SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — It’s believed to be a first in the state: housing for domestic violence survivors who served unfair prison terms for killing their abusers.
KPIX 5 spoke to women tasting freedom for the first time in decades.
“I’m restarting my life,” said Rosemary Dyer, free after 34 years behind bars. She used to be a prisoner in her own home.
“My husband was very violent,” said Dyer. “He beat me, he tortured me, he raped me.”
And she says he dug a pit to bury her alive.
“He was just going to knock me out, throw me in it, put a tube in my mouth and cover me up,” she remembered, tears in her eyes. “Obviously, I picked up the gun and shot him. I don’t want to remember it.”
68-year-old Dyer spent half her life locked up. Then the warden shared the good news in April.
“He said your sentence has been commuted by the governor,” she said. “I was not ready to believe it.”
And now, Dyer is among 12 women who will move into one of a set of two-bedroom apartments on Treasure Island, thanks to a new transitional housing program started by the Five Keys Home Free Project.
“These are women who have endured unspeakable violence and painfully and unjustly ended up in prison because they weren’t allowed to bring in evidence of their abuse,” said Five Keys co-founder Sunny Schwartz.
Many women who killed their abusive partners decades ago ended up with prison terms for life. That changed in 2012 when a new California law allowed the women to go back to the parole board or court and show evidence they were defending themselves from abuse.
As a result, women like Dyer are receiving commuted sentences or early parole. Many need a place to call home.
“This is righting a terrible wrong that was committed against these women,” Schwartz said.
Besides rent-free housing subsidized in part by the City of San Francisco, Five Keys partners with other agencies to help the newly-freed women navigate daily life from using a cell phone to finding a job.
Volunteer Connie Keel Lafleur knows firsthand the struggle of getting back on her feet after years in prison.
“I never want them to go through what I went through,” she said, recalling the time she was homeless. “It was horrible sleeping in your car.”
Dozens of volunteers from the CityBuild training program clean and renovate the old Treasure Island units so tenants can move in this fall. Many volunteers and donated materials come from partnerships with the Office of Economic and Workforce Development.
Director Joaquin Torres said the work crews are happy to give to the women in this new phase of their lives.
“Justice can be beautiful,” Torres said. “There’s a place for you in our community’s hearts, for you and your future, so you can live a life full of meaning and hope and beauty.”
Five Keys’ Tammy Garvin is designing the space. She herself was a formerly-incarcerated abuse survivor.
“It’s a place of safety,” Garvin said. “Something so new and refreshing that we could just breathe.”
Garvin is also getting help from Academy of Art University interior design students. Led by Director Katie Valkuchak, students sketched what the tenants wanted.
“We were thinking fresh, white sheets, and they were like, ‘No, we want color,'” Valkuchak said.
“I’m like, no blue, no gray,” laughed Dyer, affirming she wanted nothing that reminded her of prison. “They want to make things to where we feel special.”
In fact, Five Keys Home Free is seeking donations to help furnish all of the apartment units according to the designs the students created.
Dyer, a cancer patient in a wheelchair with congestive heart failure, can now celebrate a fresh view of her future.
“It’s a renewed life,” she smiled. One that finds her home free.