Legislators Should Protect Domestic Violence Survivors Like Me

We must urge state lawmakers to pass legislation that will free survivors of domestic violence from prisons—like me.

One in four women (24.3 percent) and one in seven men (13.8 percent) aged 18 and older in the U.S. have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. (Malte Mueller / Getty Images)

These words are being written from inside Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, Oklahoma. We are nearly one month into 2024 and I’m nearing the end of my 26th year of incarceration.

For years, my ex-fiancé raped, choked, beat and stalked me. On numerous occasions, he even threatened to kill me and my son. Unfortunately, the three protective orders I had didn’t stop him. Neither did a warrant for his arrest—issued after he failed to appear in court after being arrested at my home with a loaded gun. 

I resorted to wearing a panic button around my neck to notify authorities whenever he attacked me at my home, but that didn’t stop him either. None of my efforts to protect myself and my son worked. He continued to terrorize me relentlessly. 

In 1998, I found myself in a life-and-death altercation after he threatened to sodomize and kill me. He lunged at me and I fatally shot him. I testified in my own defense at trial, telling the jury, “I had no choice—there was no choice.”

People have asked me over the years, “Why didn’t you just leave?” How I wish it were that easy. It wasn’t simple for me and it’s not simple for millions of domestic violence victims across the country. 

Why are so many domestic violence survivors like me locked up in America? After all, I’m far from alone. 

The number of incarcerated women grew more than 525 percent between 1980 and 2021. Oklahoma has one of the highest female imprisonment rates on Earth—incarcerating women at a rate over twice as high as the national average. This is despite the fact that women in Oklahoma aren’t engaging in criminal conduct more than women in other states. 

Participants in the Guardian Angels Program at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, Okla.The program works with local animal rescue groups to pair dogs with women in prison who train the animals before adoption. (Courtesy of Oklahoma Corrections)

Sadly, most women in prison report a history of abuse, and studies show the majority of women incarcerated in my home state of Oklahoma were domestic violence victims prior to incarceration. In fact, a 2014 study found that 66 percent of women in Oklahoma prisons were in a violent relationship within the year before they went to prison. And a recent internal survey of the women here in Mabel Bassett showed nearly 89 percent of respondents were victims of domestic violence or physically and/or sexually abused prior to being incarcerated.

These imprisoned survivors are typically denied the resources they need to heal from trauma. In fact, they are often subjected to further abuse: being separated from their families, controlled, strip-searched, shackled, caged, shaken down, threatened and degraded behind bars.  

Take Keabreauna Boyd, for example

Keabreauna was sentenced to life in prison with all but 20 years suspended for the 2020 death of her abusive boyfriend—who she says cut her belly with a knife when she was eight months pregnant with his child. 

She wrestled the knife away and swung it wildly in self-defense. Unfortunately, the knife hit an artery in his neck, and he died. Keabreauna was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. After her arrest, she gave birth prematurely to their baby, Angel, while handcuffed to a hospital bed. 

As it stands, all five of Keabreauna’s children, including Angel, will be grown up before she’s released. My son was only 7 when I was locked up, and our separation has felt like torture. I don’t want anyone else to go through that.

People have asked me over the years, ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’ It wasn’t simple for me and it’s not simple for millions of domestic violence victims across the country. 


Last year, Oklahoma legislators had a chance to reduce the sentencing for people like me and Keabreauna by passing the Oklahoma Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act. It had overwhelming public support and passed the House Judiciary-Criminal Committee unanimously. 

However, many domestic abuse survivors were abandoned when language that would have benefitted survivors serving prison time was stripped from the final version of the bill—which ended up not getting a final vote on the House floor.

Thankfully, hope is alive again. A new bill called the Oklahoma Survivors’ Act (SB1 470)—which includes retroactivity—was just introduced by Oklahoma Senator Greg Treat.

There is hope for other states, too:

  • Advocates in Minnesota are working to create another version of the Survivors Justice Act for consideration by state lawmakers. 
  • In Louisiana, nine women who were serving life sentences for killing their domestic partners in self-defense have been released from prison since 2018, after attorneys took another look at their cases, convictions and sentences. 
  • In New York, the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA)—passed in 2019—is allowing survivors to prove their victimization to seek a lower sentence, either at the time of original sentencing or through re-sentencing.  

More sentencing reform for domestic violence survivors must happen now—for Keabreauna and the thousands of women like her across the country. 

I’ve been incarcerated for over two-and-a-half decades, but Keabreauna has only been here a few years. Watching another woman stare down the barrel of a lengthy sentence is heartbreaking—so I will continue the fight. 

You can find your state’s elected officials here. I hope everyone reading this—especially those who have or know someone who has been impacted by domestic violence—will ask their state lawmakers to pass legislation that will free survivors of domestic violence from prisons. Survivors deserve safety and freedom.  

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April Wilkens is currently incarcerated at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, Oklahoma. She is 53 years old.