By Kamilah Newton | May 22, 2020
Amid reports of prominent convicts being granted their “Get Out of Jail Free card” due to the coronavirus pandemic — including President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former FBI agent Ben Tran, rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine and, just this week, Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen — a long-running campaign to release a terminally ill grandmother from her current life sentence appears to be gaining new traction.
Patricia Wright was convicted 23 years ago for the 1981 murder of her ex-husband and alleged assailant, Jerome Scott. She has maintained her innocence for more than two decades, while those who support her — especially her sister Chantel Bonet — have spoken out in her defense. Now Bonet’s Change.org petition, created nearly a year ago with the help of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) but recently updated to reflect concerns over COVID-19, has jumped from 1,200 to nearly 60,000 signatures.
“Patricia Wright is a 68-year-old Black mother and grandmother and a survivor of domestic violence who is serving Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP),” the petition, addressed to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, begins. “She has been incarcerated for 23 years and is currently at the California Institution for Women (CIW), where she lives in the ‘Honor Unit.’ Patricia is battling a recurrence of stage III ovarian cancer and is at extremely high risk for infection and death from COVID-19 as she undergoes chemotherapy. Her doctor says she has 6-12 months to live, even if she is not infected by COVID-19. We call on Governor Newsom to show mercy and compassion to Patricia by granting her request for commutation and immediate release, allowing her to spend her remaining months with her loving family.”
Bonet, in an interview with Yahoo Life, says she’s been increasingly troubled by seeing who gets released from prison due to COVID-19 risk and who does not. “When I see someone get released [due to old age or COVID-19 concerns], I can’t help but to compare their cases,” she tells Yahoo Life, adding that the family has lost two members to COVID-19 in recent weeks. “My sister is almost 69. From a human perspective, what makes her so different from them? She sometimes calls me crying because she only has but so long left to live and watching other people go home is beginning to bother me.” According to some reports, even Lori Loughlin could be next in line for a coronavirus-related reduced sentence.
Now Bonet and others are calling out the inconsistencies in deciding who does and does not get to finish out a sentence at home.
According to the Marshall Project, which obtained data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and from Congress, as of late April, “the number of people allowed to serve the rest of their sentence in home confinement went up by only 1,027 under the new guidance set out by the attorney general — about half of one percent of the more than 174,000 people in the bureau’s custody at the start of the month.” That’s despite U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s April 3 letter ordering federal prison officials to “immediately maximize” releases, focusing on the most medically vulnerable.
The Marshall Project explains that “even with the emergency releases granted [in April], the total federal prison population has gone down by about 3,400 people. That reduction includes people whose sentences were routinely ending [that] month, though the bureau data did not specify that number. Last year, the bureau released about 3,700 people on average every month.”
Sarah Rodriguez of CCWP, who has been a supporter of the Patricia Wright campaign, tells Yahoo Life, “A few wealthy and well-connected people are being released from mostly federal prisons due to concerns about their health in the context of this pandemic. But people like Patricia Wright, Lucia Bravo and Maria Aredondo, all elderly women with terminal cancer or compromised immune systems, are so far being left to languish in state prisons where basic social distancing and public health guidelines are not being adequately met.” She notes that “keeping people in prison during a pandemic is cruel and inhumane, and more people, especially elderly people and medically vulnerable people, ought to be released immediately so that they can have the best possible chance of surviving this crisis.”
Wright’s attorney, Laura Sheppard, tells Yahoo Life, “California’s state prison system has thus far been unwilling to remove anyone from the crowded prison environment regardless of their medical risks. Even elderly inmates like Ms. Wright, who is at extremely high risk because of her chemotherapy, is getting no consideration.” She continues, “Ms. Wright’s condition is terminal, but because of her unfair LWOP [Life Without Parole] sentence, she isn’t even eligible to apply for compassionate release.” She adds that there are “hundreds if not thousands of long-term offenders who are elderly, have underlying conditions that compromise their immune system, and who DO have supportive family or friends who would take them in.”
Prior to her conviction, Wright and her attorney say, Wright suffered emotional, verbal and physical abuse by Scott, and was even shot by him while pregnant (resulting in loss of the baby) in 1979. Wright declined to press charges, and the two separated and remained friends for their children. (Studies have shown that the criminal experiences of women are often best understood in the context of unhealthy relationships, and that at least half and as many as 98 percent of justice-system-involved women report experiencing some kind of physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime.)
According to Sheppard and reports, Scott was murdered a few years after the separation; the case remained unsolved for 16 years until it was reopened in 1995 by a cold case team. That’s when Wright, despite fingerprint evidence excluding her, was charged based on two statements: one that has since been recanted and another on a recording that the Los Angeles Police Department was never able to produce to the courts.
Since her conviction, Wright has survived multiple bouts of brain, breast and ovarian cancer, says her sister, but is currently battling a recurrence of stage III ovarian cancer. Further, she is legally blind, dependent on mobility aids and suffers other serious conditions like asthma and chronic kidney disease.
Although Wright and her family have been fighting for justice for years, the circumstances surrounding her proposed release have only become more dire amid the coronavirus pandemic. In a letter sent to Newsom and shared with Yahoo Life, Wright’s oncologist, Dr. Kristen Marie Anderson of the Riverside University Health System, called Wright’s prognosis “grave,” noting that she would be “at high risk of infection and death if she remains incarcerated during her [chemotherapy] treatment.”
Finally, as Bonet notes in the Change.org petition, “Patricia is a warm and positive person. While in prison, she has maintained a near perfect disciplinary record and has participated in numerous self-help and wellness groups, including mindfulness, restorative justice, and healing from trauma. Patricia has spent a third of her life in prison, and she wishes not to die there.”