A survivor of sexual violence is free after 33 years — but her victimization isn't over

TC Paulinkonis spent 33 years in prison for killing the stepfather who raped her. We can all learn from her story

Published April 18, 2021 12:00PM (EDT)

Young woman behind prison bars (Getty Images)
Young woman behind prison bars (Getty Images)

She was 24 years old when she killed her stepfather as he attempted to rape her yet again. She had first been sexually assaulted by him at age 7. If she told anyone, her abuser said, he would kill her mother.

She was 57 years old when she walked out of a state prison in California in March, her sentence of 25 years to life having been commuted by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Her name is Teresa Christine Paulinkonis, "TC" to her mother and her large support group.  Paulinkonis had never denied manslaughter but was charged with premeditated murder and spent more than 30 years of her life as a prisoner. During that time she earned an associate's degree with honors, wrote a memoir, taught anger management classes, counseled others and successfully advocated for incarcerated women, including teenage women sentenced to life without parole for killing their abusers. In effect, she became a self-taught paralegal, one of those famous prisoners referred to as "jailhouse lawyers," which enabled her to help several women gain their freedom. At least four members of prison staff attested to her contributions as a model prisoner. 

One of them, Robert Peck, is a vocational instructor and certified counselor who established a program called Victim Impact Self Awareness, or VISA, at the women's prison in Chowchilla, California — the largest in the country — where Paulinkonis served her sentence. Listening to the women who attended his weekly program opened Peck's eyes to the pain incarcerated women were experiencing, so when Paulinkonis asked if she could talk to the class about incest, he agreed. In telling her personal story she focused on nonviolent resolution. The women grew to trust her because they knew, as she puts it, "that I spoke from a heart that had walked in those shoes."

"TC told her story and admitted her crime week after week during the 30-week course as different women came each week to hear her," Peck said. "She was so powerful and so good everyone wanted to attend. I loved her for doing that and we became friends."

After Peck left the prison system, he began visiting Paulinkonis. As time passed, he realized how many women she was helping. "She was so kind and courteous to everyone and she got along well with staff as well as inmates. She even saved a teacher's life once when she went into diabetic shock," he recalled. Peck was the friend waiting outside for Paulinkonis as she walked through the prison gate last month. "I was honored to deliver her to San Diego," he said of the nine-hour drive. "There is no one stronger than TC."

Nancy Lemon, a lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area who has been an active member of Paulinkonis' support group, agrees. "I've been impressed and moved by TC's strength of character," she said. "Almost every letter and card I received from her from prison was full of gratitude for all the help she was getting, for her faith, for being alive and for the people who treated her kindly in prison. She was always able to focus on something positive."

Lemon has worked on behalf of women who've suffered domestic abuse for more than 40 years. The author of the first textbook on domestic violence, she has been an expert witness since the 1990s, and has seen firsthand the implicit bias that exists in both the judicial and prison systems, resulting in often excessive punitive action against women who are not heard, believed or understood. 

"There needs to be more training," she said. "While some improvement in the prison system has occurred over the years, the fact is it's still not good enough. There needs to be less punishment and more rehabilitation." Lemon believes that people working in these systems need to experience what a transformative experience it is to listen to women's stories. She has written about how her heart was opened further from hearing women's testimonials about the worst incidents in their lives.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 18 percent of women in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives. An estimated 13 percent of women have experienced sexual coercion and 27 percent have experienced unwanted sexual contact. Nearly 80 percent of female victims of rape experienced their first rape before the age of 25, with 42 percent experiencing their first completed rape before age 18.

Of course most women who are raped do not kill their abusers, but those who do are likely to have experienced extreme levels of recurring physical and emotional violence. Sometimes killing an abuser is literally the only way to survive. In the era of the #MeToo movement, more women are telling their stories and some in the media are listening.

For Paulinkonis, telling her story began a healing process and a long journey toward liberation. As a woman of faith who is smart, compassionate, skilled in advocacy and trauma recovery and, perhaps most of all, immensely patient, she has succeeded in living a meaningful life under conditions that would have broken the spirits of many people. That was evident when I asked her how she had coped with prison all those years.

"I didn't have a voice or any power when I was younger, but I began to realize that breaking my silence was key," she said. "Telling my story and helping other women became part of my recovery. I knew I was making a difference, something the parole board characterized as narcissism. That motivated me to keep going. My life was an open book and the parole board just couldn't get it. They didn't believe that I was a victim of abuse because, with the help of my faith, I had become able to tell my story calmly. They were right. I am not a victim. I am a survivor. They never understood the difference."

Like many other incarcerated women, Paulinkonis suffered revictimization from the legal and prison systems, repeatedly and in various ways. She persevered after being denied parole three times. She kept going when she was refused a new trial (perjury had been committed in her initial trial) by a judge who labeled her a "sociopath" after she told her story calmly. "Too practiced," he said. "I don't believe her." In fact, she says, it had taken her more than 25 years of hard work to reach that point.

As she begins the next phase of her life, in which she hopes to be of service to other incarcerated women, Paulinkonis has experienced a new kind of victimization, this time by media reports of her commuted sentence. Without researching the facts of her case and relying solely on the language of Newsom's commutation and old court records, some media outlets have reported her release in a way that made her seem monstrous.  

Some of the reported "facts" of her case have been simply wrong. She was described as a woman "convicted of bludgeoning her stepfather to death." Quoting the governor's commutation statement, which made no reference to the years of sexual abuse Paulinkonis suffered, it was reported that "clemency does not minimize or forgive her conduct or the harm it caused." Not a word about the context of the crime, her contributions in prison or all the people who have praised her character and fought for her release.

For the advocates and lawyers working tirelessly to address sexual assault issues, prison deprivations and punishment (including sexual assault), it is deeply disturbing to see media adding to the re-victimization of abused women. 

As one of Paulinkonis' supporters put it, "Those in a position to pass judgment make assumptions, toss around unempirical psychological jargon or do sloppy work. They make 'bad trouble,' as the late John Lewis might say. Lawyers, judges, doctors, jailers and reporters seem to know little to nothing about the realities of sexual abuse, its prevalence or its resultant lifelong trauma, and they show little inclination to learn." 

For incarcerated women who have survived sexual assault followed by long years in prison for killing their abusers, walking out of prison does not always mean walking free. For many women, the journey continues. TC Paulinkonis has begun her onward journey, full of determination, gratitude, faith and joy.

By Elayne Clift

Elayne Clift is a writer in Saxtons River, Vermont.

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Commentary Criminal Justice Gavin Newsom Prison Rape Sexual Abuse Sexual Assault Sexual Violence