Incarcerated Survivor Press Release


March 15, 2021  

Deanne Benos                                      Margaret Duval
Women’s Justice Institute                  Ascend Justice   

The Women’s Justice Institute and Ascend Justice to Launch Legal Services Program for Incarcerated Survivors of Gender-based Violence With Two-Year Grant

Chicago – The Women’s Justice Institute (WJI) and Ascend Justice, with support from the Polk Bros. Foundation, are excited to announce a new partnership to provide civil legal services for incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence. A $250,000, two-year grant will allow the Women’s Justice Institute and Ascend Justice to partner together to design and deliver a holistic civil legal services program for incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence.

Survivors in jail and prison risk losing access to their children to an abusive partner, termination of parental rights, the loss of public benefits, and the ability to protect their lives and families through orders of protection or other means. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, gender-based violence has increased against women and the challenges among incarcerated women have only intensified as efforts to prevent the spread have resulted in widespread lockdowns, elimination of visits with children and families, and disruptions in communication to help women stay connected to support systems. 

“The pathway of nearly every woman incarcerated in Illinois prisons today has been paved by some form of gender-based violence. Far too many women have been criminalized for their survival, and access to quality legal services can be a lifeline – one that can literally save a woman’s life and protect her children from harm,” said Deanne Benos, Co-Founder of the Women’s Justice Institute. “The absence of needed legal supports causes serious and preventable vulnerabilities among women that create additional avenues to exploitation by their abusers. Until laws and policies are enacted and properly used to prevent the unnecessary incarceration of survivors, those who remain in jails or prisons need and deserve access to high-quality legal services. We are so grateful to the Polk Bros. Foundation and Ascend Justice for recognizing this need.”

In addition to providing legal services for incarcerated survivors, the program will also provide civil legal services to survivors of gender-based violence enrolled in the Cook County Women’s Reentry Initiative, a gender-responsive care coordination partnership between Cook County Health (CCH), Haymarket Center, the Illinois Department of Corrections, the Women’s Justice Institute and other organizations.

“For decades, we have worked to expand systems of support for survivors of gender-based violence. Despite these efforts, incarcerated survivors have received inadequate attention from systems that focus on incarcerated people as well as those of us who focus on survivors of gender-based violence,” said Margaret Duval, Executive Director of Ascend Justice. “I am thrilled to collaborate with the Women’s Justice Institute to develop cutting-edge legal services that address the needs of survivors, regardless of their incarceration status.”

Incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence are currently under-served by both funders focused on victim services and those focused on people impacted by incarceration. Survivors in jails and prisons cannot access gender-based violence support hotlines or emergency services, nor can they utilize internet self-help materials or call legal aid organizations. Civil legal service organizations receiving federal funding are barred from assisting survivors who are incarcerated. As a result, an enormous gap in services exists, leaving incarcerated survivors of violence without access to the legal services that help them end abusive relationships, preserve relationships with their families, and improve outcomes when they re-enter their communities.

“We are excited about this partnership because Ascend Justice and Women’s Justice Institute have the right mix of expertise and relationships to help fill a significant gap in supports for incarcerated survivors of domestic violence, and because their holistic model will help address health, safety, and other needs when survivors return to their home communities,” said Polk Bros. Foundation Senior Program Officer Debbie Reznick. “Incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence face a dizzying amount of obstacles to addressing their civil legal needs, so the work will also focus on advocating for process changes to make getting legal help easier. Now, more women will be able to ensure their own safety and the safety of their children, and establish regular visits so that they can see their kids.”

A 2017-2018 survey of mothers incarcerated at Logan Correctional Center, the largest women’s prison in Illinois, performed by the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration showed that 99% of the women incarcerated there had experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse at some point in their lives. It further showed that many women experienced continuing abuse during incarceration, including coercion related to their children, immigration status, access to housing, verbal and mental abuse, and threats of harm.

About the Women’s Justice Institute: The Women’s Justice Institute promotes decarceration, harm reduction, and improved well-being and outcomes for systems impacted women, their children, families, and communities using gender-responsive, trauma-informed methods. The WJI’s work is anchored by the voices of impacted women and girls and advanced through broad and deep partnerships with diverse justice system stakeholders. 

About Ascend Justice: Ascend Justice is a non-profit legal services organization whose mission is to empower individuals and families impacted by gender-based violence through legal advocacy and system reform. For more information about Ascend Justice, visit