Patty Contreras Free at Last!

by Karen Shain
It was dark, 10:00 at night, by the time we got to the prison. We had heard earlier that evening that Patty was going to get out on compassionate release, that we could pick her up at any time. Cindy, her lawyer and friend, and I decided to go down and get her that night. We felt that we would not be able to live with ourselves if Patty died that night and missed the chance to spend even one last night outside the prison gates. It never rains in the central valley in mid-April, but it rained that night. It was a very strange night.
Patty Contreras is a woman with AIDS who has spent the last ten years in prison in California. She was the focus of a campaign for compassionate release. This campaign was led by Cindy Chandler of Women’s Positive Legal Action Network in Oakland and by the HIV/AIDS in Prison Project of Catholic Charties of the East Bay. Hundreds of people wrote letters to the parole board, and, finally, the board granted her release.
The prison authorities made us wait on one side of the sally port while they drove Patty to the other side. Memories of old war movies, prisoner exchanges came to us while we waited. What if this were really a trade, if one of us had to spend the rest of her life inside in order for Patty to be let free? And what is a sally port anyway? Isn’t that where the guy got stuck in 2001? As I say, it was a very strange night. A sport van drove up and we could see Patty inside. She was just as tiny as ever, slumped over toward the right, away from the driver, but she was alive! Then they made her get out of the car in the rain and walk over to a kiosk so they could fingerprint her one last time. We had never seen Patty walk. Where was the wheelchair? She was using a flimsy metal walker, still slumped over to one side, slowly going step by step to the kiosk. The guard held her up and moved her fingers away from her body, spread each finger apart, so they could make sure they were releasing the right dying prisoner.
We were standing outside of our car by then, not able to believe that they were doing this to Patty, they couldn’t even bring the piece of paper to her in the van so that she wouldn’t have to stand in the rain. Then, as Patty turned to be led back to the van she saw us. She stood straighter than I have ever seen her and she moved her walker back to the car with amazing dignity. She knew she was going to make it! When she got into the van, she raised her arm in a fist. We knew she was going to make it!
Patty was driven through the sally port, to our side of the wall. We had pillows, blankets, throw-up bags, snacks, everything we could think of to make her ride comforable. But Patty brought her spirit into our car and turned that long ride back into magic. We were disappointed that it was raining so Patty wouldn’t be able to see the comet. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll see it tomorrow night.” It started to hail as we crossed the central valley. “The earth is welcoming me! … Let’s go to a restaurant.” I told her we would not be able to get her into a restaurant without a wheelchair if it was hailing. She opened her window and told the sky to stop hailing. It stopped, so we went to a restaurant! It was that kind of night.
Don’t make any mistake about it. Patty still has AIDS. She is desperately ill, and her compassionate release came very late in the game. But what we saw that night was a deep fighting spirit, a woman who refused to die in prison, who refused to give them that satisfaction.