The latest photograph one might find of Tondalo Hall shows her half smiling and dressed in a greyish prison uniform issued by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. She has aged in prison, albeit gracefully considering how hard being imprisoned must be, especially because her only crime is surviving ongoing and vicious domestic violence.
It’s true. Tondalo Hall received a 30-year sentence because the violence perpetrated against her left her afraid, confused, and suffering from what one can only imagine was post-traumatic stress.
According to The Washington Post, which provides links to her court documents, Tondalo Hall was just a 20-year-old mother of three small children when she (and her children) suffered the most at the hands of her boyfriend, Robert Braxton Jr. Braxton followed the playbook for domestic abusers to the T. He abused Hall mentally and emotionally, and made her feel worthless. He isolated her from friends and family. He choked and punched her regularly and mercilessly, and even refused to allow Hall moments to comfort her children (as Braxton believed that kind of nurturing would turn the children into “punks”). Hall seemed to be stuck in a nightmare and afraid to escape because Robert Braxton Jr. threatened that if she tried to leave him, he would make sure she never saw her kids again.
What happened next in the story is expected if we’re familiar with domestic violence at all. Braxton began sadistically, physically abusing the children as well. At some point, Hall understood that the abuse she’d been too afraid to flee had gone too far. After taking her children to the hospital because of an injury to her son’s leg, it was discovered he had “a fractured femur and 12 fractured ribs,” and that her daughter “also had a fractured femur, seven fractured ribs and a fractured toe.”
In addition to the physical. mental and emotional pain Hall experienced as a result of her own abuse, she had to face the reality that her children had also been broken, literally, by her abuser, their father. Both Braxton and Hall were arrested after that hospital visit.
Some might say Tondalo Hall is responsible for her children’s injuries and therefore deserves to be in prison. We have high expectations for mothers, after all. We want to believe that women become super intuitive, fast acting lionesses who pounce and kill anything or anyone who threatens their babies once they give birth, even if we know that belief to be fantasy.
But the bodies of mothers produce no special protein that tells us what the best thing for our children is. Tondalo Hall was paralyzed by fear and routine abuse. She could in no way have been thinking or acting coherently when it came to her children’s safety, because she couldn’t even contemplate her own.
If anything is right with the world, we’d imagine that Robert Braxton Jr. served time for his abuse of Tondalo Hall and her children. And he did. Braxton was sentenced to (only) eight years for breaking those children’s bones, and he only served two of those eight years. Tondalo Hall— though she was the person responsible for getting medical treatment for her children and testified over and over again in court about how copiously Braxton abused her—is serving a sentence 15 times that of her abuser.
There are countless cases like Tondalo Hall’s, where women are blamed and jailed for being victims of domestic violence. Arlena Lindley (of Texas) was sentenced to 45 years in prison for failing to protect her son (who died after being brutally beaten by Lindley’s boyfriend, Alonzo Turner) from the man who was also abusing her. According to a thorough investigation conducted by BuzzFeed reporter Alex Campbell:
Twenty-eight mothers in 11 states [were] sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for failing to prevent their partners from harming their children. In every one of these cases, there was evidence the mother herself had been battered by the man.
Even more troubling, according to Campbell:
At least 29 states have laws that explicitly criminalize parents’ failure to protect their children from abuse. In Texas, where Lindley lives, the crime is known as injury to a child “by omission.” In other states, it goes by “permitting child abuse” or “enabling child abuse.” In addition, prosecutors in at least 19 states can use other, more general laws against criminal negligence in the care of a child, or placing a child in a dangerous situation.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. As we speak about how to combat domestic violence and keep women and children safe, we cannot forget to say the names of women like Tondalo Hall and Arlena Lindley, who appear to be the ultimate victims of domestic violence. We must also remember that, as presented in the Fact Sheet on Domestic Violence and the Criminalization of Survival, “85-90% of women in prison have a history of being victims of violence prior to their incarceration, including domestic violence, sexual violence, and child abuse.”
The greatest work that may be done to eradicate domestic violence is in the courtrooms and prisons of our nation, as women in prison represent the most vulnerable, mostly forgotten victims. We can begin by petitioning for justice for Tondalo Hall through the organization UltraViolet, as well as locating other cases like Hall’s in our own cities, states or regions.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter at @jonubian.