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Parole Reform Might Have Freed Maryland’s Longest-Serving Incarcerated Woman. Instead, She Was Hospitalized With COVID-19.

Eraina Pretty has served 42 years in prison in connection with a 1978 store robbery. A new law that might have led to her release has been derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eraina Pretty in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Kecha Dunn

At age 60, Eraina Pretty is Maryland’s longest-serving incarcerated woman. She has been recommended twice for parole; both times, governors have denied her release. A new law poised to pass this year likely would have freed her after 42 years in prison, but on April 23, before the state Senate could take up a vote, she was hospitalized with COVID-19.  

Maryland’s parole process for people serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole, like Pretty, is long and arduous. In 2008, parole commissioners first recommended her for parole after she completed a required risk assessment and psychological evaluation. She waited three years for the governor’s decision; in 2011, then-Governor Martin O’Malley denied her parole. In 2015, the commission once again recommended her for parole; this time, she waited four years before receiving a denial from Governor Larry Hogan

In February, legislators introduced House Bill 1219, which would have precluded the governor from making parole decisions for those serving life sentences. The bill had been introduced during the past 10 legislative sessions. This year, it passed with a veto-proof majority in the House and, according to Lila Meadows, an attorney at the University of Maryland Law School’s Gender Violence Clinic, would have had enough votes to pass in the Senate. Then COVID-19 prematurely stopped the legislative session.  

“If a sentence with parole is meaningful in any way, it has to be that when you have held up your end of the bargain and did all the things the system has asked you to do … you get returned to society. If that doesn’t happen, parole sentences are completely meaningless,” Pretty’s attorney, Leigh Goodmark of the University of Maryland Law School’s Gender Violence Clinic, told The Appeal.   

In 1978, Pretty, then 18, was in a relationship with an increasingly controlling and abusive man named Ronald Brown. On April 6, 1978, Brown ordered her to participate in a store robbery. Pretty had recently stopped working at the store; Brown told her that, since the store owner knew her, he would unlock the backroom, allowing Brown and his friend to rob them. During the robbery, Brown fatally shot the owner. All three were arrested. On the advice of her attorney and facing the death penalty, Pretty pleaded guilty to first-degree murder with the assumption that a sentence of life with the possibility of parole would entail serving 20 to 25 years in prison.

Over the past 42 years, Pretty has watched her daughter Kecha Dunn, and now her three grandchildren, grow from toddlers to adults through prison visits. She completed her bachelor’s degree, participated in a variety of self-help and counseling groups, and mentored numerous other women. Still, none of these achievements prevailed during the parole process.

Rudeara Bailey has been through that same process four times. In 1989, Bailey, then 33, entered prison and met Pretty shortly after. Bailey was bitter and angry about her life sentence. “She told me to do the time and not let the time do me,” Bailey told The Appeal. Though a few years younger, Pretty became a mentor, encouraging Bailey to participate in prison programming and, at times, even talking her out of fighting.

Bailey was paroled in 2019—the same year that Pretty’s parole was denied. “She was genuinely happy for me,” Bailey recalled. 

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services does not notify family when people in custody are transferred to the hospital. Instead, Dunn learned about her mother’s hospitalization through another incarcerated woman’s family member. Dunn immediately called the prison and, for two days, was repeatedly told that the prison did not give out information. Three days later, the warden called, confirming that Pretty had been hospitalized for COVID-19. 

On May 15, shortly after speaking with The Appeal, Dunn received a call from her mother, who had been returned to the prison. Still, she’s concerned about her mother’s health and the possibility that she might contract COVID-19 again, this time fatally. 

In April, as Maryland prisons had already confirmed 136 cases and one death, Hogan signed an executive order expediting the release of those scheduled to be released within 120 days. The order also accelerated parole hearings for those over age 60 who had not been convicted of violent crimes, which excludes Pretty. Hogan’s office did not respond to The Appeal’s request for comment. 

The Maryland Correctional Institution for Women had 52 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Monday. In response to inquiries about Pretty’s care or measures taken to prevent COVID-19 spread in the prison, the Department told The Appeal, “The women’s prison, like others across our system, has a medical infirmary.” 

Pretty is not the only person whose chances for freedom have been stymied by the actions of a governor. In Louisiana, Gloria Williams, the state’s longest-serving incarcerated woman, was awaiting Governor John Bel Edwards’s decision on her commutation when she contracted the novel coronavirus and was hospitalized. In early March, Indiana advocates called on Governor Eric Holcomb to preemptively release aging people from prison, including the state’s longest-serving incarcerated woman, 62-year-old Sarah “Cindy” White, sentenced to life as a teenager in 1976. Holcomb did not; White contracted and was hospitalized for COVID-19

In North Carolina, COVID-19 claimed the life of Faye Brown, who was serving a life sentence in connection with a 1975 robbery in which her co-defendant fatally shot a state trooper. Brown came close to gaining her freedom in 2009 after the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of a man who argued that credits for good behavior should be applied toward his sentence. That opened the door for others like him, including Brown, to argue the same. She walked as far as the prison parking lot before then-Governor Beverly Perdue stopped the release of anyone convicted of murder, rape, or assault. Brown died at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women on May 6.

Goodmark and Meadows are trying to avoid a similar fate for Pretty. Three days after her hospitalization, they filed an emergency petition for commutation; they have yet to receive a response. On Wednesday, 56 members of the Maryland House of Delegates sent a letter to Hogan urging him to commute Pretty’s sentence and allow her immediate release.

In her advocacy efforts, Meadows has heard counterarguments that the governor can be trusted to do the right thing when considering parole. But, she told The Appeal, “it’s been 12 years since Eraina Pretty was first recommended for parole. In those 12 years, no governor has done the right thing and now she has COVID. If we can’t trust the governor to do the right thing for Eraina Pretty and for other people who are at tremendous risk [from COVID-19] and who pose no risk to public safety, if we can’t trust him during a pandemic, then I’m not sure we can trust him at all. This is why parole reform is so important in this moment.”