California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, is facing mounting pressure, including from a top state official, to grant clemency to dozens of elderly and vulnerable women who are serving long sentences in prison and are at high risk of death from coronavirus.
They include survivors of domestic violence, war and cancer. Some are battling life-threatening illnesses. Others have been jailed for murders they say they did not commit. Most are incarcerated in prisons where Covid-19 is rapidly spreading.
On 1 May, Fiona Ma, California’s elected state treasurer and a member of the executive branch, sent Newsom a list of 25 elderly and vulnerable women who have active commutation requests the governor could approve while their lives are threatened by Covid.
Less than two months before, California granted early release for 3,500 prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses who were nearing the end of their sentences in an effort to curb the spread of the virus in prisons and jails.
Activists say the swift release of older and immunocompromised prisoners is necessary and could potentially save hundreds of lives. But Newsom has resisted giving clemency to people convicted of crimes classified as serious or violent. Meanwhile, the coronavirus crisis behind bars has only escalated. More than 6,000 prisoners have contracted the virus in the state, at least 23 have died and the facilities remain overcrowded.
“I’m very concerned for all of them,” said Ma about the women she’s advocating for. “Anyone who has been there more than five years has some sort of health risk,” she continued, noting that prisoners tend to have a wide range of health problems due to their living conditions and treatment. “Some of these older women have been in for 45 years. Certainly these women are not violent.”
Battling cancer and Covid inside
One of the women on Ma’s list is Patricia Wright. “I’m frail and I’m just so afraid to die here,” Wright, 68, said in a recent phone call from the California Institution for Women (CIW), east of Los Angeles, where 159 inmates have contracted coronavirus. She has terminal liver cancer, is currently in chemotherapy and likely has months to live: “I suffer from loneliness. It’s harder than cancer.”
It’s heart-wrenching being away from my children and grandchildren. I just hope I can see them before I leave this world – Patricia Wright
Wright has battled breast and ovarian cancer in the past, and has been incarcerated for more than two decades. She is legally blind and uses a wheelchair. She was convicted of murder, accused of hiring someone to kill her abusive husband. Wright has always maintained her innocence. “I’m no threat to society,” said Wright. “I’ve listened to Governor Gavin Newsom speak. I know if he knew my condition, he would listen to me.”
Maria Aredondo, 67, has stage II breast cancer, and is held in the same prison as Wright. As CIW has locked down in an attempt to contain Covid, it’s been even harder for her to get basic medical attention, her family said. Aredondo was convicted of murder after her gun was used in a robbery attempt that turned fatal. According to her lawyers, she was moved to a dirty cell after returning from chemotherapy last month. No one checked on her, said her daughter, Maria Nuñez. “Every time we hear from her she says her health is deteriorating,” Nuñez added.
Terri Hardy, a prison spokeswoman, said CIW has moved women “to allow for more social distancing”, and that cells are cleaned before transfers. Women placed in isolation or quarantine due to Covid have access to “daily medical rounds”, she added.
Some other severely immunocompromised women who remain incarcerated in jails with Covid outbreaks are serving time for more minor allegations. Carole Dunham, 29, was convicted of a drug charge and was jailed after she failed to complete all the hours of her community service. She has two children, for whom she became the only parent after her husband was murdered.
Dunham has type-one diabetes and said she recently collapsed inside an LA county jail because her blood sugar was so low. As Covid spread among the women around her, she said their treatment by staff has worsened, and she struggles to get the basic nutrition she requires. Sometimes they give her rotten food, she said in a phone call.
“Our rights are being violated here,” Dunham said. “What happens if my kids will be left without a mother and a father? I think about it all the time.” LA sheriff’s office, which runs this jail, did not respond to inquiries.
Thousands of jailed survivors: ‘We need healing’
Newsom has earned some national praise for his handling of Covid-19, instituting early lockdowns and avoiding the level of crisis that has hit New York. But civil rights activists say his inaction on prisons could define his coronavirus legacy.
He has granted 44 commutations since he became governor last year, including 21 last month, though his office said the move was not related to Covid, and many are still waiting to be released or have parole hearings. Advocates with a number of community groups say there are at least 150 active applications on his desk from women who are survivors of domestic violence.
Newsom’s office did not respond to questions about Ma’s letter and declined to comment on the women’s individual cases. A spokeswoman said, “Each and every clemency application is reviewed on its own merits, and receives the careful and individualized consideration by the governor.”
Shajia Ayobi, 54, has been incarcerated for the past eight years and is held at CIW. She has developed diabetes and recently suffered from kidney and bladder infections.
Ayobi was born in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and says she still has nightly flashbacks after witnessing rocket attacks and the murder of her neighbors during her childhood.
Ayobi fled the Soviet-Afghan war, but the violence followed her. She raised four children in Sacramento, California, and endured constant physical and psychological abuse from her husband, who suffered from complex PTSD from his time in the army, she wrote in one letter from prison. Her young children, she said, became accustomed to hiding kitchen knives from their father, who also threatened her with a gun.
By December 2011, “I believed 100% with all my heart and my bones in my body that my husband was about to commit a murder-suicide and kill all the kids, my poor kids,” she said by phone. A friend who was trying to help her escape the abuse ended up killing her husband. A jury later determined that although Ayobi did not pull the trigger, she was guilty of plotting the murder and sentenced to life.
“There are millions of women like me,” she said. “The separation from my kids, this is the harshest punishment I have received. Because my kids were very vulnerable and they were very young and they needed me.”
My incarceration is nothing for me, because I come from a war-torn country. But separation from my kids, this is the harshest punishment – Shajia Ayobi
Even before Covid, there has been a growing movement to free women such as Ayobi. In a high-profile case, Cyntoia Brown, a teenage trafficking victim sentenced to life in 2006 for killing her abuser, was released after winning celebrity backing. One US government report estimated that between 77-90% of incarcerated women have extensive histories of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
“Being a victim and survivor of domestic violence means that you need an intervention. You need help, you need healing,” said Tomiekia Johnson, 41, in a call last month from the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) near Fresno. “Sending them to prison, to places where anti-rehabilitation is the model, realistically it makes people worse.”
In 2012, Johnson, then a highway patrol officer and Compton resident, was convicted of murdering her husband, and sentenced to life. She testified in court that he had abused her and was physically assaulting her in 2009 when they struggled over a gun.
While white male officers get away with violence, as a black woman, she was not believed, she said: “The system, they look at us differently, they look at us like we’re not victims.”
Survivors of domestic violence need healing, not to be punished for actions you may have taken to save your own life – Tomiekia Johnson
“I can’t help but notice that a lot of people that are getting second opportunities are not black and brown people”, she added.
Johnson won’t be eligible to seek parole until 2039. Ayobi is elegible for parole in 2032.
Sara, Ayobi’s 22-year-old daughter, said her mother never should have been jailed and that she certainly doesn’t deserve a death sentence: “My siblings and I have lacked a sense of justice since her sentencing. I truly believe that not a single person felt justice being served that day when we were separated from our mom.”
Nevaeh, the 13-year-old daughter of Tomiekia Johnson, said she’s cried all her sorrows out. “My mother is rotting in jail. She’s accomplished so much in there. The world needs a person like her out here, and not in there.”