For domestic abusers behind bars, the jail telephone isn’t just a line to the outside world – it’s a means of continuing their campaign of harassment.
Anti-domestic violence advocates say it’s all too common to hear of accused abusers repeatedly calling their victims from jail. In just one case from this year in Indianapolis, RTV6 discovered the abuser – who eventually pleaded guilty – called his victim 614 times from behind bars in a three-month period.
He was able to do it because Indiana has no law requiring automatic no-contact orders once someone is arrested for alleged domestic violence.
According to Caryn Burton, training coordinator for the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, abusers use the jailhouse phone as an intimidation tool.
“It’s basically a form of witness tampering,” Burton said. “They’re calling the witness for a variety of reasons. They’re calling them to bail them out of jail. They’re calling them to change their testimony. They're calling them … it’s what we used to call the honeymoon phase in the cycle of violence. Once I get out of jail things will be better, I’ll change, etc. They’re doing basically everything they can to get that survivor not to cooperate with prosecution.”
To stop the calls, domestic abuse victims in Indiana have to go to the court and ask for a no-contact order themselves. Many may not know how to do that, or even that they can. And while they go through the process – which can take days or longer – their abuser is free to continue harassing them.
Complicating the situation, abusers often display a pattern of cutting their victims off from other sources of emotional – and, importantly, monetary – support. Having their abuser behind bars might be a reprieve from the violence, but it can also leave victims isolated from their only means of support.
“Survivors consistently act in a way that we say is contradictory to what we say ‘everybody else’ would do or should do,” Burton said. “But when you’re in a situation where you’re stuck between the devil you know and the devil you don’t, which one do you choose?”
Burton has testified as an expert witness in domestic violence cases before. She says it’s not uncommon to hear of abusers calling their victims dozens of times from jail – sometimes multiple times a day. But 614 times is beyond anything she’s seen.
The Indiana General Assembly reviewed a proposal during this year’s session that would have made no-contact orders for accused domestic abusers automatic. Ultimately, the proposal didn’t pass.
Another proposed bill – HB 1518, dubbed “Laura’s Law” – would have increased the penalty for violating such a protective order to a level 6 felony, and also would have made domestic battery a level 6 felony if the abuser has a previous domestic battery conviction.
That bill, authored by Democratic Rep. Terry Goodin, had a first reading but was ultimately referred to the Committee on Courts and Criminal Code for further discussion.
Burton says a law mandating automatic no-contact orders for suspected domestic abusers would be a step forward for Indiana. But it would only be one part of a much-needed change to make the justice system more survivor-centered.
“Start by believing what that person is telling you and go from there,” Burton said. “Take the crime seriously the first time it happens. If you look at the history of individuals convicted or domestic violence, there is a history of violence. There is an escalation.”
Burton says research shows there are an average of five 911 calls in a domestic violence case before anyone is ever arrested.
“That survivor has already been abused and told the system doesn’t care,” she said. “They’ve been told the police are going to show up and they’re going to side with the abuser.”
Doing more to hold abusers accountable would have a chilling effect, Burton said – lowering the chance for future incidents of abuse.
Groce reached a plea deal with prosecutors in May and was sentenced earlier this month to six years in prison. His earliest possible release date is September 2020.
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Jordan Fischer is the senior digital reporter covering crime and justice for RTV6. Send news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @Jordan_RTV6.