Kim Dadou at the Rochester home where she grew up.

“You Don’t Look Like a Murderer”

More women than ever before are going to prison. Why aren’t we giving them the tools to succeed once they are home?

Story by Dax-Devlon Ross

Photography by Joe Lingeman

Published on

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Kim Dadou can carve her life into chapters. Before December 17, 1991, life was pretty good. She was young. She had a career as a respite counselor for the severely disabled that she loved. She made good money. She traveled. She and Darnell, her handsome boyfriend of four and a half years, were saving for their future. The only problem was the abuse. An episode could be as quick as a swift smack in front of her mother or a prolonged series of closed-fist beatings over a weekend. Anything could set Darnell off. Maybe she took eight minutes instead of seven to return from the 7-Eleven. Maybe he thought she was looking at one of his friends. Maybe he’d been written up at work. Whatever it was, at 22, 23 she thought if she could just get Darnell to stop putting his hands on her then everything would be fine. He just never stopped. Even after his fourth protective order came with a promise of jail time; even after Dadou suffered stab wounds, broken ribs, a punctured lung, chest tubes and one sexual assault after another; even after, on Darnell’s mother’s advice, she started praying whenever the hitting began; even after she moved back home with her mother to be safe from him. Even then she couldn’t escape.

Chapter two began the day police showed up at her mother’s door. Darnell’s car had been found. He was inside, his dead body full of bullet holes. It had been two days since she watched his car speed away. She remembered him jumping on her when she refused to perform a sex act in the car. She remembered him locking the doors. She remembered reaching for his gun under the seat and pointing it at him. She never meant to pull the trigger. The last thing she remembered was the look in his eyes as she ran up her mother’s steps and he screamed for her to bring her ass back to the car. He didn’t look like someone who’d been shot six times. He looked like someone who was going to kill her.

Rochester police confronted her with their version of what happened. When she wouldn’t confess they brought her pregnant 15-year-old sister in and created a story involving the girl as the triggerman, a low-ball move if I’ve ever heard of one. After a 12-hour interrogation Dadou gave them an eight-page statement on the condition that she got to go home. The detective read it and gave her a second-degree murder charge. She’d fallen for the oldest trick in the interrogation book.

Dadou’s face was all over the news: the boyfriend killer. The media set up camp outside of her mother’s house. Her mother told police she always knew one of them would kill the other; she just figured it would be her daughter’s funeral she would attend. Then she asked Dadou to move out. When her sister lost the baby, Dadou caught the blame. When she asked the local battered women’s shelter to bear witness on her behalf at the trial, the executive director said she couldn’t help. Everywhere Dadou looked, people turned their backs.

Just before trial the prosecutor offered a plea. Eight years. Dadou’s lawyer encouraged her to take the deal. Nothing made sense. She’d never been arrested in her life. Darnell had physically abused her for four and a half years. Rochester police had arrested him five times, and four judges had issued him restraining orders. She’d kept the hospital records. Bruises covered her body. She’d moved out. Dadou had done exactly what the system told her to do and the one time, the one moment, she stood her ground and asserted her right to live, the system threw the book at her. She rejected the plea deal.

Dadou’s timing couldn’t have been worse. In the early 1990s, the perception of out-of-control crime was sweeping the nation. The criminal justice system had entered on an aggressively punitive tough-on-crime era. Prisons were being built faster than colleges. Prosecutors were being handed powers they’d never had before. Mandatory minimums were reducing judges to bit players in their own courtrooms. In the coming years Congress would pass a crime bill that would include $10 billion for new prisons. The new cells would require a steady stream of inmates to justify their existence.

The prosecutor, assigned to Dadou case said she didn’t believe Dadou fit the battered woman’s profile because she had a career. The jury convicted her of first-degree manslaughter. The judge, also a woman, handed her eight to 25. While inside she earned two B.A.’s from Mercy College, in psychology and English literature. She fell in love with D.H. Lawrence. She became a writer. She led the welding unit. She stayed out of trouble and kept her circle small. The recidivism rate for manslaughter was only 19 percent, less than half the overall rate and the lowest in the state. Yet and still, the parole board issued Dadou five straight denials. Each rejection letter came with the same boilerplate: “There is a reasonable probability that you will not remain at liberty without violating the law.” Dadou’s unique situation notwithstanding, she was considered a violent felon. No governor-appointed bureaucrat was willing to risk his career against the possibility that she might strike again. She wound up serving 17 years.

Today, the population of jailed women continues to grow nearly 50 percent faster than the male prison population.

Stories like Dadou’s are depressingly common in New York. An astonishing 75 percent of women in the state’s prisons were severely abused by an intimate partner as an adult, researchers at Cornell University Law School found. The violence they experienced and what landed them in prison are often directly related. In 2005, for instance, 67 percent of women incarcerated for killing an individual close to them had been abused by their victim. Because of minimum sentencing laws, these women serve no less than 15 years in prison and often serve more. Parole releases are exceedingly rare.

Over the past few decades, incarceration rates among women have grown at a faster pace than ever before, a significant change for a criminal justice system that has always seen females as the exception to the rule. Today, the population of jailed women continues to grow nearly 50 percent faster than the male prison population. In New York, home to the fourth-largest female population in the country, the number of women in prison swelled from 384 to 2,480 between 1973 and 2010. Over that same period the number of intimate partner-violence survivors in women’s prisons jumped from 288 to 1,860.

“I couldn’t protect myself,” Dadou says. “And when I did I went to prison.”

“Complicated Lives”

On a bright, brittle morning in early March, Dadou told her story to a who’s who of Rochester’s civic and political elite at an annual breakfast hosted by a consortium of local domestic violence organizations. State senators, representatives from the Mayor’s office, prosecutors, police chiefs, nonprofit leaders, university professors, family law attorneys — nearly 100 of the city’s most estimable citizens, many representing the very justice system she believed had failed her — all gathered to hear Dadou speak at the College of Brockport’s MetroCenter campus in downtown Rochester.

These days, Dadou is the face of a reform bill called the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act. She’s delivered speeches across New York. More than once she’s testified before the legislature in Albany, and she appeared on MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry” in 2012 to discuss a Florida case involving an abused woman sentenced to 20 years for firing a warning shot at her estranged, abusive husband. Still, the one thing she hadn’t done prior to that morning was tell her story in the city where her life had been thrown terribly off course and where she’d been stitching it back together since she got home in late 2008.

To mark the occasion Dadou wore her interview outfit — a frumpy black pantsuit and a pair of worn-down work crew shoes. The stresses and strains showed. She’d put on weight in the last five years, and a shock of gray streaked the roots of her long curly hair like a crown. But at 49, she still has the smooth, supple skin of a woman half her age and a shine in her eyes that very nearly belies her ordeal.

Standing just behind her shoulder as she spoke was Jaya Vasandani. Vasandani is the associate director of the Correctional Association of New York’s Women in Prison Project. WIPP was the leading force behind the bill, monitoring prisons, producing reports and engaging in advocacy. It spearheaded a supporting coalition of more than 126 organizations and 74 state legislators (32 senators, 42 assembly members) who supported the bill. Vasandani and the other women at WIPP were more than just Dadou’s supporters; they were her heroes. They’d taken her calls from prison. They’d championed her cause when she came home. They’d given her a platform to be heard.

Dadou and her rescue dog, Chico.

If passed, the Survivors Justice Act would actually be a reform to a reform. The state’s 1998 Sentencing Reform Act — Jenna’s Law — had increased mandatory penalties for first-time violent felons but carved out a domestic violence exception that was supposed to ease sentencing for women in Dadou’s situation. It hadn’t. In 2007 New York’s sentencing commission could only find one offender serving time under the exception — a man. A follow-up inquiry in 2009 failed to turn up a single person sentenced according to the statute’s exception.

The new law would give judges the discretion to shorten the mandatory prison terms of survivor-defendants or to sentence them to community-based alternative-to-incarceration programs, which cost only one-fifth as imprisoning someone for a year and have shown to be more beneficial for many offenders. Judges could only exercise these options in cases that met certain specific criteria. The abuse had to be taking place “at the time of the offense” and a “significant contributing factor” to the crime, plus the mandated sentence had to be “unduly harsh.” And even then, a judge could opt to not be lenient. Given these limitations, DVSJA would only affect 185 currently incarcerated women and roughly 365 survivor-defendants per year. Still, it is progress.

“The judges need to have the understanding of these women’s experiences and the discretion to sentence accordingly,” said Bridgette Gibbs, a formerly incarcerated survivor of domestic violence and a member of the Correctional Association of New York’s Violence Against Women Committee. “If you look at most of these women’s backgrounds, they don’t have criminal records. They need treatment, not to be locked up away from their families. I know that — been there done that.”

It’s no surprise that Dadou has never before told her story in Rochester. It’s been a bumpy return for the native daughter, rife with family tension, unemployment woes and downright hostility from old friends and neighbors. Soon after coming home, people close to her ex-boyfriend threatened to kill her if they ever saw her on the streets. Meanwhile, male hiring managers routinely asked, “So, what do you do when you get angry?” before politely encouraging her to seek work elsewhere. Male cops brazenly said, “You don’t look like a murderer,” after pulling her over for no other reason other than that she was Greek, looked vaguely Puerto Rican and lived in an all-black neighborhood with her longtime girlfriend. Despite 17 years served and five years home, Dadou’s daily life remained locked to a split-second act of self-defense.

“It comes in all different directions and it hits you right across the face when you’re not even looking,” said Dadou, “Society doesn’t let you forget shit.”

Invisible re-entry

John Klofas is a criminal justice professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the director of its Center for Public Safety Initiatives. In 2010, he helped launch a pilot in the city called the Women’s Re-entry Project aimed at women who had been released from the Monroe County Correctional Facility. Participants either had to be pregnant or mothers of children under five in order to be accepted. The cohort received case management, mentoring, housing and transportation assistance, and support with family reunification.

“One of the things we learned early on was that women have very, very complicated lives,” Klofas said. “They have kids. They have men in their lives that they are often dependent on. When they are coming out they have a whole range of concerns that aren’t the same as for males at all.”

Sadly, Klofas’ pilot’s funding ran out after just two years. It no longer exists in Rochester. Even if it did, Dadou would not be eligible. Her situation was just not dire enough.

“None of these programs are funded for very long and are not very stable,” Klofas said. “They live from grant to grant and right now there’s very little money at all for anything. A funding source becomes available then it gets exhausted and things lie dormant and another source becomes available and somebody else grabs it. So no infrastructure, no lasting enduring place to solve these problems for people, gets built.”

Dadou ran squarely into the conundrum of re-entry support almost immediately after returning home. Upon hearing about a $10-an-hour landscaping job being offered through a re-entry program, she went to apply. The program turned her away because she wasn’t homeless and didn’t have a drug problem.

Then her parole officer assigned her to a domestic violence group as a condition of her release. Her own abuse notwithstanding, the fact that she’d been convicted of killing her boyfriend meant she was, legally, the perpetrator of domestic violence. Dadou discovered that the group was comprised entirely of men who’d served time for abusing their partners. She refused to go. Eventually, the parole office placed her with her own therapist but only after she was able to convinced the officer that placing a formerly abused woman in a group full of convicted male abusers was a bad idea.

“Because the percentage of men in prison is so large, the reforms are focused on them,” said Jesenia Santana, a senior policy advisor at STEPS to End Family Violence. Out of the 165 incarceration-alternative programs in the state, STEPS is the only one serving women charged with crimes related to their abuse. “With women we’re talking about a causal factor for their incarceration that’s still considered a quote-unquote private matter. We haven’t put any emphasis on providing additional resources for those women as a society.”

Yet researchers have found that women caught in the criminal justice system need just as much help getting back on their feet as men, if not more. These women tend to not only tend to have traumatic histories but also have fewer job skills and more familial responsibilities than male counterparts. The end result is predictable — fewer women than men end up steadily employed after release from prison.

A study published in 2009 by the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center followed 142 women returning to the city of Houston in 2005 after stints in Texas state prisons and jails. The Urban Institute researchers found that the women experienced “tremendous difficulties” securing employment in their first year out. While 58 percent worked prior to incarceration, only 36 percent were working two to four months following their release, and eight to ten months out, those numbers still hadn’t increased. What’s more, only half of the women who were working at all were working full-time. Meanwhile, during that same period, employment among men re-entering the workforce jumped from 48 percent to 60 percent and 82 percent were employed full-time

“Do we have to wait 30 or 40 years for this to be an issue that can be talked about openly,” Santana said. “Because it took 30 years for us to talk about how the War on Drugs was ineffectual.”

Home again

Since she’s been home, Dadou’s most consistent family has been her girlfriend, Belle. They first met in the county jail before Dadou headed upstate. She’d never considered dating a woman but by then she’d sworn off men and Belle was persistent. They connected and fell in love but prison has a way of disrupting relationships. A few days after an altercation landed Belle in the box, Dadou was moved.

From then on their relationship was touch and go. They briefly reconnected in Bedford before Belle was sent to Albion. Four years passed before they saw each other again in Albion. Then Belle got out on parole and another five years passed. Belle finally got off parole on December 31, 2001. On January 1, 2002, a guard woke up Dadou and said she had a visitor. She couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw Belle standing in the waiting room. “I told you I’d be here,” Belle said. For the next six years she visited every other weekend, on holidays and sometimes just because. Imagining the life they would share got Dadou through thousands — yes thousands — of nights. And since she got out in 2008, Belle has been there for her through it all.

“There’s nothing she won’t do for me or me for her and it feels really good to be with somebody who accepts me. She knows all about me and likes me anyway.” Dadou paused. “And I’m not afraid of her.”

Dadou spent 17 years in prison.

Dadou wasn’t always so reliant on a single other person. She grew up with six sisters in a clean split-level house on a middle-class block. Her mother, now struggling with dementia, still lives there. Dadou would visit there with Darnell, before everything changed. (When he wasn’t drinking or angry about something that had nothing to do with her, he could be so kind and gentle. Sometimes they would drive to Ontario and hole up in a hotel with a crockpot and tons of fresh seafood for a weekend, planning their future together.) It was at that house where she and Darnell had fought and where the bullets that killed him were fired. Today, a lumbering tree shades the street in front of the house. When she left for prison, the tree was just a sapling. Her sister still lives on the block.

Dadou was the oldest, and her mother appointed her the leader of the family early on. When her sisters needed support, they turned to her. That stopped when she went to prison.

“When I got locked up [my sister] told me she loved me like she loved someone who had died,” she said. Dadou ran into that sister once at Wegmans shortly after she came home. They hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in more than 17 years. Her sister hugged her and carried on as if no time had passed. Dadou looked at her, said it was nice seeing her and walked away. That was the last time they spoke.

Of her five other younger sisters, Dadou was only in regular contact with one. The others had moved away from Rochester or disappeared entirely. Her extended family had been unhappy with her decision to date black men. When she was convicted they washed their hands of her entirely. “I don’t get invites to holidays, none of that,” she said. “I think I was gone too long.”

In prison, Dadou made amazing friends with outlandish nicknames like Butter and the Fat Man (hers was simply her memorable last name). These were the women who she spent Thanksgivings and Christmas Eves with, women she worked on the grounds and welding crews with. They were each other’s family. But prison was a nightmare. Watching people she cared for snatched away without warning. Being denied parole over and over again. Getting thrown in the box simply for hugging someone who was going home, then being denied a shower the next day as punishment. Never being able to make decisions about things the average person takes for granted — what got shown on TV, for instance. Watching guards read her diaries and tear out pages. Not being given adequate toilet tissue or sanitary napkins because a male guard felt she didn’t need them. Being charged exorbitant prices for tampons in the commissary. Seeing pregnant women shackled.

It got so bad at one point that she bought and bartered for every pill she could get her hands on. Then one night before bed she swallowed every last one of them. She woke up the next morning devastated. She couldn’t even end her nightmare. In the mess hall later that day she broke down. A sympathetic guard opened his arms and held her.

“It’s just a huge warehouse for women and their sorrows. And women express their sorrow in so many different ways,” she says. “Some are angry. Some are nasty. Some are bitter.”

Dadou still hears from a few of the women she served time with. Just a few weeks before we met she said was in the supermarket when someone yelled out “Dadou” in that unmistakable prison cadence.

Happy as she was to reconnect with an old friend, Dadou reminded the woman they weren’t on the yard anymore. The ones she was closest with still call a few times a year, often on her birthday, to reminisce about their shared ordeal like old war buddies rehashing combat. One moved to the islands. One had a baby. Several are grandmothers now. The ones who’ve found career success are downstate working in nonprofit advocacy organizations like the Correctional Association.

“That Scarlet Letter”

A blue sedan pulled up on the south side of Manhattan Square Park in downtown Rochester and blew its horn. The driver rolled down the passenger side window and yelled my name. I looked up to see Dadou waving me over.

The frigid morning had thawed to a spring-like afternoon, and she’d ditched the black pantsuit for a blue shirt and jeans. She now looked as relaxed as she did tense just a few hours earlier. Once I was in the passenger seat I told her how the audience was riveted by her story. The cell phones were stashed; she had the room’s full attention. “How did it feel to get a standing ovation?” I asked.

“It wasn’t the first time,” she smirked, adding that this one in particular was a relief to have behind her.

“It’s like every time I try to pick myself up he still beats me down.”

When I asked her how much time she had for me she laughed the way people do when they’re really not joking. “I’m unemployed,” she replied, “All I have is free time.”

For Dadou, finding steady employment has been an odyssey that parallels the American economy’s shift from manufacturing to service and illustrates the nagging long-term effects of a criminal record. First, she had a job at a Tim Horton’s coffee shop. It wasn’t the right fit. Next came a delivery job at Papa John’s. The tips were inconsistent, but she liked her manager and enjoyed the simple freedom that driving afforded. For nearly two decades she’d dreamt about being on the open road only to wake up in her cell. After three years, delivering pizzas for unpredictable tips got old so she found an assistant manager job at Family Dollar. It was mindless work, she said, but it paid $10 an hour, enough to cover her car note and basic expenses. [[media_2] Finally, in late 2013 she thought she had the inside track on a job at Verizon that paid nearly $12 an hour and came with benefits. She went for four interviews, passed the entrance exams with flying colors and felt sure the next step was a start date. Then they ran a background check. A tentative offer became a sudden rejection.

Devastated by the setback, Dadou called the HR department to find out what happened. New York State law prohibits employers with 10 or more employees from discriminating against ex-offenders unless a “direct relationship” exists between the crime and the job, or the hire presents an “unreasonable risk.” HR merely said her qualifications would be best suited elsewhere. The job was in customer service.

“I felt like Darnell was stomping on me again,” she says. “I don’t mean to be melodramatic but it’s like every time I try to pick myself up he still beats me down. It’s that felony, that scarlet letter.”

A month after the Verizon debacle, Dadou got laid off from Family Dollar. She wasn’t the only one — the company cut a bunch of staff right after the holidays. They were all told that the store just wasn’t doing well enough. For the past two months she’d been on unemployment, her already modest income slashed by $150 per week. When she stepped to the podium that morning, she had $186 dollars to her name and all of it was earmarked for bills.

“I’m hoping one of the connections I made leads somewhere,” she told me after the event.

Dadou’s Verizon experience is typical for someone who has committed a criminal offense. A 2005 survey of U.S. employers found that more than 80 percent perform criminal background checks. Other researchers have asked employers directly how they feel about hiring job applicants with criminal records. After surveying more than 3,000 employers in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit and Los Angeles, the researchers found 80 to 90 percent of employers would hire “former welfare recipients, workers with little recent work experience or lengthy unemployment, and other stigmatizing characteristics,” while only 40 percent would consider hiring job applicants with criminal histories. Even fewer employers would consider ex-offenders for jobs involving customer service or handling money. The hiring stigma against ex-offenders holds up even when researchers have used actors and carefully crafted résumés that exclude the effect of any variable other than a prior felony conviction, according to research published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

Notably, even people who participate in high-achieving re-entry programs — male or female — continue to be dogged by their felony stigmas. A rigorous three-year evaluation of programs run by the nonprofit Center for Employment Opportunities, which trains and temporarily employs recent parolees with an eye toward improving their labor market prospects, found that while the programs “substantially increased” employment immediately after participating, employment and earnings after the first year out were no different for those participants than for the control group. The researchers ultimately concluded that the initial employment bump provided by CEO has helped curb recidivism but hasn’t resulted in lasting employment gains for program participants.

“With the changes that have occurred in the employment outlook here it’s hard to argue that the system can sustain all of the re-entry population very well,” RIT’s Klofas acknowledged. “We have such a large re-entry population that even if people are placing 100 percent of their clients, it’s such a small number compared to the need that you can’t argue that the whole re-entry community is being addressed.”

Nearly 4,000 children in New York state alone have a mother currently serving time in prison. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

CEO, which opened a Rochester office in 2010, won the country’s first state-backed social impact financing award this past winter. Over the next five years it will receive $13.5 million from private sector investors and the Department of Labor to help 2,000 ex-offenders build work skills and stay out of jail. The state will repay the investors with interest if it meets its target employment and recidivism numbers. CEO’s success could create opportunities for thousands more ex-offenders across the country. The pilot has just one glaring flaw: It specifically excludes women.

One reform aimed at easing re-entry hurdles for men and women is “ban the box” legislation. The box in question appears on employment applications as a square to be checked off by applicants with criminal records. A number of justice reform groups in cities across the country have organized campaigns to remove these inquiries from employment and housing applications. To date, six states have removed the question from government agency applications, and four have forbid private employers from asking as well, i.e. “banning the box.” Another 60 cities including Philadelphia, Atlanta, Tampa, Kansas City, Norfolk and Rochester’s sister city of Buffalo, have passed local ordinances. As a practical matter, though, “banning the box” only delays the inquiry so re-entry programs are now teaching their clients how to address questions about their past in an in-person interview setting.

Dadou was recently offered what would seem to be a dream job with the Correctional Association. The position entailed organizing and educating women who had experiences similar to her own. She knew she would excel at the job and feel good doing it but there was a problem — she’d have to move to New York City, leaving her life in Rochester, Belle and her rescue dog, Chico. (She’d lost her childbearing years to prison but the little dog was a fine substitute, she said.) She’d turned down the job.

“I don’t feel I’ve ever been seen in a good light here. Nothing I ever said had any credence. I don’t want to be the bad guy anymore,” Dadou said when I asked her why she chose to stay. “I built myself from the bottom up in a sewer called prison. I like the powerhouse I’ve become.”

We’d spent the day driving around Rochester. She’d showed me the house where she grew up and the one along Lake Ontario that she always dreamed of owning, the park where Darnell used to beat her and another where she went to heal. We’d watched ice fishermen probe Long Pond for pike, bass and perch, and a brave dog cross the frozen Irondequoit Bay.
“I want to be happy here. I want this to be a good place for me again.”

At dusk, we landed in the strip-mall parking lot outside of the Family Dollar where she used to work. A young man wearing a loose-fitting fast-food uniform crossed the lot. Dadou studied him as he hustled toward his car. She knew him or at least his face. She looked around for a former co-worker’s truck but didn’t see it. Then she wondered aloud if the co-worker had been let go as well.
“I wonder who’s working,” she mumbled.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Dax-Devlon Ross is the author of five books and has written essays and articles for a range of publications, including Time and the New York Times. He is a non-profit higher-education consultant and the executive director of After-School All-Stars NY-NJ. You can find him at

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