For its weekend edition, Counterpunch.com highlighted a story called “How an $11 Robbery in Mississippi May End in a Death Sentence: The Terrible Case of Jamie Scott.” The writers of the piece, James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, both write for Mother Jones and published the piece for Solitary Watch, a new project in collaboration with Washington and Lee University Law School’s V3 clinic, which will focus on the issues surrounding the rise of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.
Solitary Watch’s Web material describes how “Solitary confinement has grown dramatically in the past two decades. Today, at least 25,000 prisoners are being held in long-term lockdown in the nation’s 'supermax' facilities; some 50,000 to 80,000 more are held in isolation in 'administrative segregation' or 'special housing' units at other facilities. In other words, on any given day, as many as 100,000 people are living in solitary confinement in America’s prisons.” They link to the New Yorker piece in which writer Atul Gawande explores whether solitary confinement should be classified as torture.
The case of Jamie Scott and her sister Gladys, which Ridgeway and Casella explore, revolves around a 1993 armed robbery, in which—according to their story—approximately $11 was stolen and no one was injured. Both sisters, who were 22 and 19 at the time, young mothers with no criminal records, are now currently serving life sentences in Mississippi where Gov. Haley Barbour's tough record on pardons doesn’t bode well for Jamie. She spent 23 days in solitary confinement last fall and is currently suffering from kidney failure (thus the reference to the "death sentence"). The piece explores her health care under the private prison contractor Wexford, which has faced negligence lawsuits in Pennsylvania and New Mexico.
Supporters of the sisters have been fighting for Jamie to receive a compassionate release. But according to The Jackson Free Press and Slate articles quoted in the piece, Barbour—now in his second term—has pardoned, granted clemency to, or suspended sentences of just a handful of prisoners, five of them convicted of murder. Slate’s Radley Balko writes that those granted clemency all had worked in a prison program that allowed them to perform odd jobs around the governor’s mansion:
“Whether a man who shot his ex-wife point blank with a shotgun deserves a chance to start a new life, and whether giving him that chance is a proper use of the clemency power is, I suppose, something GOP primary voters will mull over should Barbour decide to run for president in 2012. What's perverse is that while Barbour's been generously dispensing mercy to convicted murderers fortunate enough to get face time with him in Jackson, he's been utterly uninterested in a crisis unfolding in his state's criminal justice system, and the very real possibility that there are a number of innocent people at Mississippi's Parchman Penitentiary, including on death row.”
Meanwhile, the sisters have so far lost every plea for clemency, write Ridgeway and Casella: “Supporters of the Scott sisters have long tried to draw attention to their case, as an extreme example of the distorted justice and draconian sentencing policies that have overloaded prisons, crippled state budgets, and torn families apart across the United States.” Their story, which has been picked up so far only in the progressive blogosphere, details how the state leadership has been in a legislative showdown between funding for education vs. prisons as state resources dwindle, with prisons appearing to win out.