Haley Barbour to Free Scott Sisters: Beyond Race to the Bitter Aftertaste
Editor's update: A spokesperson for the Scott Sisters, Nancy Lockhart, announced tonight, Wednesday, January 5, that the Scott Sisters will be released from prison on Friday to start their lives on parole.
By now you may have heard that on December 29, 2010, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, possibly a Republican contender for the presidency in 2012, has suspended indefinitely the life sentences of Jamie and Gladys Scott. You've probably also heard that Jamie Scott was on dialysis in prison and that a condition of her sister's release is Gladys must donate a kidney to Jamie as soon as possible by decree of Gov. Barbour. That condition is only one of many disturbing elements in the sisters' journey through hell to freedom.
My mantra for this post: I am happy Haley Barbour will free the Scott Sisters. God bless those young women. They are overjoyed to know freedom. God bless social media activists. God bless the NAACP. God bless the sisters' attorney Chokwe Lumumba. God bless America. I am happy. Breathe.
The Scott Sisters are African-American women who were convicted of armed robbery in 1994 in Mississippi's Scott County based on the testimony of three teen males who took plea bargains and swore the women planned the robbery. Both sisters were considered first-time offenders, and so neither had a criminal record before their convictions.
They were not accused of handling a weapon or of demanding anyone's money, but the jury found them guilty and the judge sentenced them to life in prison. According to Nancy Lockhart, an advocate for the sisters, and others, they actually received two life sentences each, "double life." This is a complicated story, and so, the devil's in the details when we consider how these two young mothers landed in jail. You may read the bedtime version here, and the fuller background at this 2010 BlogHer post.
At left is a photo of Jamie Scott, now 38, holding her grandchildren during a short visit home in 2008 to attend the funeral of her oldest sister who died of congestive heart failure. Gladys was not allowed to attend.
Sent to prison when they were ages 22 and 20, neither saw their children grow up. Jamie has three and Gladys, now 36, has two. Gladys also has grandchildren. Their five children were raised by their mother, Evelyn Rasco, who had already raised six children of her own, three boys and three girls, when her two younger daughters received life terms. Gladys is the youngest.
When I first heard that Barbour had suspended their sentences, I rejoiced, but not as much as I would have rejoiced had the governor pardoned the women because it is my understanding that an indefinite suspension amounts to life on parole and leaves both women with felony records, making it difficult for either to find work.
I was also leery. Barbour, a real-time, good-old boy of the South had been pressured for years with blasts from activist bloggers and other purveyors of social media and then the johnny-come-lately grumblings of the NAACP that arose in September to let the sisters go. Their release seemed like it would never come, but when the timing was right, when Barbour found himself wading in hot water after an attempt to rewrite history and paint segregationist Citizens Councils of the 50s and 60s as warriors against the KKK—to tell a story that even some white conservative southerners refused to buy—then the Mississippi Parole Board deemed the Scott Sisters no longer a threat to society and Voila! Presto. Free at last!
Free sort of, that is. Time served on a sentence that even Barbour himself called longer than usual for the alleged crime committed wasn't enough payment; a kidney was due. When I read that Barbour—a "tough on crime" governor—said the condition for freedom for Gladys, who had already said a year ago without coercion that she wanted to donate a kidney to her sister, was she must part with an organ, a little more of that initial happiness ebbed from me. "What!" I said and decided not to write too much about it then lest my anger set the computer on fire.
I don't have to go into exactly what's wrong with the "kidney deal" here. Bioethicists have already objected. Barbour's "quid pro quo" order violates 50 years of organ transplant law, they say. But the governor, with his sights on the Oval Office, is not worried. In fact, he seems to think he's found a new way to claim that he's fiscally responsible as he signs off on the sisters' release.
Undoubtedly nodding to some constituents who never saw a budget cut they couldn't love, Barbour framed Jamie's release in terms of cost savings. In his official announcement he says:
"To date, the sisters have served 16 years of their sentences and are eligible for parole in 2014. Jamie Scott requires regular dialysis, and her sister has offered to donate one of her kidneys to her. The Mississippi Department of Corrections believes the sisters no longer pose a threat to society. Their 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.
Jamie's dialysis, according to Barbour, could cost the the state $200,000 per year and that's the best reason to release her. A release in the name of justice, in the name of compassion? No, can't have that. It's far better to court the muses of Southern Grotesque.
And Barbour's very pleased with himself about his decision. In the video below you'll hear a clip of the governor on WMPR talking to Charles Evers, the station's manager, a small-town mayor, civil rights activist and older brother of the late Medgar Evers (Yes, that Medgar Evers). Someone is chuckling off camera while Barbour discusses how ridiculous it is for the State of Mississippi to pay for a prisoner's dialysis.
On that same show, according to the Clarion Ledger, Evers, who is also a Republican, "asked Barbour how Jamie would afford her dialysis after her release, and Barbour said she would become Medicare eligible because of her disability."
I think the governor misspoke there. It's Medicaid for which Jamie should be qualified not Medicare. It's easy for the average person to confuse the two. But, knowing how important it is not to misquote the governor, I called Mr. Evers to ask if the Clarion Ledger had quoted Barbour's comment on the show correctly. Evers said it doesn't matter if he said Medicare or Medicaid.
"I get them confused, too. They keep criticizing the governor, but he's letting them (Jamie and Gladys) out. There were two other governors that they pleaded to and they didn't. They were in there for committing a crime, and he let them go," said Evers.
O.K. I am happy for the Scott Sisters. In fact, I suspect that there are prisoners hearing of their impending release who right now wish they had someone to whom they could donate a kidney, score points for some governor, and be set free. Who can ever argue that being locked up for life in a Mississippi penitentiary is better than an average day in the life of anyone average? I am happy for the Scott Sisters.
But then Mr. Evers and I part ways. I can't abide in a cloud of bliss that blinds me to how Gov. Barbour went about making his decision, what words he used to frame his message, and the potential policy that he now considers as a result of his encounter with the Scott Sisters.
I even set race matters aside—the righteous indignation of others at NAACP President Benjamin Jealous's praise of Barbour; the strange image that invaded my mind when I read the conditions of the Scott Sisters' freedom [I envisioned Haley Barbour waiting on a mountain, bathed in sunlight, wearing a white linen suit and a straw hat as he sipped a Mint Julep prepared by grinning servants, and as he stood there, he imagined black people bowing at his feet, weeping and laughing—"Oh, thank ya massah! Thank de big buckra! You haz freed dem." (I am not making this vision up.)]; and even knowledge of politics' Southern Strategy and Barbour's past, such as his defense of taking photographs with White Nationalists. I decided that you and I, we Americans, should focus on a greater concern. We must try to understand the words coming out of Haley Barbour's mouth because he is a former chair of the RNC who may run for President of the United States of America in 2012.
What else has Barbour said on the departing skirts of the Scott Sisters?
Explaining the wonders of freeing Jamie Scott, Barbour told Evers:
Instead of Mississippi taxpayers bearing that (cost of her dialisys), it will be spread over all the taxpayers in the United States.
This weird wisdom comes from a man who has railed against health care reform, likening it to mass suicide, and who's taken the hard line on the importance of whittling down the national debt. (I agree. Government money is not magic money.) But Barbour probably also chants "U.S.A!" and "Country First!" at Republican conventions with his fellow conservatives (and there's nothing wrong with loving this nation). So, undoubtedly he would make Sarah Palin's "real Americans" list. Nevertheless, it strikes me that Barbour is not seeking the highest of American ideals when he puts America's interests behind Mississippi's responsibilities. He's making the case that the rest of America should pay for his state's judicial decisions and prison practices that affect the health care of his state's citizens.
Even the original prosecutor, Ken Turner, who is now retired and who believes the sisters were guilty, has said that he thinks it would be “appropriate” to offer them relief from their extreme sentences. He told The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., "It was not a particularly egregious case."
So, was this release about an unjust sentence or not?
In addition, can we ignore this fact? Jamie Scott was diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure three years after she entered the Mississippi prison system. She cannot be said to have had much control over her food choices and lifestyle while incarcerated. Was the excessive sentence and imprisonment itself the trigger for her illness? And yet Barbour, an advocate of States Rights, thinks the rest of America should pay for what Mississippi does to its citizens and its prison population.
But wait! It gets even better. Apparently Barbour likes the idea of his new-found cost savings so much that he's asked Mississippi’s prisons chief to review the cases of other sick inmates on dialysis in Mississippi to determine whether they are "fit for release," reports the Clarion Ledger.
Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said he would begin the process next week. There are 16 patients – 15 males and 1 female – who are currently receiving dialysis treatment in the Mississippi prison system.
I called the governor's communications staff and asked would someone please clarify for me what "fit for release" means and when Barbour said that by releasing Jamie the cost of her dialysis will be "spread over all the taxpayers in the United States," did he also imply that this is the logic for his request to review the cases of all Mississippi prisoners on dialysis?
Alas, neither Laura Hipp nor her colleague Dan Turner in the governor's office returned my calls or answered my emails. But that's okay. I used to do what they do for a living. I wouldn't have answered me either because there's no right way to answer for this kind of gubernatorial nonsense.
So, I turned to the more courageous souls who might at least give their opinions. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, who is a best-selling author and managing editor and columnist writing on politics and culture at the The Moderate Voice, commented on Barbour's idea to review the cases of sick inmates and release them so Medicaid could pay their bills. She speaks from the perspective of her experience as a former Chair of the Colorado State Grievance Board who also held monthly hearings with the state DA's office for 13 years, and she told BlogHer that she could share wonderings rather than assertions because she does not know Mississippi law. Her thoughts in part are these:
Ethically, and professionally, the issue of shifting expense to the feds, appears to be one of those 'just thinking out loud' bad ideas... a move that actually exposes the state to huge costs in another direction entirely... having to defend itself against the potential appeals and overturns of already set cases, and risking suits regarding negative impact of health from former prisoners whose healthcare 'after parole' may fall through the cracks.
In my opinion, there can't be a sudden release for cost-savings re the justice system, based not on convictions and sentences that were considered accurate and just to begin with, but a rogue view of the law—that the law and sentencing can be set aside in order to 'save money' for the state.
This seems a serious ethical issue that may in fact, change the face of the law in that state ...if congress people and senators there grasp the ethical issues surrounding this 'after the fact' attempt to save money for the state suddenly being held higher than the integrity of the sentencing of a person who has been found guilty of a criminal act...
She suggested that if proposed in Colorado, Barbour's proposal might be viewed as a type a fraud. Read her full comment at WritingJunkie.net.
And the doctor was not the only person willing to comment. Jill Miller Zimon, a public servant in Ohio, writer and occasional TV guest considered possible reasons for Barbour framing the sisters' release the way he did:
I am very glad to see the sisters get out. I just wish people would take responsibility for their role(s) in these mistakes and stop looking to blame everyone and everything else. Barbour's trying to get out of having to answer for why, if they're not a danger, the state has been paying for them all these years, and also why they were in there in the first place. The lack of humility in Barbour and so many other politicians is just embarrassing to me as an elected official. We are public servants, first and foremost, not God or anything remotely like anyone's God.
Pamela Lyn Kemp of Pam's Coffee Conversation and The Political Voices of Women told me on Facebook that she believes first that Barbour freed the sisters because he hopes to gain favor with the African-American community and groups like the NAACP, but she also thinks:
When Barbour cites the high costs of providing quality health care to in-mates as well as the fact the by releasing the prisoners, Medicaid will have to pick up the cost of care, he is pandering to constituents like the person who left the following comment: "the thing is if the crime is bad enough there should be a gassing & if known for a fact that they killed someone it should be right away not 20 years later ... most of the ones on death row & a lot that aren't should probably be put to sleep, what point is there to keeping them around? They are non productive individuals that is except for the guards, makes em a living..."
The biggest problem with Barbour's decision re: the Scott sisters is that the right thing may have been done for the wrong reason.
I saw that comment about "gassing" as well. It's the first one following the Ledger's article about reviewing the cases of sick inmates.
Did I say I was happy? I am very happy that the Scott Sisters are being released. As you may expect, so are their children and their mother, Evelyn Rasco. I interviewed her last night, and she is praising God at every turn, but as you will hear if you listen to the entire podcast, she also takes issue with the circumstances of her daughters' release. In addition, we discuss the poor quality of treatment Jamie received while in prison, including sometimes not being given her blood pressure medication as part of her punishment. Both diabetes and high blood pressure can damage kidneys.
What's wrong with us people who can't ignore the dark rim of the silver cloud like some of those commenting on the Scott topic at Shakesville? What's up with us who scrutinize what the people say who run for office and also what they do? Why, as my former spouse once asked of me, can't we just be happy with what we're given, no questions asked? I dunno. Sometimes I can't take the whole of life at face value and pretend all is well or play dumb when I notice shadows of oppressive hegemony such as how often males' decisions shaped the journey of Jamie and Gladys Scott. Sometimes it's hard to hold my tongue.
So, I'm glad the sisters will walk sort-of free, that they may still possibly get a pardon if enough pressure is put on Gov. Barbour, and that one day soon they will sleep in better beds and hug their children, grown and not-so-grown, some night soon. I am very happy and love sweet liberty, but I must refuse to bake a cake for Haley Barbour at this time.
Update Wed., 1/5/11 @ 11:24 PM CST: Nancy Lockhart's announced that the Scott Sisters will be released from prison Friday to being their lives on parole.
Note: BlogHer is nonpartisan. My opinions are my own, and I have many.