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Will Obama’s Commutation Allow Grandma Hardy and Thousands of Drug War Prisoners to Finally Go Home?

The Obama administration and the US Sentencing Commission are allowing drug war prisoners to retroactively apply for commutation and reduced sentences. But will these changes actually allow 71-year-old Phyllis Hardy and thousands of others to finally come home?

(Photo: Woodrow Walden)

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Phyllis Hardy turns 71 in September. Instead of celebrating with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she will spend the day in federal prison. This will be her 22nd birthday behind bars.

In 1991, her husband Willy Hardy was sentenced to 15 years for conspiracy to import and sell cocaine. Shortly thereafter, Phyllis Hardy was arrested and charged with conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine and money laundering. She pled not guilty and took her case to trial. She lost and was sentenced to 366 months (30.5 years). At age 49, Hardy entered the federal prison system.

In April, the Obama administration announced it would review the sentences of federal drug war prisoners for possible commutation. The Bureau of Prisons, which operates the federal prison system, sent questionnaires to determine eligibility through CorrLinks, its email provider. However, not every person in federal prison has access to email, which costs 5 cents per minute.

Anthony Saunders is one of those people. In 2004, Saunders was convicted of conspiracy to distribute marijuana and sentenced to 20 years in prison. It was his first arrest. Since then, he has been what the Bureau of Prisons would call a model prisoner. “He’s never gotten a shot [rules violation],” his mother told Truthout. “Not once in 10 years.” Saunders, who will turn 51 this year, does not use CorrLinks. Although the Bureau of Prisons is supposed to inform people using other methods, Saunders did not learn about the possibility of commutation from prison staff. Instead, he received the announcement through an outside newsletter. “That’s how all the guys he knows found out,” his mother said. When she spoke with him by phone, she recalled him asking her, “How are these other people going to know that this [chance at clemency] is available to them? They’re not too concerned about giving them information.”

Aging and Medical Care in Federal Prison

These days, Hardy is known as Grandma to many of the younger women at the federal prison camp at Danbury. Virginia Douglass, who spent 14 years with Hardy, recalled that when a person first entered the prison, Hardy would make sure that she had supplies. “She would go in her locker and share everything she had,” Douglass recalled. “Or she’d take up a collection from the other women so that the new woman wouldn’t be lacking.” She also utilized her years of experience to help others. Douglass recounted Hardy assisting a mother with a child custody case. “Her husband was trying to take her kids,” she explained. “And Grandma was right there- getting her into the law library, helping her write petitions and paperwork. When the woman got out, she got her kids back.”

But as Hardy has aged, her health and mobility have declined. Beatrice Codianni, who spent 15 years in Danbury, remembered noticing Hardy’s decreased mobility, and, despite her best efforts to hide it, her pain. “When she got off her bed, I’d see her wince,” she told Truthout. She also remembered Hardy’s apparent breathing problems. “She didn’t like to talk about her problems,” she recalled. “You’d ask her how she was doing and she’d say, ‘Good, good.’ But you could tell that something was wrong.”

According to women who spent time with Hardy in Danbury, medical care “is nil.” Sandra, who spent six years in Danbury, has a list of horror stories about prison health care from one woman who fractured her ankle, and waited hours to be transported to the hospital, to another woman with a bad gallbladde,r whose complaints were ignored, even when she was vomiting blood. “They asked why I waited so long,” she recalled the woman telling her. “Like I had a choice!”

Even when people receive medical care, prison conditions make it difficult for them to follow the doctor’s instructions. Sandra recalls a woman named Foxy, who was instructed not to stand for five days after she broke her leg. “The hospital wasn’t aware of prison conditions,” Sandra reflected. Because the prison would not provide Foxy with a bedpan, the women used a bowl bought from the prison’s commissary for her to urinate while they lobbied for a bed pan. The bed pan arrived two days later. At the same time, they pressured prison officials to exempt Foxy from the prison requirement that she stand for count. “If you don’t stand for count, you’re in trouble,” Sandra remembered. “The girls had to go in and make waves to get her a pass.” They finally succeeded but, in the meantime, Foxy had to disobey doctor’s orders and stand on her broken leg.

Sandra herself experienced Danbury’s medical care. She recalls blacking out on her way to her prison job. “I was crawling on the floor, my heart was racing, I was sweating, vomiting,” she told Truthout. A prison orderly arrived, but, according to prison rules, was not allowed to touch her. Instead, they waited for the prison’s physician’s assistant, who diagnosed her as dehydrated and sent her to her prison job. The following day, Sandra had another attack, this time at her job. Fortunately, her supervisor took her attack more seriously and brought her to the medical clinic, which recommended sending her to an outside hospital for care. Sandra had to wait a year for approval. “I know firsthand – medical care? None. And poor Phyllis. She’s sick, she can’t even walk. Why can’t you let her go home?”

Medical staff at Danbury advised Hardy to walk the track in the prison’s gym. But to reach the gym, Hardy had to climb down nearly 100 steps. Prison rules prohibit people from remaining in the hallways, so Hardy had no alternative but to painfully maneuver those stairs.

Hardy’s mobility continued to decrease. Even then, she continued to go to her Unicor job every day, manufacturing cables and other equipment for the US military. To get from the housing units to the Unicor factory, women needed to cross a field. During the winter, the field iced over. “It was like a skating rink,” said Andrea James, who spent 18 months at Danbury and is a cofounder of Families for Justice as Healing. “The women would wait for each other and walk across the field together. There was always someone helping Grandma or else she wouldn’t have made it to work, especially not in the winter.”

Fighting for Freedom – and Getting Sent to Texas

In 2011, women at Danbury wrote a letter to President Obama beseeching him to commute her sentence. “She wears a brace on each wrist, a brace on her right knee, and is awaiting a type of cervical spinal surgery, which are just the worse of her many physical ailments,” they said of the 67-year-old Hardy. “We come to you as caring human beings, placing a great hope on your compassion and humanity. She has five years left on her sentence; it could prove to be a life sentence, and no one should be subjected to a life sentence if they were not sentenced to one,” they pleaded. “We are all in prison and we come to you selflessly asking you to free someone else.” They received no response.

BOP regulations state that if a person age 65 or older has served half of her sentence and has a serious or chronic medical condition, she is eligible for early release. If she is 65 or older but does not have a serious or chronic condition, she must serve the greater of either 10 years or seventy-five percent of her sentence before being considered.

In 2013, Danbury officials told Hardy that she had been approved for early release and would be home by Christmas. A federal probation officer even inspected her son’s home in North Carolina where Hardy would live. But then Hardy was transferred to the Federal Medical Center at Carswell in Texas.

Although Carswell is a medical prison, women report inadequate, if not dangerous, care. Codianni, who had been sent to Carswell in 1999 for a hip operation, recalled that staff were overworked and waits were long. After surgery, her wound became infected. She waited a week for antibiotic cream and antibiotics. “People were in pain, and staff didn’t want to give them proper pain medications,” she recalled. “They’d tell them, ‘Wait in line – we’ll try to get approval for medications for you.’ ” She attributes the neglect to the overall culture of the prison environment, not necessarily the individual doctors and nurses.

Lynne Stewart, who spent three years at Carswell, agrees. “There were some wonderful doctors and nurses who went out of their way to do good. But others seemed to be waiting until they could retire. They were terrible.” In 2009, Stewart was sent to prison the week before her scheduled surgery for a tipped bladder. At Carswell, she waited a year and a half to receive approval for surgery. The surgeon later said hers was the worst condition he’d ever seen. “My whole womb was destroyed. It was in shatters. I bled a tremendous amount,” she told Truthout.

But hers wasn’t the worst medical story from those three years. Stewart acknowledges that her celebrity – and the amount of outside support – often resulted in better treatment, although not without a fight. However, other women were nowhere near as fortunate. Two women on the chronic-care unit, where Stewart was housed, died after staff ignored their complaints. One was her roommate Koko. According to Stewart, Koko visited the prison’s clinic complaining of chest pains and indigestion. Medical staff told her to buy Tums from the prison’s commissary, to cut down her caloric intake and to exercise. None of these remedies helped. Koko went again and again; each time she was issued the same instructions. After her last visit, she fainted in the bathroom. “The women ran back into the clinic shouting, ‘Koko’s fainted. Please come help! She’s out! She’s out cold!” But, Stewart said, medical staff were slow in responding. By the time they arrived, Koko was dead.

Another woman, Kiki, began complaining about pain after falling. Medical staff x-rayed her and, finding no fractures or sprains, refused to prescribe medication. Kiki continued to complain; medical staff continued to dismiss her complaints, telling her, “Stop faking. You’re not hurt.” Kiki was then moved to an isolated room in the mental health unit, where she continued to complain. Women who were on that unit later told Stewart that they heard Kiki complaining and the nurse on duty responding by accusing her of faking her pain. They heard Kiki’s complaints until 2 or 3 am. Later that morning, medical staff found Kiki dead.

Willy Hardy, who was released in 2005, told Truthout that his wife recently received her knee operation, but now has bronchitis. While he was able to visit her in Danbury, driving over four hours from his home in Maryland, even bringing two of their 10 grandchildren to meet their grandmother, he has not been able to travel to Texas.

Not Giving Up

The women who formed a community at Danbury – and petitioned the president on her behalf – aren’t planning to allow Grandma Hardy to die in prison. Andrea James has gathered signatures on her behalf. When she and her parents, who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the original March on Washington, went to Washington, DC, for the 50th anniversary, James gathered nearly 2,000 signatures demanding Hardy’s release. Through a petition on RH Reality Check, they gathered another 8,000 signatures. In 2013, James, her husband and the men in Hardy’s family – from Willy Hardy to the couple’s youngest great-grandson, drove to DC to raise awareness about her case at a rally called by the Institute of the Black World, an organization to empower black communities and organizations. “Phyllis Hardy’s family will go anywhere to get her home,” James said. “All I have to do is call and they’re there.” Willy Hardy drove to DC again this past June to represent his wife at the Free Her rally.

On July 2, 2014, Hardy, who does utilize the BOP’s email system, filled out the survey for executive clemency. She requested assistance from a pro-bono attorney via the Clemency Project 2014, a coalition creating a network of attorneys willing to process clemency applications. But the process will be slow. Currently, attorneys are still being trained.

On July 18, 2014, the US Sentencing Commission voted to allow federal drug war prisoners to retroactively apply for reduced sentences, predicting this would affect over 46,000 people. Congress has until November 1 to disapprove the drug guidelines amendment. However, the Commission has ruled that no one will be released before November 2015, after judges determine each person’s individual petition.

In the meantime, Phyllis Hardy remains in prison. So does Anthony Saunders, who has also filled out a Clemency Project survey. In the meantime, his family and friends send letters each week to the pardon attorney and the president. “Our parents are getting older and are heartbroken. My father can no longer travel from New Hampshire to Minnesota,” his brother wrote in one letter. “Our whole family is suffering. Please allow my brother to come home.” If Saunders’ petition for clemency is denied, he won’t be able to rejoin his family for another eight-and-a-half years.

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