For Jamie Scott, an $11 Robbery in Mississippi May Carry a Death Sentence
James Ridgeway and Jean Casella
On February 25, a small crowd gathered outside the state capitol in
Jackson, Mississippi, to push for the release of sisters Jamie and
Gladys Scott, who are serving two consecutive life sentences apiece for
a 1993 armed robbery in which no one was injured and the take, by most
accounts,was about $11. Supporters of the Scott sisters have long
tried to draw attention to their case, as an extreme example of the
distorted justice and Draconian sentencingpolicies that
have overloaded prisons, crippled state budgets, and torn families
apart across the United States. But in recent months, their cause has
taken on a new urgency, because for Jamie Scott, an unwarranted life
sentence may soon become a death sentence.
Jamie Scott, 38, is suffering from kidney failure. At the Central
Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF) in Pearl, where Jamie and
Gladys are incarcerated, medical services are provided by a private
contractor called Wexford, which has been the subject of lawsuits and
legislative investigations in several states over inadequate treatment
of the inmates in its care. According to Jamie Scott's family, in the
six weeks since her condition became life-threatening, she has endured
faulty or missed dialysis sessions, infections, and other
complications. She has received no indication that a kidney transplant
is being considered as an option, though her sister is a willing donor.
Jamie Scott's family and legal advisors believe the poor health care
she is receiving in prison places her life at risk. They have sent
pleas for clemency or compassionate release to Governor Haley Barbour,
whose tough-on-crimeposturing and dubious record on issuing pardons do not bode well for Jamie. The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) has a provision for what it calls "conditional medical release,"but
Scott is not a candidate, department spokesperson Suzanne Garbo
Singletarysaid in an email last week, because "MDOC policy provides
that an inmate must have a condition that is "incapacitating, totally
disabling and/or terminal in nature' in order to qualify." So Jamie
Scott appears to be caught in a deadly Catch-22: In order to be
released from prison, she must convince the MDOC that her illness is
terminal or "totally disabling"; but the only sure way for her to prove
this is to die in prison.
Cruel and Unusual Health Care
In telephone interviews earlier this week, the Scott sisters'
mother, Evelyn Rasco, described the treatment Jamie has received at
Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF), based on her own
observations and information provided by her two daughters. Jamie, who
has diabetes and bouts of high blood pressure, said that medical staff
at the prison first diagnosed possible kidney problems in 1997but
until recently, she received minimal treatment outside of her regular
insulin. Jamie's physical and mental health suffered last fall when she
spent 23 days in solitary confinement (for being found in an
"unauthorized area" in the prison gym) and was cut off from her routine
of work, classes, church, and occasional visits with her sister. Then,
in mid-January, Jamie became seriously ill when both her kidneys began
shutting down. She was sent to the prison infirmary and, after a week's
delay, taken to the hospital. There, doctors inserted a shunt in
Jamie's neck to allow her to receive dialysis through a catheter, and
she was promptly returned to prison.
Rather than letting Jamie Scott leave the prison regularly for
dialysis, prison authorities chose to truck in dialysis machines.
About three times a week, Jamie has received hemodialysis in a trailer
on the prison grounds--if the machines are working properly, which she
reports isn't always the case.At one session, Jamie told her mother,
the blood was flowing out of her through a catheter into the dialysis
machine--but it wasn't flowing back in, so the treatment had to be
stopped.At the end of January, another inmate looked in on Jamie, who
was locked up alone in her cell, and found her unconscious. She was
rushed to the hospital, where doctors told her there were problems with
the shunt inserted into her neck. They made adjustments, and she was
again taken back to prison.
Evelyn Rasco, Jamie Scott, and Jamie's older brother. The prison permitted Jamie to attend her sister's funeral--in shackles.
Evelyn Rascolives in Pensacola, Florida, where she cares for her
daughters' five children while they are behind bars. Since Jamie and
Gladys went to prison, Rasco's husband of 30 years died of a heart
attack; another daughter died of congestive heart failure; and her
oldest son was away for several years serving with the Army in Iraq. In
a letter to supporters last
year, Jamie Scott wrote: "When I think of the word "strongest,' I think
of my mother. She is 4 feet 9 inches tall and has the strength of Job
in the Bible."
Rascolacks the time and financial resources to visit her daughters
often, but in mid-February, she managed to make the trip to
Mississippi.When she visited the prison on February 18, along with
Jamie's 18-year-old son, Jamie was feeling sick but was able to make it
to the visiting room. When Rascoreturned two days later, she found
Jamie in a cell attached to the infirmary. "She was real weak," Rasco
said. "She couldn't walk." An infection appeared to have developed at
the site of Jamie's catheter, which had filled with blood and pus.
Nurses reportedly told Rasco that Jamie should be in the hospital, but
the paperwork hadn't been done.
Rasco said that when she entered her daughter's cell, Jamie was
sitting on the edge of a hospital bed with dirty linens, near a toilet
and wash bowl that had not been cleaned. Prison staff arrived with a
plate of food--a hamburger swimming in grease, some side dishes, and a
cookiebut Jamie said it looked so bad she couldn't eat it. The doctors
at the hospital had given her a list of foods she should eat, including
meat, fish, and vegetables, but they were not available, and she did
not have permission to purchase food at the prison commissary.(That
permission has since been granted.) So Jamie sat on her grimy bed
eating a Snickers bar. "She sat right there with me," Rasco said, "and
tried to give me a piece." Knowing it was the only nourishment her
daughter was likely to have, her mother declined.
Jamie Scott says goodbye to her mother before returning to prison.
Since Evelyn Rasco's visit, Jamie was back in the hospital for a day
after experiencing chest pains following dialysis, and to a clinic
where her dialysis shunt was again adjusted and she was tested for
infections. To date, the family does not know the results.
Evelyn Rasco also said that when Gladys Scott, 34, learned of her
sister's kidney failure, she immediately offered to give Jamie a
kidney.If Gladys were to prove a viable match, this would be by far
the best medical option for Jamie: Studies show that patients in their
thirties who receive successful transplants live considerably longer than
those who remain on dialysis. Gladys says that CMCFstaff told her that
state prisoners don't qualify as donors, and that a transplant would be
too expensive, though there is no indication that their statements
reflect official MDOC policy. Rasco said that she was
hoping the prison would at least let Gladys to care for Jamie--feed her
and bathe her--as inmates are sometime allowed to do for ailing
relatives. When Rasco last spoke to her, Gladys had not received the
Chokwe Lumumba, a longtime activist and attorney who also serves on
the Jackson City Council, is representing the family in the medical
matter. In an interview last week, Lumumba said, "Our first idea is to
get some medical attention into the jail. Asking for a private doctor
to go in there and see her." But what Jamie Scott really needs, he told
me, is "to be in hospital until a kidney transplant."
Suzanne Garbo Singletary, Director of the MDOC's Division of
Communications, replied to several email inquiries regarding Jamie
Scott's care. In one email, she wrote that "MDOC cannot comment on any
specific medical condition or treatment for an inmate." In another, she
referred to patient privacy laws when asked whether a kidney transplant
was being considered for Jamie Scott. Regarding transplants for state
prisoners in general, Singltary said that "the state would pay for a
needed and necessary transplant" and would do so "when evaluated the
Dr. as needed [sic]." Singletary added in another message: "Dialysis
units are fully operational with no malfunctions documented in the past
several years." She also restated the MDOC's policy that "chronic, but
stable, medical conditions are not eligible for conditional medical
At the Central Mississippi Correctional Center, Jamie Scott's care
is in the hands of Wexford Health Sources, a Pittsburgh-based private
company that provides prison medical services. According to information
compiled by the Private Corrections Working Group,
Wexford's record includes lawsuits by prisoners and current or former
employees in at least four states, as well as allegations involving
racial discrimination and improper gifts to public officials.In 2006,
the Santa Fe Reporter launched an investigation into Wexford, which supplied health care to New Mexico's 6,000 prisoners. It discovered widespread complaints about Wexford's care.
Those who have raised concerns about
Wexford include the company's former regional medical director, the
former medical director of Lea County Correctional Facility (LCCF) in
Hobbs and numerous former and current Wexford medical employees. Their
allegations are all hauntingly similar:
Wexford refuses to fill critical medical
positions. Wexford refuses to grant off-site visits for seriously ill
inmates. Wexford refuses to renew critical prescription medicine for
inmates. And, according to those who worked for the company, and some
who still do, the company's insistence on the bottom line over the care
of its charges causes inmates to suffer, sometimes with lasting, even
The investigation prompted hearings on prison health care in the New Mexico state legislature, and in December 2006, after just two years with Wexford, Governor Bill Richardson ordered the New Mexico Corrections Department to find a new health care provider.
Wexford's reported resistance "to grant off-site visits for
seriously ill inmates," is particularly relevant to the case of Jamie
Scott, and the potentially dangerous delays she has experienced before
being sent to the hospital. The same issue surfaced in a 2002 case in
Pennsylvania, where a 26-year-old prisoner named Erin Finley suffered a
fatal asthma attack in prison while under Wexford's care. According to
the Wilkes Barre Times Herald,
Finley's family eventually received a $2.15 million settlement, after
their lawyer presented evidence showing that "Finley desperately sought
medical care for severe asthma she had had since she was a child, but
she was repeatedly rejected based on a prison doctor's belief that she
was "faking' her symptoms." On the day of her death, Finley was taken
to the prison infirmary several hours after complaining that she was
having trouble breathing. A physician's assistant examined her and told
the doctor she needed to go to a hospital, "but he refused to see her
and left the prison at 2:40 p.m. Twenty minutes later, Finley lost
consciousness and stopped breathing," according to the Times Herald. Finally she was sent to the hospital--only to be pronounced dead.
In Mississippi, where Wexford took over health care for the majority of the state's prisoners in 2006 under a three-year, $95 million contract,the Jackson Clarion Ledgerreported
in November 2008 that "a search of the federal court system found more
than a dozen open lawsuits filed by inmates against MDOC on medical
issues." At Central Mississippi Correctional Facilitythe prison where
the Scott sisters are housed--the sister of a dead inmate said she
watched her brother waste away for months from inadequately treated
Crohn's Disease, an inflammation of the digestive tract. "He literally
starved," Charlotte Byrd said of her brother William Byrd, who died in
November 2008. "We watched him turn into a skeleton." Byrd told the Clarion Ledger
that people might lack sympathy for prisoners like her brother, a
convicted rapist, but "Even a dog needs medical attention." She said
she believes that "If they are doing him that way, they are going to
let somebody else die, too."
In fact, Mississippi has one of the highest prisoner death rates in
the nation, according to a review of prison statistics carried out by
the Jackson Clarion Ledger's Chris Joyner, and the death rate
in 2007 was 34 percent higher than in 2006--the year Wexford took over
the MDOC's medical care. A December 2007 report conducted by the
Mississippi Legislature's Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and
Expenditure Review (PEER) concluded that inmates were not receiving
timely and adequate medical treatment from Wexford. Among other things,
the PEER report found that Wexford "did not meet medical care standards
set forth under its contract with the state," and that the company "did
not adhere to its own standards in following up on inmates with chronic
health problems." When questioned about the report and the high
prisoner death rates, the Clarion Ledger reported, Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps "said he is satisfied with the contractor's performance." The budget presented by
Epps for the coming fiscal year, which begins on July 1, 2010, shows a
request of $37.4 million to Wexford for medical services.
In response to questions about care provided by Wexford, MDOC
spokesperson Suzanne Garbo Singletary wrote: "Jamie Scott is receiving
quality medical care for her condition. Wexford provides basic medical
care for all inmates at MDOC prisons. Inmates are sent to hospitals if
the need for hospital care arises." Singletary stated that such
decisions are made by the attending doctor at the prison, who is a
Wexford employee. Wexford did not respond to requests for comment.
Nancy Lockhart, a legal investigator and analyst based in South
Carolina, has been working with Evelyn Rascofor several years,
organizing a grassroots campaign to secure decent treatment for the
Scotts and either a review of their case or some provision for their
early release. In interviews last week, Lockhart said that she had
helped Rasco appeal to the Obama Justice Department, which informed her
that the statute of limitations was up for civil rights claims. They
plan to try again, offering proof of earlier letters to the DOJ. They
have also organized letter writing and email campaigns to numerous
state and MDOC officials, and set up a web site. The Scott sisters'
group of supporters is growing, but they have received no meaningful
responses to their pleas.
During her recent visit to Mississippi, Evelyn Rasco had the
opportunity to confront Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps in
person when she attended a meeting at the state capitol on prison
budget cuts. She spotted the Epps, whom she recognized from his
photograph, walked up to him, and told him about her daughter's poor
health and the problems with her medical treatment. According to Rasco,
Epps said that he was getting a lot of messages about Jamie Scott, and
that he would do what he could obtain a pardon or clemency for the
Scott sisters. He told her that he was "giving his word on this,"
although he had no power to actually make it happen himself.
The person who could make it happen is Governor Haley Barbour, whose
past record on pardons does not bode well for Jamie and Gladys Scott.
Barbour, who took office in 2004, was initially known for refusing to
grant any pardons. In his second term he changed coursebut only for a
particular set of offenders.A 2008 investigation by the Jackson Free Press found
that Barbour had pardoned or suspended the sentences of five murderers,
four of whom had killed their former or current wives or girlfriends.
All five men were part of a prison trusty program under which they did
odd jobs at the governor's mansion. Writing in Slate, Radley Balko summarized Haley Barbour's policy on pardons as "show[ing] mercy only to murderers who work on his house."
Jamie Scott's health crisis has also coincided with a protracted
struggle between the governor and state legislators over how to handle
budget shortfalls. Throughout, the ambitious Barbour, who is talked
about as a possible 2012 presidential candidate,has
appeared determined to polish his reputation for being both fiscally
conservative and tough on crime. With revenue down due to the
recession, Barbour implemented a series of deep, across-the-board cuts
to state spending in the current fiscal year. Last week the he vetoed a bill that
would have restored some of that funding, primarily to education. At
the same time, he asked the legislature to put $16 million back into
the Department of Corrections budget. "We have the resources to restore
funding to our priorities this year," the governor said in a statement, "including law enforcement and corrections."
Against opponents who argued that Mississippi already spends more on
prisoners than it does on schoolchildren, Barbour held up the specter
of what could happen if prison spending was cut: 3,000 to 4,000 inmates
would have to be released early. "The threat of convicted criminals on
the streets," the Jackson Free Press wrote earlier this month, "has provided Barbour a rhetorical trump card in budget negotiations."
Even amidst this kind of rhetoric, it would be difficult to see the
Scott sisters as dangerous or violent offenders, although the state of
Mississippi went to great lengths to depict them as such. On Christmas
Eve of 1993, Jamie and Gladys, then 22 and 19, were both young mothers
with no criminal records. They were at the local mini-mart buying
heating fuel when they ran into two young men they knew, who offered to
give them a ride. Sometime later that evening, the two young men were
robbed by a group of three boys, ages 14 to 18, who arrived in another
car, armed with a shotgun.
Jamie and Gladys say that they had already left the scene to walk
home when the robbery took place, and had nothing to do with it. The
state insisted they were an integral part of the crime, and in fact had
set up the victims to be robbed. Wherever the truth lies, trial transcripts clearly reveal a
the case based on the highly questionable testimony of two of the
teenaged co-defendantswho had turned state's evidence against the
Scott sisters in return for eight-year sentences--and a prosecutor who
appears determined to demonize the two young women.
Jamie and Gladys Scott were not initially arrested for the crime.
But ten months later, the 14-year-old co-defendantwho had been in jail
on remand during that timesigned a statement implicating them. When
questioned by the Scotts' attorney, the boy confirmed that he had been
"told that before you would be allowed to plead guilty" to a lesser
charge, "you would have to testify against Jamie Scott and Gladys
Scott." The boy also testified that he had neither written nor read the
statement before signing it. It had been written for him by someone at
the county sheriff's office, he said, and he "didn't know what it was."
But he had been told that if he signed it "they would let me out of
jail the next morning, and that if I didn't participate with them, that
they would send me to Parchman [state penitentiary] and make me out a
female"--which he took to mean he would be raped.The 18-year-old
co-defendant who testified against the Scott sisters also said he was
testifying against the Scotts as a condition of his guilty plea to a
But the prosecutor succeeded in depicting Jamie and Gladys Scott not
only as participants in the crime robbery, but as its masterminds--two
older women who had lured three impressionable boys into the robbing
the victims at gunpoint. (This despite the fact that the oldest of the
co-defendants was just a year younger than Gladys, and was driving
around with a shotgun in his car.) In his summation, he told the jury:
They thought it up. They came up with
the plan. They duped three young teenage boys into going along and
doing something stupid that is going to cost them the next eight years
of their lives in the penitentiary.
That probably makes me, at least, as mad
about this case, simply at least as much, as the fact that two people
got robbed. That three young boys were duped into doing the dirty work.
The prosecutor also reminded jurors that while Jamie and Gladys
Scott admittedly did not have a weapon, the judge's instructions "tell
you that if they encourage someone else or counsel them or aid them in
any way in committing this robbery they are equally guilty."
It took the jury just 36 minutes to convict the Scott sisters. And
while there was a range of possible sentences for the crime of armed
robbery, the state asked for--and received--two consecutive life
sentences for the Scott sisters. In contrast, Edgar Ray Killen,
the man convicted in 2005 of manslaughter in the 1964 deaths of civil
rights workers Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodman, received a sentence of
60 yearsmeted out by the same judge who presided over the trial of
Jamie and Gladys Scott. A direct appeal, carried out by the same lawyers who defended them at trial, failed to overturn the Scotts' conviction.
Because they were tried for a crime committed before October 1994, when even harsher sentencing rules were
put in place in Mississippi, the Scott sisters will be eligible for
parole in 2014, after they have served 20 years--though there is no
guarantee they will receive it. In the meantime, Evelyn Rasco is
praying for mercy, for a good lawyer--and for her daughter Jamie to live