After outrage over case of Wright, a 69-year-old domestic violence survivor, advocates hope governor’s order will be first of many
By Sam Levine
July 21, 2020
California’s governor has granted an emergency release to Patricia Wright, a 69-year-old woman battling terminal cancer inside a prison that has suffered a major coronavirus outbreak.
Wright, who doctors say has months to live, left prison on Tuesday morning for the first time in 23 years, greeted by her five children, three sisters and a dozen other relatives waiting on the other side of the gates at the California Institution for Women (CIW), east of Los Angeles. The family’s long fight for her release became increasingly urgent due to Covid-19, which has infected more than 160 people at CIW and nearly 7,000 people across the state’s prison system.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for 23 years, it is really indescribable,” said Wright, standing on the street outside CIW as her grandchildren and other loved ones swarmed her with hugs and handed her flowers and gifts, including her first iPhone. She danced and held her hands in the air. “Oh my God! I’m walking on cloud nine … I just want to sit down at the table with my family and embrace my children.”
Wright, who has battled breast and ovarian cancer and is legally blind, is undergoing chemotherapy. She spoke of her fears of dying alone behind bars in recent interviews with the Guardian, and is one of tens of thousands of older and at-risk prisoners who have been pleading for some form of clemency in response to Covid-19. Since March, 40 prisoners have died and those numbers are expected to increase in the coming weeks.
“For the past 23 years, I’ve had this burden in my heart every day. I could not live fully thinking about my sister in prison,” said Chantel Bonet, who years earlier moved to the city of Corona, where the prison is located, so she could be closer to her sister. “Now that burden is lifted.”
Wright, a survivor of domestic violence, was accused of hiring someone to kill her abusive husband but has maintained her innocence. She is one of many women convicted of murder under US laws that have faced widespread scrutiny for targeting victims of abuse. She was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, meaning this kind of direct action from the governor was her only option.
Wright was led out on Tuesday morning in her wheelchair as a row of women in orange jumpsuits behind the prison gates cheered her on. “You’re free!” her family members shouted as she exited.
Althoughthe governor, Gavin Newsom, has taken a number of recent steps to reduce the population in overcrowded prisons, he has so far resisted efforts to release people en masse who are serving long sentences for “serious” and “violent” offenses, including those at high risk of death. Wright’s grant of freedom a few days after her 69th birthday appears to be the first time during the pandemic that Newsom has ordered the immediate release of someone serving a life sentence.
“This is exactly the type of action we desperately need to see more of,” said Colby Lenz, an advocate with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, who has been supporting Wright for years and was waiting outside CIW on Tuesday to greet her. “There are so many barriers to release for people like Patricia who are dying in prison and are under extra threat because of the pandemic.”
Newsom announced new rules this monththat would expedite releases for up to 8,000 people, largely focused on those nearing the end of their sentences. Some “high-risk” prisoners will be considered on a case-by-case basis, but people like Wright are not eligible.
Prisons will remain overcrowded even if 8,000 are released, and public safety and health experts have called for much more dramatic reductions to slow the spread of the virus and prevent worsening outbreaks in surrounding communities. Advocates estimate there are 5,000 people over 65 years old in the state’s prisons, and 50,000 with at least one risk factor for Covid-19.
Data has shown that older people like Wright who are serving long sentences for serious crimes like murder have very low rates of recidivism if released, Lenz said, adding: “She is one of thousands sitting in prison for decades who are extremely high risk and had no chance through these current expedited release processes.”
Wright’s family was preparing to feed her the many foods she has been craving for decades, including fried chicken and cornbread. Bonet said Wright was also eager to go to the beach, and that she hoped her health would improve at home.
“We built a relationship over 20-plus years behind prison walls and over 15-minute phone calls,” said Wright’s daughter, Mistey Saffore, 36, as she waited in the hot sun for her mother to be released. “In some ways, I still feel like I’m that 12-year-old little girl when my mom went to prison. I’m ready to just be in her presence.”
Every day for the last week, Saffore’s three-year-old daughter has been asking, “Are we gonna get Grandma Patty today?” The toddler started visiting her grandmother behind bars when she was four months old, but the family hasn’t been able to see her since the Covid-19 crisis shut down all visitations in March.
She was one of six grandchildren waiting for hours on Tuesday morning outside the barbed-wire fences of CIW. Family came from Nevada, Michigan, Georgia and across California to celebrate Wright’s release. Saffore said she was eager to take her mother to the salon she runs in Beverly Hills: “I’m so excited for her to see what I’ve built.”
“I can breathe with ease now,” said Alfey Ramdhan, Wright’s 37-year-old son, as his mother was leaving the prison.
“So many missed days,” he added.
Bonet said she was grateful to the governor for showing mercy, adding: “I hope he will look at other inmates who are terminally ill, especially the elderly. You don’t know how meaningful it would be to help them and their families. And they are not a threat to society.”