Wednesday 5 January 2011

Should seriously ill prisoners be set free early? (Part I)

Normally, I am not in favour of releasing prisoners before their sentences are up simply because they are ill. I don’t care if a murder sentenced to natural life in prison only has six months to live because of an illness, he shouldn’t be released. Natural life in prison means just that.

We often hear the justification for an early released such as, “He wants to spend his remaining months with his family.” That more than the creep gave his victim. However, the following case is an exception.

I will now bring you the tale of Jamie and Gladys Scott. On Christmas Eve in 1993, the sisters convinced two men to drive them to a nightclub in Forest, a small city in the state of Mississippi. During the journey, Jamie faked nausea. She asked the driver to pull over, knowing there was a car with three teens following them. That's when the teens pulled up and robbed the two men at gunpoint of a grand total of $11. The three teenagers hit each man in the head with a shotgun and took their wallets Jamie and Gladys jumped in the car with the boys and took off. And that's when things got really weird.

After the five were arrested, two of the boys decided to rat out Jamie and Gladys for lesser sentences. They would end up doing just a few months in jail. But Jamie and Gladys were sentenced to life in prison for their roles in the $11 caper, despite both being young mothers with no prior convictions.

To top it all off, they received an incompetent lawyer representing them. Their attorney, Firnist Alexander, called no witnesses on their behalf. And he just happened to be disbarred two years later for ‘lack of diligence’ in other cases, which is legal speak for ‘the lawyer who excelled at sitting on his ass doing nothing for the money he was paid to do.’

Scroll forward to 2010, and the sisters, now 36 and 38, have spent 17 years in the slammer. A lot of people in Mississippi, including the NAACP, believe they never should have been given life in the first place. “It is a travesty that in the state of Mississippi, the lives of two black women are valued at little more than 11 dollars,” said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous. I am in total agreement with him.

But even without the specter of race, shitty lawyering, or the fact that the actual robbers were allowed to rat on the decoys to get less time, 17 years remains a stiff sentence for a dime store robbery. Especially when it involves young women never in trouble with the law before.

Haley Barbour, Mississippi's governor has agreed to free the two sisters who have served 17 years of a double life sentence for an armed robbery in which nobody was hurt and only $11 was stolen. The governor announced that he was suspending indefinitely the sentences of Gladys and Jamie Scott in a case that has drawn international attention.

A condition of the release of Gladys Scott, 35, is that she donate a kidney to her 38-year-old sister in an operation that should be performed urgently, the statement said, adding Gladys had agreed to be a kidney donor for Jamie, who requires daily dialysis.

The governor said, “The incarceration is no longer necessary for public safety or rehabilitation and Jamie Scott's medical condition creates a substantial cost to the state of Mississippi.”

As far as I am concerned, they should have been released many years earlier as they weren’t a real danger to society. Half a year in jail would have been more appropriate sentence. It makes you wonder what kind of judges the state of Mississippi has.

Supporters of the Scotts, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have questioned the role the women played in the crime and said the fact they are black contributed to the judge's decision to impose such harsh sentences. The presiding judge in the trial, Judge Marcus Gordon, has a history of racially biased rulings and even the prosecutor of the case became an advocate for the sisters.

Further, if the governor felt that the sisters weren't a danger to society and there was no need for further rehabilitation, then why did he make it a condition that Gladys had to donate one of her kidneys to her sister before she could be released?

But what was the governor’s real motive with respect to the release of the sisters?

Since the sisters were sentenced to life in prison and one of them required daily dialysis treatment, this would be an expensive burden for the prison system in Mississippi. The costs to be on the machine four times a week are as high as $50,000 a month. To be on it every day is much higher. It is easy to see why the governor was so willing to release Jamie Scott. However, the financial burden would merely be shifted to another branch of the government.

The way to solve the problem would be to give her a transplant. But such a transplant could take years before a viable kidney could be given to her. Obviously the solution was to ask her sister to donate one of her own kidneys since the kidney from a family member is not as likely to be rejected by the recipient’s immune system.

It is a lot to ask of anyone however, even if a donor is willing to part with one his or her kidneys. Perhaps the governor had in mind that the sisters had served enough time in prison and this would be an excellent opportunity to release them. But if that was his real motive, he could have released them earlier. I am convinced that the expense incurred month after month of giving

Jamie Scott daily dialysis treatment was uppermost in his mind and a donation of a kidney by Jamie’s sister would solve that problem. Now he could have simply decided to keep the two sisters in prison for the rest of their lives but since the publicity about the proposed donation, brought to the fore, the outrageous sentence these two unfortunate women received by a judge who should never have served on the bench in the first place, the governor had no other choice but to release both of the women.

Strangely enough, an organ donation in which something of value is exchanged is clearly a violation of a federal law which prohibits the exchange of 'valuable consideration' in return for an organ.

But does a commutation of a prison sentence clearly fall into the category of ‘valuable consideration’ under the law? It would if the recipient was the governor and a donor was a prisoner. But since the actions of the governor is a third party to the transaction of one sister donating a kidney to another sister, his position would be no different than that of a doctor who would charge a fee to operate on the two sisters. Admittedly, the governor benefits by his prison or for that mater, his state not having to pay for the daily dialysis treatment but is his position any different that the doctor who does the operations on both women and receives a fee? I think not.

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