For Two Sisters, the End of an Ordeal

By: Bob Herbert
The New York TImes
Friday, December 31, 2010

 

I got a call on New Year’s Eve from Gladys Scott, which was a terrific way for 2010 to end.

As insane as it may seem, Gladys and her sister, Jamie, are each serving consecutive life sentences in a state prison in Mississippi for their alleged role in a robbery in 1993 in which no one was hurt and $11 supposedly was taken.

Gladys was on the phone, excited and relieved, because Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi had agreed to suspend the prison terms.

“I’ve waited so long for this day to come,” she said.

I was happy for the Scott sisters and deeply moved as Gladys spoke of how desperately she wanted to “just hold” her two children and her mother, who live in Florida. But I couldn’t help thinking that right up until the present moment she and Jamie have been treated coldly and disrespectfully by the governor and other state officials. It’s as if the authorities have found it impossible to hide their disdain, their contempt, for the two women.

The prison terms were suspended — not commuted — on the condition that Gladys donate a kidney to Jamie, who is seriously ill with diabetes and high blood pressure and receives dialysis at least three times a week. Gladys had long expressed a desire to donate a kidney to her sister, but to make that a condition of her release was unnecessary, mean-spirited, inhumane and potentially coercive. It was a low thing to do.

Governor Barbour did not offer any expression of concern for Jamie’s health in his statement announcing the sentence suspension.

He said of the sisters: “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.”

By all means, get those medical costs off the books if you can.

I asked Gladys how she had learned that she was to be released. “Oh, I saw it while I was looking at the news on television,” she said.

The authorities hadn’t bothered to even tell the sisters. After all, who are they? As Gladys put it, “Nobody told me a thing.”

I asked if she had seen Jamie, who is in another section of the prison, since the governor’s decision had been announced. She said no one had tried to get the two of them together for even a telephone conversation.

“I haven’t seen her or heard from her,” Gladys said. “I want to see her. I want to see how she’s doing and take care of her.”

I am not surprised at Governor Barbour’s behavior. He’s not the first person who comes to mind when I think of admirable public officials. The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., noted that the governor had been on the radio this week asserting that there was hardly anyone in prison who didn’t deserve to be there. It’s an interesting comment from a governor who has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to free prisoners convicted of the most heinous crimes.

The Jackson Free Press, an alternative weekly, and Slate magazine have noted that Mr. Barbour has pardoned four killers and suspended the life sentence of a fifth. So cold-blooded murder is no reason, in Mr. Barbour’s view, to keep the prison doors closed.

This is also a governor who said recently, while reminiscing about the civil rights struggle and the treatment of blacks in his hometown of Yazoo City, Miss., in the 1960s: “I just don’t remember it being that bad.” The comment was in an article in The Weekly Standard in which the governor managed to find some complimentary things to say about the rabidly racist White Citizens Councils.

Faced with heavy and widespread criticism, he later pulled back on the comments, describing the era as “difficult and painful” and the councils as “indefensible.”

The only reason the Scott sisters have gotten any relief at all is because of an extraordinary network of supporters who campaigned relentlessly over several years on their behalf. Ben Jealous, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., emerged as one of the leaders of the network. The concerted effort finally paid off.

Gladys Scott said her 16 years in prison have been extremely difficult and that she had gotten depressed from time to time but had not given up hope. “It was a very bad experience, ” she said.

What is likely to get lost in the story of the Scott sisters finally being freed is just how hideous and how outlandish their experience really was. How can it be possible for individuals with no prior criminal record to be sentenced to two consecutive life terms for a crime in which no one was hurt and $11 was taken? Who had it in for them, and why was that allowed to happen?

The Scott sisters may go free, but they will never receive justice.