On January 8, 2019, Betsy Ramos will appear before the parole board for the fourth time. The 54-year-old has been behind bars for the past 21 years for second-degree manslaughter. Her conviction—and the experiences leading up to her arrest—stem from a web of substance use, HIV stigma, domestic violence, repeated criminalization, and, now, decades in prison.
On the morning of May 26, 1998, Betsy Ramos woke to two police officers at her door. They had come to serve a warrant on her boyfriend, Joseph Serrano, for missing a court date for drug possession. Fearing arrest, Serrano instructed Ramos to tell police that he was not present, then hid in the closet.
Fearing Serrano’s wrath, Ramos did just that. The officers searched the apartment twice before finding Serrano. He resisted arrest, managing to grab hold of one officer’s gun. He and the other officer, Anthony Mosomillo, shot and killed each other. Ramos was arrested and charged with Mosomillo’s death. At trial, she was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years to life.
The circumstances of Ramos’s arrest and imprisonment are not the typical story of women in prison. But the pathway from trauma to substance use to violence to criminalization is a familiarly-trod one for many women who end up entangled in the criminal justice system, particularly for domestic violence survivors.
No one knows how many domestic violence survivors are incarcerated for acts related to their abuse. What is known is that, in the United States, one in three women (roughly 33 percent) experience physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. For incarcerated women, that rate rises to 77 percent. In other words, while Ramos’s particular conviction may be unusual, she is not the only domestic violence survivor imprisoned because of her partner’s actions.
Ramos’s ordeals began long before that morning. As a teenager in Brooklyn, Ramos was abandoned by first her mother, then her father. She began using heroin, leading to multiple arrests and convictions.
We criminalize the experience of trauma, especially for women
Amanda Bashi is the supervising professor at the Women’s Decarceration Practicum at Cornell Law School, in which law students assist incarcerated women, including Ramos. She points out that adolescent or young adult trauma is linked to addiction. But, she adds, “because we criminalize addiction, we criminalize the experience of trauma, especially for women.” For instance, a study prepared for the U.S. Department of Justice found that rates of PTSD among incarcerated women are more than three times the rates of PTSD reported in women in the outside world. It also found that 78 to 85 percent of incarcerated women have experienced at least one traumatic event.
But criminalization only serves to lock people away, not treat the underlying issues that caused the trauma or continue to fuel the addiction. For Ramos, those arrests and stints behind bars did not address her sense of worthlessness caused by her parents’ abandonment.
In 1993, she was nearly arrested again for selling heroin. A long-time customer convinced her to bring in drugs from Colombia. Ramos agreed, was arrested at the airport and, after pleading guilty, sentenced to three years in federal prison followed by ten years of probation.
In 1996, Ramos was released from prison to a halfway house. She also learned that she had contracted HIV. “It felt like I received a death sentence. I thought, ‘No one is ever going to love me like this,’” she explained through her attorneys. “I felt ashamed, and wondered how people would treat me. I felt so alone.”
At the halfway house, she met Serrano, who had recently been released from state prison and had his own history of arrests for drugs.
When she told Serrano about her HIV status, he told her that he would accept her. Later, however, he used her diagnosis—and stigma around HIV—to maintain control and prevent her from ending their relationship, telling her repeatedly that no one else would love her. That control soon extended to every aspect of her life—Serrano controlled what she wore, forbidding her to wear open-toed shoes or white tops in public. He taped black curtains to all of the windows to keep her isolated from the outside world. He controlled her body, beating her with his fists and, at one point, holding her down and forcibly sodomizing her.
In July 1996, shortly moving into her apartment, Serrano beat her badly enough to send her to the hospital. Ramos required stitches in her head and three days in the hospital. When she came home and found him still in the apartment, she called the police. According to the police report, she told police that Serrano “constantly pushes her around and threatens her life.” She also told police that, when she told him to leave, he began choking her.
“He got craftier with his abuse. He would hit me where he wouldn’t leave marks.”
She also called Serrano’s parole officer who had Serrano arrested for a parole violation one week later. Serrano spent three months at Rikers Island, New York’s island-jail complex, where he continually called Ramos and begged for another chance. She finally relented and he returned to her apartment. But the abuse did not stop. Instead, she said through her attorneys, “he got craftier with his abuse. He would hit me where he wouldn’t leave marks.” He also continued with his drug use and refused her efforts to enroll him in rehab at the hospital. Instead, the abuse grew worse. To cope, Ramos, who had stopped her drug use after prison, began “dipping and dabbing.” Her response is not unusual; studies show that drug use is a common coping mechanism among women who have experienced violence and trauma. The United Nations found that women with substance use disorders have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“As outsiders, we can observe cycles that involve addiction, abuse and feelings of worthlessness,” stated Bashi, noting that trauma creates pathways in the brain that can be difficult to change. “Each time Joseph beat her or reminded her that she was unlovable because of her diagnosis, it dug that pathway a little deeper and made it harder to change her life.”
Similarly, she points out that current drug policy can inhibit people’s ability to seek help. “We know that people have died of overdose because the people around them were afraid to call 911 because of their own drug use. We also know that, in domestic violence cases alone [without drug involvement], women are often reluctant to call police on their loved ones.” In other words, the combination of the two make a person far less likely to call 911.
“They’d ask me, ‘Is there a problem?’ But he’d be standing right there and I’d be scared to say anything.
But Ramos did. She called 911 two other times. Each time, she recounted, she was only able to dial the numbers before Serrano grabbed the phone. But because they had been called, police arrived. “They’d ask me, ‘Is there a problem?’ But he’d be standing right there and I’d be scared to say anything. If they wouldn’t take him, he’d give me another ass whupping,” she recounted. “Every time I opened the door, something happened—and I’d still be stuck with him.” She also tried finding shelter through Safe Horizon, but they had no availability for a single woman without children.
By that fateful May morning, Ramos had suffered over 600 days of Serrano’s abuse. She was afraid to not obey his demand, but she also remembers feeling relieved. “Now he knows the cops are coming here. After they leave, he’ll leave and be scared to come back because he knows the cops are going to keep coming here,” she said. “I never imagined that he would take it to the extent that he did. I never imagined that he would hurt anybody because he only hurt me [before].” Ironically, the officers were from the same precinct where she had filed her initial complaint.
Because Serrano had died in the shootout, Ramos was the focus of the victim’s family’s anguish—and the wrath of the court. “Betsy became the last living person who could be held responsible [for the officer’s death],” Bashi noted. The ensuing publicity highlighted Ramos’s past drug convictions, labeling her an “ex-con” and “a convicted drug dealer and smuggler.”
“Our criminal justice system loves labels”
“Our criminal justice system loves labels,” Bashi stated. “When we can make a proper noun out of one act that was committed, it creates an assumption and a narrative.” In Ramos’s case, her past drug convictions made her an unsympathetic defendant rather than someone who had been victimized herself.
At trial, the prosecutor argued that Ramos had helped Serrano grab the officer’s gun, a charge that Ramos and her attorney dispute. The jury acquitted Ramos of both murder and the gun charges. Instead, they convicted her of second-degree manslaughter. Then-prosecutor Charles Hynes used Ramos’s past arrest to press for a life sentence, the maximum penalty allowed for manslaughter. The judge sentenced her to 15 years to life.
Betsy (right) and her sister-in-law Davina.
Ramos does not downplay the impact of her decisions that day. While in jail, despondent that her actions had led to another person’s death, she attempted suicide twice. In 1999, she told the probation officer who interviewed her, “If I had known that my boyfriend was going to react the way he did, I would not have denied that he was in the apartment. If I could trade my life for the dead officer’s life, I would do it. I am very sorry for the pain I have caused the officer’s family.”
Since her incarceration, Ramos appeared before the parole board three times; each time, she was denied parole. In January 2018, she was diagnosed with cancer; she began chemotherapy and radiation as well as surgery. The prison’s own risk assessment tool (COMPAS) shows that, given her age, gender and illness, Ramos has a low risk of violence, rearrest or absconding.
Ramos appears before the parole board again on January 8th. But even if parole commissioners grant her parole, she will not be a free (or even paroled) woman. Instead, she will be handcuffed by U.S. marshals and brought to a federal jail where she faces prosecution for violating probation from that 1993 heroin smuggling conviction.
Ramos’s experience illustrates the ways in which drug policy, domestic violence and criminalization form a tangled web for many incarcerated women. And, notes Bashi, “there are more women like Betsy whose criminalization results from trauma.” Now, unlike Ramos during her earlier years, some of these women have more resources as they attempt to navigate the court system.
Today, there’s a greater understanding and awareness of the role that domestic violence plays in criminalization and imprisonment. While that awareness and understanding has not penetrated every courtroom, it has increased the amount of support available to survivors—organizations like Survived and Punished, and the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls now work with women facing and currently in prison, many of whom are in similarly tangled webs. And there’s Bashi and her team at the Women’s Decarceration Practicum at Cornell Law School, who are fighting for Ramos to get parole—you can help by sending letters and messages of support to [email protected]
“I believe that the world would be better with me outside of prison,” Ramos says in a video put together by her legal team. “I have changed and atoned and because of that […] I would like to help others [who are facing] the vicious cycle that was once my life.”
Photo of Betsy and her dog, Guinness, who she fostered through the Puppies Behind Bars program. Courtesy of Betsy Ramos’ legal team