Women’s Incarceration":
From 2000, the decline in incarceration rates was most striking for black women. At that time, black women were imprisoned at six times the rate of white women; by 2009, they were 2.8 times more likely to be in prison.
The more than 200,000 women behind bars, and more than one million on probation and parole, are often survivors of sexual and physical abuse, and some struggle with mental illness.
In June, another California woman, Glenda Virgil, was released after nearly three decades in prison.
Fiona Ma, the former speaker pro tem of the California Assembly, wrote:
After four years of beatings, stabbings, and sexual abuse from her boyfriend, Virgil summoned the courage to leave. But he would not allow it. He locked her in a shed, beat her, and threatened to kill her. When he came at her with a shovel, she shot him once and killed him.
Also while in prison, women face more levels of assaults and rapes than men in prison. And 67 percent of black women are jailed for non-violent crimes, but must still check the "felony box" on job applications.
More groups are speaking up for incarcerated women, but if you look back close 70 years and in the case of Lena Baker, the only woman ever executed in Georgia's electric chair, justice isn't always served for the living.
Baker was a 44-year-old maid executed in 1945 for killing her white male employer who forced her into sexual slavery. The mother of three said she acted in self-defense, but a jury of all white men convicted her after a one-day trial.
In 2005, the state of Georgia finally pardoned Baker. Justice comes pretty slow.