Friday, March 05, 2010

How an $11 Robbery in Mississippi May End in a Death Sentence

The Terrible Case of Jamie Scott

By JAMES RIDGEWAY March 5, 2010 Solitary Watch

On February 25, a small crowd gathered outside
the state capitol in Jackson, Mississippi, to
push for the release of sisters Jamie and Gladys
Scott, who are serving two consecutive life
sentences apiece for a 1993 armed robbery in
which no one was injured and the take, by most
accounts, was about $11. Supporters of the Scott
sisters have long tried to draw attention to
their case, as an extreme example of the
distorted justice and Draconian sentencing
policies that have overloaded prisons, crippled
state budgets, and torn families apart across the
United States. But in recent months, their cause
has taken on a new urgency, because for Jamie
Scott, an unwarranted life sentence may soon become a death sentence.

Jamie Scott, 38, is suffering from kidney
failure. At the Central Mississippi Correctional
Facility (CMCF) in Pearl, where Jamie and Gladys
are incarcerated, medical services are provided
by a private contractor called Wexford, which has
been the subject of lawsuits and legislative
investigations in several states over inadequate
treatment of the inmates in its care. According
to Jamie Scott’s family, in the six weeks since
her condition became life-threatening, she has
endured faulty or missed dialysis sessions,
infections, and other complications. She has
received no indication that a kidney transplant
is being considered as an option, though her sister is a willing donor.

Jamie Scott’s family and legal advisors believe
the poor health care she is receiving in prison
places her life at risk. They have sent pleas for
clemency or compassionate release to Governor
Haley Barbour, whose tough-on-crime posturing and
dubious record on issuing pardons do not bode
well for Jamie. The Mississippi Department of
Corrections (MDOC) has a provision for what it
calls “conditional medical release,” but Scott is
not a candidate, department spokesperson Suzanne
Garbo Singletary said in an email last week,
because “MDOC policy provides that an inmate must
have a condition that is ‘incapacitating, totally
disabling and/or terminal in nature’ in order to
qualify.” So Jamie Scott appears to be caught in
a deadly Catch-22: In order to be released from
prison, she must convince the MDOC that her
illness is terminal or “totally disabling”; but
the only sure way for her to prove this is to die in prison.

Cruel and Unusual Health Care

In telephone interviews earlier this week, the
Scott sisters’ mother, Evelyn Rasco, described
the treatment Jamie has received at Central
Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF), based
on her own observations and information provided
by her two daughters. Jamie, who has diabetes and
bouts of high blood pressure, said that medical
staff at the prison first diagnosed possible
kidney problems in 1997–but until recently, she
received minimal treatment outside of her regular
insulin. Jamie’s physical and mental health
suffered last fall when she spent 23 days in
solitary confinement (for being found in an
“unauthorized area” in the prison gym) and was
cut off from her routine of work, classes,
church, and occasional visits with her sister.
Then, in mid-January, Jamie became seriously ill
when both her kidneys began shutting down. She
was sent to the prison infirmary and, after a
week’s delay, taken to the hospital. There,
doctors inserted a shunt in Jamie’s neck to allow
her to receive dialysis through a catheter, and
she was promptly returned to prison.

Rather than letting Jamie Scott leave the prison
regularly for dialysis, prison authorities chose
to truck in dialysis machines. About three times
a week, Jamie has received hemodialysis in a
trailer on the prison grounds­if the machines are
working properly, which she reports isn’t always
the case. At one session, Jamie told her mother,
the blood was flowing out of her through a
catheter into the dialysis machine­but it wasn’t
flowing back in, so the treatment had to be
stopped. At the end of January, another inmate
looked in on Jamie, who was locked up alone in
her cell, and found her unconscious. She was
rushed to the hospital, where doctors told her
there were problems with the shunt inserted into
her neck. They made adjustments, and she was again taken back to prison.

Evelyn Rasco lives in Pensacola, Florida, where
she cares for her daughters’ five children while
they are behind bars. Since Jamie and Gladys went
to prison, Rasco’s husband of 30 years died of a
heart attack; another daughter died of congestive
heart failure; and her oldest son was away for
several years serving with the Army in Iraq. In a
letter to supporters last year, Jamie Scott
wrote: “When I think of the word ‘strongest,’ I
think of my mother. She is 4 feet 9 inches tall
and has the strength of Job in the Bible.”

Rasco lacks the time and financial resources to
visit her daughters often, but in mid-February,
she managed to make the trip to Mississippi. When
she visited the prison on February 18, along with
Jamie’s 18-year-old son, Jamie was feeling sick
but was able to make it to the visiting room.
When Rasco returned two days later, she found
Jamie in a cell attached to the infirmary. “She
was real weak,” Rasco said. “She couldn’t walk.”
An infection appeared to have developed at the
site of Jamie’s catheter, which had filled with
blood and pus. Nurses reportedly told Rasco that
Jamie should be in the hospital, but the paperwork hadn’t been done.

Rasco said that when she entered her daughter’s
cell, Jamie was sitting on the edge of a hospital
bed with dirty linens, near a toilet and wash
bowl that had not been cleaned. Prison staff
arrived with a plate of food­a hamburger swimming
in grease, some side dishes, and a cookie–but
Jamie said it looked so bad she couldn’t eat it.
The doctors at the hospital had given her a list
of foods she should eat, including meat, fish,
and vegetables, but they were not available, and
she did not have permission to purchase food at
the prison commissary. (That permission has since
been granted.) So Jamie sat on her grimy bed
eating a Snickers bar. “She sat right there with
me,” Rasco said, “and tried to give me a piece.”
Knowing it was the only nourishment her daughter
was likely to have, her mother declined.

Since Evelyn Rasco’s visit, Jamie was back in the
hospital for a day after experiencing chest pains
following dialysis, and to a clinic where her
dialysis shunt was again adjusted and she was
tested for infections. To date, the family does not know the results.

Evelyn Rasco also said that when Gladys Scott,
34, learned of her sister’s kidney failure, she
immediately offered to give Jamie a kidney. If
Gladys were to prove a viable match, this would
be by far the best medical option for Jamie:
Studies show that patients in their thirties who
receive successful transplants live considerably
longer than those who remain on dialysis. Gladys
says that CMCF staff told her that state
prisoners don’t qualify as donors, and that a
transplant would be too expensive, though there
is no indication that their statements reflect
official MDOC policy. Rasco said that she was
hoping the prison would at least let Gladys to
care for Jamie­feed her and bathe her­as inmates
are sometime allowed to do for ailing relatives.
When Rasco last spoke to her, Gladys had not received the necessary permission.

Chokwe Lumumba, a longtime activist and attorney
who also serves on the Jackson City Council, is
representing the family in the medical matter. In
an interview last week, Lumumba said, “Our first
idea is to get some medical attention into the
jail. Asking for a private doctor to go in there
and see her.” But what Jamie Scott really needs,
he told me, is “to be in hospital until a kidney transplant.”

Suzanne Garbo Singletary, Director of the MDOC’s
Division of Communications, replied to several
email inquiries regarding Jamie Scott’s care. In
one email, she wrote that “MDOC cannot comment on
any specific medical condition or treatment for
an inmate.” In another, she referred to patient
privacy laws when asked whether a kidney
transplant was being considered for Jamie Scott.
Regarding transplants for state prisoners in
general, Singltary said that “the state would pay
for a needed and necessary transplant” and would
do so “when evaluated the Dr. as needed [sic].”
Singletary added in another message: “Dialysis
units are fully operational with no malfunctions
documented in the past several years.” She also
restated the MDOC’s policy that “chronic, but
stable, medical conditions are not eligible for
conditional medical release consideration.”

At the Central Mississippi Correctional Center,
Jamie Scott’s care is in the hands of Wexford
Health Sources, a Pittsburgh-based private
company that provides prison medical services.
According to information compiled by the Private
Corrections Working Group, Wexford’s record
includes lawsuits by prisoners and current or
former employees in at least four states, as well
as allegations involving racial discrimination
and improper gifts to public officials. In 2006,
the Santa Fe Reporter launched an investigation
into Wexford, which supplied health care to New
Mexico’s 6,000 prisoners. It discovered
widespread complaints about Wexford’s care.

Those who have raised concerns about Wexford
include the company’s former regional medical
director, the former medical director of Lea
County Correctional Facility (LCCF) in Hobbs and
numerous former and current Wexford medical
employees. Their allegations are all hauntingly similar:
Wexford refuses to fill critical medical
positions. Wexford refuses to grant off-site
visits for seriously ill inmates. Wexford refuses
to renew critical prescription medicine for
inmates. And, according to those who worked for
the company, and some who still do, the company’s
insistence on the bottom line over the care of
its charges causes inmates to suffer, sometimes
with lasting, even fatal, results.

The investigation prompted hearings on prison
health care in the New Mexico state legislature,
and in December 2006, after just two years with
Wexford, Governor Bill Richardson ordered the New
Mexico Corrections Department to find a new health care provider.

Wexford’s reported resistance “to grant off-site
visits for seriously ill inmates,” is
particularly relevant to the case of Jamie Scott,
and the potentially dangerous delays she has
experienced before being sent to the hospital.
The same issue surfaced in a 2002 case in
Pennsylvania, where a 26-year-old prisoner named
Erin Finley suffered a fatal asthma attack in
prison while under Wexford’s care. According to
the Wilkes Barre Times Herald, Finley’s family
eventually received a $2.15 million settlement,
after their lawyer presented evidence showing
that “Finley desperately sought medical care for
severe asthma she had had since she was a child,
but she was repeatedly rejected based on a prison
doctor’s belief that she was ‘faking’ her
symptoms.” On the day of her death, Finley was
taken to the prison infirmary several hours after
complaining that she was having trouble
breathing. A physician’s assistant examined her
and told the doctor she needed to go to a
hospital, “but he refused to see her and left the
prison at 2:40 p.m. Twenty minutes later, Finley
lost consciousness and stopped breathing,”
according to the Times Herald. Finally she was
sent to the hospital­only to be pronounced dead.

In Mississippi, where Wexford took over health
care for the majority of the state’s prisoners in
2006 under a three-year, $95 million contract,
the Jackson Clarion Ledger reported in November
2008 that “a search of the federal court system
found more than a dozen open lawsuits filed by
inmates against MDOC on medical issues.” At
Central Mississippi Correctional Facility–the
prison where the Scott sisters are housed­the
sister of a dead inmate said she watched her
brother waste away for months from inadequately
treated Crohn’s Disease, an inflammation of the
digestive tract. “He literally starved,”
Charlotte Byrd said of her brother William Byrd,
who died in November 2008. “We watched him turn
into a skeleton.” Byrd told the Clarion Ledger
that people might lack sympathy for prisoners
like her brother, a convicted rapist, but “Even a
dog needs medical attention.” She said she
believes that “If they are doing him that way,
they are going to let somebody else die, too.”

In fact, Mississippi has one of the highest
prisoner death rates in the nation, according to
a review of prison statistics carried out by the
Jackson Clarion Ledger’s Chris Joyner, and the
death rate in 2007 was 34 percent higher than in
2006­the year Wexford took over the MDOC’s
medical care. A December 2007 report conducted by
the Mississippi Legislature’s Joint Committee on
Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review
(PEER) concluded that inmates were not receiving
timely and adequate medical treatment from
Wexford. Among other things, the PEER report
found that Wexford “did not meet medical care
standards set forth under its contract with the
state,” and that the company “did not adhere to
its own standards in following up on inmates with
chronic health problems.” When questioned about
the report and the high prisoner death rates, the
Clarion Ledger reported, Corrections Commissioner
Chris Epps “said he is satisfied with the
contractor’s performance.” The budget presented
by Epps for the coming fiscal year, which begins
on July 1, 2010, shows a request of $37.4 million
to Wexford for medical services.

In response to questions about care provided by
Wexford, MDOC spokesperson Suzanne Garbo
Singletary wrote: “Jamie Scott is receiving
quality medical care for her condition. Wexford
provides basic medical care for all inmates at
MDOC prisons. Inmates are sent to hospitals if
the need for hospital care arises.” Singletary
stated that such decisions are made by the
attending doctor at the prison, who is a Wexford
employee. Wexford did not respond to requests for comment.

Unpardonable Offenses

Nancy Lockhart, a legal investigator and analyst
based in South Carolina, has been working with
Evelyn Rasco for several years, organizing a
grassroots campaign to secure decent treatment
for the Scotts and either a review of their case
or some provision for their early release. In
interviews last week, Lockhart said that she had
helped Rasco appeal to the Obama Justice
Department, which informed her that the statute
of limitations was up for civil rights claims.
They plan to try again, offering proof of earlier
letters to the DOJ. They have also organized
letter writing and email campaigns to numerous
state and MDOC officials, and set up a web site.
The Scott sisters’ group of supporters is
growing, but they have received no meaningful responses to their pleas.

During her recent visit to Mississippi, Evelyn
Rasco had the opportunity to confront Corrections
Commissioner Christopher Epps in person when she
attended a meeting at the state capitol on prison
budget cuts. She spotted the Epps, whom she
recognized from his photograph, walked up to him,
and told him about her daughter’s poor health and
the problems with her medical treatment.
According to Rasco, Epps said that he was getting
a lot of messages about Jamie Scott, and that he
would do what he could obtain a pardon or
clemency for the Scott sisters. He told her that
he was “giving his word on this,” although he had
no power to actually make it happen himself.

The person who could make it happen is Governor
Haley Barbour, whose past record on pardons does
not bode well for Jamie and Gladys Scott.
Barbour, who took office in 2004, was initially
known for refusing to grant any pardons. In his
second term he changed course–but only for a
particular set of offenders. A 2008 investigation
by the Jackson Free Press found that Barbour had
pardoned or suspended the sentences of five
murderers, four of whom had killed their former
or current wives or girlfriends. All five men
were part of a prison trusty program under which
they did odd jobs at the governor’s mansion.
Writing in Slate, Radley Balko summarized Haley
Barbour’s policy on pardons as “show[ing] mercy
only to murderers who work on his house.”

Jamie Scott’s health crisis has also coincided
with a protracted struggle between the governor
and state legislators over how to handle budget
shortfalls. Throughout, the ambitious Barbour,
who is talked about as a possible 2012
presidential candidate, has appeared determined
to polish his reputation for being both fiscally
conservative and tough on crime. With revenue
down due to the recession, Barbour implemented a
series of deep, across-the-board cuts to state
spending in the current fiscal year. Last week
the he vetoed a bill that would have restored
some of that funding, primarily to education. At
the same time, he asked the legislature to put
$16 million back into the Department of
Corrections budget. “We have the resources to
restore funding to our priorities this year,” the
governor said in a statement, “including law enforcement and corrections.”

Against opponents who argued that Mississippi
already spends more on prisoners than it does on
schoolchildren, Barbour held up the specter of
what could happen if prison spending was cut:
3,000 to 4,000 inmates would have to be released
early. “The threat of convicted criminals on the
streets,” the Jackson Free Press wrote earlier
this month, “has provided Barbour a rhetorical
trump card in budget negotiations.”

Jamie and Gladys Scott

Even amidst this kind of rhetoric, it would be
difficult to see the Scott sisters as dangerous
or violent offenders, although the state of
Mississippi went to great lengths to depict them
as such. On Christmas Eve of 1993, Jamie and
Gladys, then 22 and 19, were both young mothers
with no criminal records. They were at the local
mini-mart buying heating fuel when they ran into
two young men they knew, who offered to give them
a ride. Sometime later that evening, the two
young men were robbed by a group of three boys,
ages 14 to 18, who arrived in another car, armed with a shotgun.

Jamie and Gladys say that they had already left
the scene to walk home when the robbery took
place, and had nothing to do with it. The state
insisted they were an integral part of the crime,
and in fact had set up the victims to be robbed.
Wherever the truth lies, trial transcripts
clearly reveal a the case based on the highly
questionable testimony of two of the teenaged
co-defendants–who had turned state’s evidence
against the Scott sisters in return for
eight-year sentences­and a prosecutor who appears
determined to demonize the two young women.

Jamie and Gladys Scott were not initially
arrested for the crime. But ten months later, the
14-year-old co-defendant–who had been in jail on
remand during that time–signed a statement
implicating them. When questioned by the Scotts’
attorney, the boy confirmed that he had been
“told that before you would be allowed to plead
guilty” to a lesser charge, “you would have to
testify against Jamie Scott and Gladys Scott.”
The boy also testified that he had neither
written nor read the statement before signing it.
It had been written for him by someone at the
county sheriff’s office, he said, and he “didn’t
know what it was.” But he had been told that if
he signed it “they would let me out of jail the
next morning, and that if I didn’t participate
with them, that they would send me to Parchman
[state penitentiary] and make me out a
female”­which he took to mean he would be raped.
The 18-year-old co-defendant who testified
against the Scott sisters also said he was
testifying against the Scotts as a condition of
his guilty plea to a lesser charge.

But the prosecutor succeeded in depicting Jamie
and Gladys Scott not only as participants in the
crime robbery, but as its masterminds­two older
women who had lured three impressionable boys
into the robbing the victims at gunpoint. (This
despite the fact that the oldest of the
co-defendants was just a year younger than
Gladys, and was driving around with a shotgun in
his car.) In his summation, he told the jury:

They thought it up. They came up with the plan.
They duped three young teenage boys into going
along and doing something stupid that is going to
cost them the next eight years of their lives in the penitentiary.
That probably makes me, at least, as mad about
this case, simply at least as much, as the fact
that two people got robbed. That three young boys
were duped into doing the dirty work.

The prosecutor also reminded jurors that while
Jamie and Gladys Scott admittedly did not have a
weapon, the judge’s instructions “tell you that
if they encourage someone else or counsel them or
aid them in any way in committing this robbery they are equally guilty.”

It took the jury just 36 minutes to convict the
Scott sisters. And while there was a range of
possible sentences for the crime of armed
robbery, the state asked for­and received­two
consecutive life sentences for the Scott sisters.
In contrast, Edgar Ray Killen, the man convicted
in 2005 of manslaughter in the 1964 deaths of
civil rights workers Schwerner, Cheney, and
Goodman, received a sentence of 60 years–meted
out by the same judge who presided over the trial
of Jamie and Gladys Scott. A direct appeal,
carried out by the same lawyers who defended them
at trial, failed to overturn the Scotts’ conviction.

Because they were tried for a crime committed
before October 1994, when even harsher sentencing
rules were put in place in Mississippi, the Scott
sisters will be eligible for parole in 2014,
after they have served 20 years­though there is
no guarantee they will receive it. In the
meantime, Evelyn Rasco is praying for mercy, for
a good lawyer­and for her daughter Jamie to live that long.

James Ridgeway can be reached at
Watch, where this article originally appeared.

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