Patricia Wright, a 69-year-old cancer patient and inmate, was released from prison Tuesday morning. Wright was granted an emergency release by California Governor Gavin Newsom amidst the pandemic.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for 23 years, it is really indescribable,” said Wright. “Oh my God! I’m walking on cloud nine … I just want to sit down at the table with my family and embrace my children.”
Advocates and family members have been pushing for Wright’s release for years, but COVID-19 made the matter all the more urgent. Wright has had breast and ovarian cancer and is legally blind. She is currently undergoing chemotherapy, and doctors have said she has only months left to live.
On Friday, advisors to Governor Newsom announced that the state would be expediting the release of up to 8,000 incarcerated people. Those eligible would include incarcerated people over 30 who have less than 180 days left on their sentence. The goal of this initiative is to create more space in prisons and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in California prisons – which has already infected over 5,841 incarcerated people and caused the deaths of 31. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the United States could see up to 100,000 more deaths due to mass incarceration. This is because “the two things the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommends for Americans to fight the virus – social distancing and personal hygiene – are both impossible in jails.”
Wright is only one of many elderly and vulnerable people incarcerated in California but is the first to be granted emergency release by Governor Newsom. The Governor has been hesitant to release people serving time for “violent” or “serious” offenses – even those who are at a high risk of dying due to the pandemic. According to advocates, there are at least 5,000 people incarcerated in California who are 65 years and older and at least 50,000 who have conditions that make them high-risk. Under the new initiative announced Friday, Wright would not have been eligible for release.
Chantel Bonet, Wright’s sister, said of the Governor: “I hope he will look at other inmates who are terminally ill, especially the elderly. You don’t know how meaningful it would be to help them and their families. And they are not a threat to society.”
On her release day, Patricia Wright was wheeled out to cheers of “you’re free!” Family members from across the country, including a granddaughter who had only ever known her grandmother behind bars, greeted her outside.
“We built a relationship over 20-plus years behind prison walls and over 15-minute phone calls,” said Wright’s daughter, Mistey Saffore. “In some ways, I still feel like I’m that 12-year-old little girl when my mom went to prison. I’m ready to just be in her presence.”
Sources: The Guardian 07/23, Feminist Newswire 07/23, Los Angeles Times 07/23, NPR 07/23