Over the course of 21 months, Justine van der Leun sent thousands of surveys to people incarcerated in women’s prisons in more than 20 states, aiming to gather information about their unique pathways into the criminal legal system. In her story for The Appeal, in collaboration with The New Republic, she uses the results of this first-of-its-kind research, as well as true stories of select women, to interrogate the ways in which abuse, misogyny, and structural inequalities result in the punishment of the most marginalized.
The case of Tanisha Williams, van der Leun’s main subject, is at once emblematic and unique. Williams is a 38-year-old Black mother of three, born into poverty and the survivor of childhood physical and sexual abuse, as well as domestic violence. In 2002, at age 20, Williams took part in a murder, as her abuser, the perpetrator, held a gun to her head. “I thought I would die,” she told van der Leun. She is now serving twenty to forty years in a Michigan state prison.
In her longform article, van der Leun blends immersive, investigative, and data journalism to center and validate the voices and experiences of a silenced population, while shining a light on this dark corner of our criminal legal system.