Entrance to the clinic at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island in Queens, New York. (Photo: Librado Romero / The New York Times)
Patricia Wright is 60 years old, legally blind and wheelchair-bound. She also has Stage 4 cancer, which has spread to her breasts and to her brain. In November 2011, doctors removed one of three tumors from her brainstem and placed a steel plate in her head. It was Wright’s seventh surgery that year alone.
If Wright were anyone else, she would go home and recuperate among family and loved ones. But she is in prison, having been sentenced to life without parole in 1997. Instead of having a loved one bring her home, Wright was handcuffed, shackled and returned to the skilled nursing facility (SNF) at the Central California Women’s Facility prison.
If the idea of battling cancer behind bars is not appalling enough, Wright never should have been convicted and incarcerated. The San Francisco Bayview reports that when Wright’s former husband was found dead in 1981, she was not a suspect. However, in 1995, her brother Larry, who was facing a ten-year sentence in a maximum-security prison for child abuse, told police that Wright was responsible for the murder. In exchange, his sentence was reduced to two years imprisonment with five years of parole. After his release from prison in 2000, Larry wrote a detailed letter stating that he had lied about his sister’s involvement in the death of her husband. The absence of DNA evidence linking Wright to the killing has led the Innocence Project in New York City to take on her case .
In September 2010, California passed Senate Bill 1399, a medical parole process to reduce the cost of expensive medical care and around-the-clock armed guards for incarcerated people who are permanently medically incapacitated. However, people sentenced to death or to life without the possibility of parole remain ineligible for medical parole. Thus, as Wright’s son Alfey Ramdhan pointed out in an appeal in the San Francisco Bay View, her only chance to spend her remaining days with her family is if Gov. Jerry Brown grants her executive clemency or compassionate release.
However, Wright has two prior felonies from 15 years earlier when Ramdhan, then age 7, stole two 99-cent toys and a hand towel from an open house. Although the items stolen were valued under $400, these two actions were classified as felonies. Given that Wright’s conviction in her ex-husband’s death is considered a third strike under California’s three-strikes legislation, Brown’s office has been reluctant to grant her clemency.
Wright is not the only terminally ill person behind bars fighting to spend her remaining days with her loved ones outside of prison. In 1985, Charisse Shumate was sentenced to 15 years to life for killing an abusive partner in self-defense. She entered the Central California Women’s Facility with sickle cell anemia and Hepatitis C, neither of which were adequately treated by the prison’s medical system. She lost sight in one eye when the doctor waited five days to treat a sickle-cell-anemia related disorder. Beverly Henry, Shumate’s friend and a prison peer educator, stated that ten years after entering prison, Shumate was diagnosed with cancer, which also went largely untreated. Even as her own health deteriorated, Shumate became an advocate for women’s medical needs. In 1995, she became the lead plaintiff in Shumate v. Wilson, a class-action lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) about their life-threatening health care.
In 2000, she testified before state lawmakers at a special session on conditions in women’s prisons. She helped others with sickle cell anemia understand the disease and the necessary treatments. In an email to me, Beatrice Smith-Dyer, another one of Shumate’s friends, stated that Shumate also advocated for the right to compassionate release for any prisoner with less than a year to live, introducing them to outside advocates who fought on their behalf.
According to Cynthia Chandler, co-founder of advocacy group Justice Now and the attorney who represented Shumate, Shumate was originally reluctant to be the poster child for her own cause. When Shumate did apply for compassionate release, the parole board instead recommended her for clemency, which required the governor’s approval. The board’s decision defused the activism around her case. “There was the appearance that they had done something,” Chandler stated in a recent phone conversation. “There are always these manipulative ways that the prison system undercuts compassionate release.” Then-governor Gray Davis refused to approve the application and Shumate spent the last days of her life in the SNF until her death on August 4, 2001.
As a prison peer educator, Henry regularly visited the SNF. She reported that women are locked into their rooms for most of the day and are only allowed outside for the occasional shower, recreation time or visits – and even those cannot be assured. Henry told me that only a couple of women were assigned the job of wheelchair-pushers for the 15 to 20 women in the SNF, even though many were wheelchair-bound. “If five visitors arrive on the same day, maybe only three women can get their visits because staff won’t assign additional women to push them out for their visit,” said Henry.
In addition, SNF staff forbade peer educators from helping women with basic tasks such as combing their hair. “That’s not your job,” they were told when they tried to help women like Sally, who was paralyzed after a back injury was mistreated. SNF staff also accused peer educators of upsetting the women. “We upset them because we talked to them about what they shouldn’t accept,” Henry explained.
Beatrice Smith-Dyer has other chilling stories from her time at the SNF. Smith-Dyer began working at the SNF in 1996, first as a peer counselor, then in 2000 as a hospice volunteer. “[At the time] there was one doctor assigned to the SNF. If he or she was an ass, the woman [patient] was treated really badly.” Women were handcuffed and shackled when they were brought to outside hospitals, often causing them to fall when they tried to enter or leave the prison van. Smith-Dyer described the last days of a woman who was transferred from the California Institute for Women so that she could die at the SNF. “She lay unconscious for one month before she died, shackled to a bed with two correctional officers next to her bed. Wright is only hanging on by a thread,” she wrote in an email. “All it takes is the paperwork sitting on a desk for too long.”
Wright’s now-adult children, Mistey Ramdhan and Alfey, and her sister Arletta, are fighting to keep that from happening. With the advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), they have mounted a campaign for Wright’s release. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes (FACTS) and Change.org have also joined the campaign.
Releasing people suffering from life-threatening or terminal health conditions has happened in other instances. In Mississippi, sisters Jamie and Gladys Scott were sentenced to two consecutive life terms for a 1993 robbery in which $11 was stolen and no one was hurt. Like the case of Wright, their arrest and incarceration were based on accusations that were later recanted: two of the three teens who had actually committed the robbery testified against the sisters in exchange for two-year prison sentences. According to The Huffington Post, in 1998, one of the men who had originally testified against them signed an affidavit swearing that the Scott sisters were not involved with the crime. That affidavit, as well as two others that pointed to the sister’s innocence, were submitted for post-conviction relief by their attorney.
Like Wright, the Scotts’ wrongful conviction was followed by a life-threatening medical condition and inadequate health care. James Ridgeway and Jean Casella reported in Solitary Watch that in 1997, Jamie Scott was diagnosed with kidney problems, but received minimal treatment. In 2010, both kidneys began shutting down. She was sent to the prison infirmary. A week later, she was taken to the hospital, where doctors inserted a shunt into her neck so that she could receive dialysis through a catheter. She was then returned to prison where she endured faulty or missed dialysis sessions, infections, and other complications. Her sister Gladys offered to donate a kidney, but was told by prison staff that prisoners did not qualify as organ donors and that a transplant would be too expensive.
Throughout the sisters’ incarceration, their mother Evelyn Rasco fought to free them. She wrote to the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Jesse Jackson, the Innocence Project, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Nancy Lockhart, who was working at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition at the time, was the only one to positively respond, promising Rasco that she would continue with the case until the sisters were exonerated. Together, they formed The Committee to Free the Scott Sisters. Both continued to reach out to organizations and individuals, slowly building a grassroots campaign to free the sisters. In addition, Lockhart mounted a campaign using social media platforms, as well as the more traditional on-the-ground techniques. “Global support grew well into the thousands. I would estimate at least ten thousand,” Lockhart wrote in a recent email.
In June 2010, supporters rallied outside the Department of Justice , connecting the extreme sentence of the Scott sisters with the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans nationwide.
In September 2010, over 200 supporters marched to the steps of Mississippi’s State Capitol in Jackson, demanding freedom for the Scott sisters.
Public pressure paid off, at least in part. That December, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour suspended the sisters’ life sentences on the condition that Gladys donate a kidney to Jamie. Lockhart – who had no part in negotiating the parole terms and whose continuing goal is full exoneration – along with other supporters, questions the ethics of forcing Gladys Scott to barter a body part for freedom. She and other supporters also note that Barbour granted them parole for life rather than a pardon, which would expunge their felony convictions. “He said they didn’t admit their guilt,” their attorney Chokwe Lumumba explained in a recent phone call. “But they’re not guilty, and the testimony against them was recanted.” Lumumba points out that, of the seven people that Barbour had pardoned before paroling the Scott sisters, six were white, all were men, and almost all had been convicted of, and had confessed to, killing their wives or girlfriends. The Scotts are black women.
Barbour’s motive was purely economic. In his statement, Barbour noted, “Jamie Scott’s medical condition creates a substantial cost to the State of Mississippi.” He later told WMPR Radio , “Did you know it costs us $190,000 a year for dialysis for just one patient alone? Mississippi’s taxpayers ought not to be paying for that.”
Barbour is not the only one to view releasing terminally ill people from prisons as a cost-saving measure. In January 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that J. Clark Kelso, the federal receiver appointed to oversee California’s prison health system, suggested that legislators consider early release of chronically sick prisoners as a quick way to cut ballooning prison costs. Like Barbour , his motive is financial, not compassionate.
Chandler, who has been working around compassionate release since the 1990s, notes that financial arguments are more likely to be heard these days. In 1997, when California’s legislature passed Assembly Bill 29 , codifying compassionate release, it deliberately excluded people imprisoned for life without the possibility of parole. “There was an expectation that people like Patricia would die in prison,” Chandler stated. She recalled that, in 2007, when advocates and allies tried to lobby for a compassionate release bill that would clarify and streamline the process for terminally ill people, no legislator would consider it until the word “compassionate” was removed. “No one wanted to seem overly compassionate towards ‘those people’ [meaning family and community members of prisoners],” she noted. In response, advocates shifted the focus of the bill to preserving public safety while saving money. The Fiscal Savings and Medical Release Bill, with no mention of compassion, passed in 2007.
Deirdre Wilson, coordinator for CCWP, told me that even with this bill, “It’s still insanely difficult to get people out on compassionate release.”
“There’s still a lot of stigma against people in prison,” said Wilson. “It’s been normalized for us to treat people in prison as less than human. The only argument that some people will hear is the economic one because the compassion is not there.”
When asked about changes in the decade between the campaigns for Shumate and Wright, Henry observed: “It’s the same story. They want to wait till the last minute to release them, but they actually don’t want to release them.”
If Henry were able to speak directly to the prison authorities and the governor about Wright, she would say, “Whatever time she’s got left, let her spend it at home.”