By JONAH VALDEZ | email@example.com | San Gabriel Valley Tribune
PUBLISHED: July 22, 2020
Days after Gov. Gavin Newsom granted her an emergency release amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Patricia Wright, who is terminally ill with cancer, stepped through a gate out of the California Institution for Women in Chino on Tuesday and into the embrace of dozens of tearful family members and her advocates.
Wright, 69, originally from Inglewood, had been serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the past 23 years. Since her 1997 conviction Wright’s family, most notably her sister, Chantel Bonet, had been advocating for her release. Wright was convicted of hiring a man in 1981 to kill her then-husband, Willie Scott, who was stabbed 17 times in Los Angeles, according to court documents. Family members insisted Wright had nothing to do with the murder and that she was wrongfully convicted.
In 2010, Wright received a terminal cancer diagnosis and has been in and out of remission since. Doctors said in recent letters to the governor’s office that Wright is undergoing chemotherapy treatments for ovarian cancer that has spread to her liver and only has six months or less to live.
With COVID-19 spreading rapidly throughout California prisons, including the women’s prison in Chino that had more than 160 infections, Newsom’s office began to listen.
On July 8, a prison official notified Wright that she was going to be released under an emergency order.
“I’m so blessed. I’m just overwhelmed,” Wright said Tuesday evening from a sister’s home in Reseda, surrounded by her siblings, children, grandchildren and other family members celebrating her release. “I just pray that Governor Newsom continues spreading his blessing to other people.”
While Wright’s release encouraged advocates who have been pushing the state to release more inmates during the pandemic, they hope it is only the first of many similar releases of incarcerated people who fall outside of the state’s guidelines for release.
Since as early as March, Newsom has been ordering the release of thousands of people from state prisons that are overcrowded and where social distancing is difficult, and in many cases, impossible.
In July, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced it would release an additional 8,000 people by August. Among those who are prioritized for release are people who have a higher risk of dying if they contract the coronavirus. However, one exemption is for those serving a life-without-parole sentence, which excluded Wright and many others in similar situations.
Advocates said Wright’s release shows that the governor’s office has the authority to release people who may fall within CDCR’s exemptions for release.
“I really hope that Newsom will do more emergency releases, and that it’s not based on these more narrow categories that CDCR releases are based on,” said Colby Lenz, of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, who had worked with the organization toward Wright’s release, “because that doesn’t account for people like Patricia who are very sick and very vulnerable.”
For Wright, the sick and vulnerable who remain incarcerated are her longtime friends, many of whom waved goodbye from the prison while she walked toward its gate on Tuesday.
“All the women I left behind that are just as sick as I am, they are so ill: Alzheimer’s, cancer patients, friends that I’ve have been knowing for years,” she said. “I’ve left so many behind.”
The Chino women’s prison experienced an outbreak of COVID-19, where at its peak in late May, one in 10 of women incarcerated there had tested positive for the disease. One woman died of COVID-19 on June 11. Overall, more than 7,000 people incarcerated in state prisons have been infected with the disease, and 41 have died.
On Tuesday night, Wright’s family held a celebration for her release. At Wright’s request, relatives ordered a spread of barbecued ribs and fried chicken.
The pandemic had kept Wright from seeing her children and siblings who regularly visited her in prison.
“I just gave her the biggest, softest, firm hug,” said Wright’s son, Alfey Ramdhan, 37. The first thing Wright wanted to do after her release was head to Jack-In-the-Box where Ramdhan bought egg rolls he had promised her.
Among the reunion attendees was Wright’s 8-month-old great-grandchild, who Wright held for the first time.
Accompanying the joy of Wright’s release, family members are continuing to grapple with the pain that came from the decades of her absence.
“When she left, that was my best friend,” Ramdhan said. He was 11 when his mother was sentenced to prison. He remembered going on road trips with his mom, piling into their car with beef jerky and candy, driving to Palm Springs, Santa Monica, or San Francisco.
“I could say ‘mommy’ again,” he said. “I’m 37 and I’m not ashamed to say ‘mommy.’ I got my mom home. It was a good feeling, my confidence came back. It left me at 11 … it came back.”
Stormie Ramdahn, 43, Wright’s eldest daughter, said her mother was also her best friend. Visiting her in prison was difficult.
“To be honest with you, it was a constant state of grieving,” Ramdahn said. “Every time I would see her, I felt I would lose her when I leave her there.”
“I have my best friend back. I feel like we’re gonna pick up where we left off,” she said.
The day of Wright’s release had been something her family had hoped for, and for some of them, a day they had fought for. Bonet, her sister, called the governor’s office every month, since Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term.
She said her sister’s release felt “like a miracle, like a burden lifted off my heart I have carried around every day, for 23 years.”