A Woman’s Fight to Get Her Terminally Ill Sister Out of Prison During the Pandemic
California Governor Gavin Newsom said he’s releasing thousands of prisoners. But that doesn’t necessarily include some of the state’s sickest patients.
Chantel Bonet has always adored her older sister Patricia Wright. Bonet says her sister protected her in elementary and middle school, keeping the bullies away on the playground. When Bonet was 18 and her wig fell off in front of her boyfriend, she was mortified, but Wright made a joke out of it—a small but important gesture to a shy, sensitive teenager. “My boyfriend had no idea that I even wore a wig, so Patricia went in the house, put on a wig and pulled it off in front of my boyfriend to ease my heartache and embarrassment,” says Bonet, noting that they still “often laugh” about the incident decades later.
A few years ago, Bonet moved from Arizona to Southern California to be closer to Wright, who is now 68. Bonet said she felt it was now time for her to step in and offer guidance and protection to her aging sister. Ever since Wright was diagnosed with an eye disease as a teenager, making her legally blind, she’s had health problems. The list is now longer than Bonet can easily remember. It includes hypertension, chronic kidney disease, asthma, and cancer. Wright battled breast and ovarian cancer a decade ago, Bonet said, and both have now resurfaced. She was also diagnosed with liver cancer in February. A letter from her doctor says Wright probably has six months to a year to live.
As of now, that time will be spent in prison. Wright is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona for the murder of her husband, something she has denied having any involvement with ever since she was convicted in 1998.
While Governor Gavin Newsom announced in March that thousands of prisoners would be released early because of COVID-19, those on the list were low-level offenders who were already set to go home soon. People incarcerated for more serious crimes, like Wright, are not being considered, regardless of their age or health status. And although compassionate release can be requested in exceptional circumstances, including poor health, the option is not available to those serving life without the possibility of parole.
In general, the commutation process for the sentence is extremely difficult. An incarcerated person given life without the possibility of parole has to put in an application for commutation with the governor’s office, which can sit for years before being reviewed. The governor can then commute the sentence to whatever he would like—life with possibility of parole, 10-to-life, 25-to-life, time served, or even pardon the person completely. In most cases, the person gets life with possibility of parole. Then, the parole board still needs to consider whether they will be released and when. The multi-step process can take years, with people remaining behind bars months after they have received a commutation.
The hurdles mean that life without possibility of parole sentences are “really no different than the death penalty,” says Wright’s lawyer, Laura Sheppard, who has represented dozens of people with these sentences. “You’re sending them to prison without any glimmer of hope that they’ll be rehabilitated.”
Over 5,000 people are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in California, according to the most recent data available. Under former Governor Jerry Brown, 146 people serving life without the possibility of parole saw their sentence commuted, but less than 50 percent have since been released, according to Candace Chavez-Wilson, a longtime advocate for people sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Under Newsom’s tenure, 16 have been commuted thus far.
Spurred by her sister’s ailing health, Bonet is up for the extraordinary hustle a commutation request requires. Until the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation stopped in-person visits because of COVID-19 social distancing measures, Bonet visited her sister every Saturday and Sunday. Each week she witnessed her rapid decline. “This is the thinnest I’ve ever seen my sister in my life,” she says. “She weighs around 90 pounds, she uses a wheelchair. She is very sick.” Bonet is worried that one of two things will happen: either Wright will get COVID-19 and die, or the restrictions will remain in place for months, giving the cancer time to prevail. Both would mean Wright dies without her family around her; right now, visitors are not let in under any circumstances, even for a final hug goodbye.
Bonet says she feels “an urgency, I have to do something every day,” adding, “when you got a doctor tell you your sister’s got six months to live, you don’t just go to sleep.” She calls Governor Newsom’s office regularly, listing off Wright’s commutation application number by heart, reminding them that she is still inside, waiting. She also provides more information to ramp up the pressure, like letters from Wright’s doctors. “I start each email with ‘my sister does not have long to live,’” she says.
Bonet also sends information to the governor’s office about all the classes Wright has taken in prison and the awards she has received. She passes along recommendation letters from those who know Wright at CIW, like Rabbi Moshe Halfon, the Jewish chaplain. In a letter to Governor Newsom written in February, Halfron notes that Wright is considered a “loving mother figure” and a “kind, sweet woman” by many other prisoners. Bonet calls elected officials, reminding them that she’s their constituent, and asking them to reach out to the governor on behalf of a dying woman trapped in prison during a global pandemic. Wright’s family first launched a Change.org petition for her in 2011. In the latest version, they write, “We call on Governor Newsom to show mercy and compassion to Patricia by granting her request for commutation and immediate release, allowing her to spend her remaining months with her loving family.”
Bonet is an old hand at this by now. Wright first filed for commutation in 2011, under Governor Jerry Brown. The family had support from the NAACP’s California State Conference, who in 2011 noted that the “governor’s office has expressed interest” in her case. Wright’s family has also worked with the Innocence Project. Sheppard, Wright’s current lawyer, said that the Project tried to track down DNA related to her husband’s murder, but that this was fruitless because, she said, it had been destroyed by the Los Angeles Police Department.
Wright’s case is even more complicated than most. That’s because she has two prior felonies on her record. State law requires that anyone with two or more previous felonies not only receive permission for commutation from the governor, but from four State Supreme Court justices, too.
Wright’s felonies date back to 1989. She had just divorced her third husband and was struggling, living with her kids on the street. One afternoon, Wright visited a model home in Riverside County with her 7-year-old son. She snuck a few towels into her purse, and her son, without her seeing, stuffed a toy spider and wooden cart in his pocket. In 2011, he told the San Francisco Bay View newspaper that he remembers doing this, and remembers her being arrested.
Wright was embarrassed by the whole affair—Bonet says the family didn’t know that she was homeless—and just wanted it over with. So she pleaded guilty when her public defender suggested that may be the best way to ensure she could receive probation and stay with her children.
She avoided jail, but Wright was left with two felonies for second-degree burglary on her record. Because of a change in California state law, “if she were to be tried for that today, it would be a misdemeanor,” says Sheppard.
The incident only became a problem when the LAPD reopened her husband’s 1981 murder case in 1995, 14 years after it happened. Then police questioned Wright after a few people told them that she hired someone to kill her husband so she could get his life insurance money. Those statements were later recanted, and his doctor later wrote a note saying that her husband was chronically ill and most likely going to die anyway, thus nullifying the motive.
Wright pleaded not guilty and has maintained that she is innocent. She was convicted in 1998 and appealed her conviction in 2000. Her appeal was rejected, making commutation her only avenue for release.
Sheppard says Wright’s case is unique. “Most folks who are sentenced to LWOP are guilty on some level,” she said. “They may be over-sentenced, but they’re guilty.” But Wright “didn’t get a fair trial and her conviction was not righteous,” Sheppard said, pointing out that the murder weapon had been destroyed, and Wright’s brother and neighbor had both recanted. “There’s nothing reliable about this conviction. [The evidence was] completely circumstantial.”
But now that Wright has been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for murder, those 1989 felonies matter—a lot. In 2018, Bonet heard from the California Parole Board investigator that Governor Brown asked him to look into her sister’s case, a first step toward commutation. But given Wright’s previous record, the state Supreme Court needed to get on board, and everything hung in limbo.
And then Brown left office.
“If she wasn’t homeless and didn’t take these two washcloths, Governor Brown would have released her. That’s what’s kept her from 2011 onwards,” Bonet said. “I have been fighting these two felonies with the washcloths, for nine years.”
Bonet initially didn’t realize that she had to file a new application for commutation under Governor Gavin Newsom; she did in June 2019. Now, the process has to start over, and the felonies still stand in the way.
When Bonet realized that a few towels and toys were keeping her sister behind bars, the family asked the judge at the Riverside County court, where Wright was tried for the theft decades before, to reduce the felonies to misdemeanors. That request was denied. The family asked for the sentences to be reduced under Proposition 47, which reclassified some small thefts into misdemeanors. Also denied. Last year, the family approached the Riverside County district attorney about resentencing. Denied. Without this, Newsom will still have to ask the Supreme Court to issue a favorable consideration before anything goes forward.
Still, Bonet says she’s “hopeful.” In March, Newsom commuted and pardoned dozens of prisoners, including a few who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The same month, Bonet was asked by Newsom’s office to send in medical records, which she considered a “good sign.”
Bonet is making plans for her sister to get out. She has found a few organizations that would be willing to help her reintegrate and provide short-term housing, or, Bonet says, she could get a bigger house so that Wright could spend her last few months with her loved ones.
Writing from prison, Wright said the challenges of incarceration have brought her closer to her family. “I HAVE 5 CHILDREN WHICH I CALL MY FIVE HEARTBEATS, MY EIGHT GRANDCHILDREN AND A FULL HOST OF OTHER RELATIVES THAT ARE JUST WAITING ON ME TO GET HOME!
“THE HARDEST PART ABOUT BEING IN PRISON IS THE SEPARATION FROM MY CHILDREN AND FAMILY. ITS JUST THE WORSE THING IN THE WORLD. MY CHILDREN GROWING UP WITHOUT ME HAS CAUSED ME TREMENDOUS PAIN OVER THESE YEARS,” she added.
“NOT HAVING VISITS FROM MY FAMILY RIGHT NOW HAS GIVEN ME BROKEN HEART SYNDROME. I CRY A LOT AND IM SUFFERING FROM LONELINESS.”
In April, Sheppard filed an amendment to Wright’s commutation application with more detailed medical and legal information, noting that Wright has been a model prisoner for decades. “How the hell is she serving life without parole?” says Sheppard. “She’s 68, she’s blind, she walks with a walker, she’s not a threat to society by any means.” Sheppard is asking Newsom to commute Wright’s sentence to time served, so that she can be released immediately after commutation. Alternatively, Sheppard hopes Newsom will at least commute Wright’s sentence to be parole eligible so that she can start the parole hearing process, which will take a minimum of about 10 months. The new sentence would also allow Wright to apply for compassionate release because of her terminal illness.
But Sheppard notes that “it could be next week or in a year that [Newsom] looks at” the commutation application. And Wright’s clock is ticking. At CIW, she’s in a ward for elderly people, in a room by herself, but the chemo she gets every other Monday is hard on her immune system. Even though everyone has to wear masks, Wright says they barely have enough cleaning supplies for their unit.
Thus far, five prisoners have tested positive for the novel coronavirus at CIW, where Wright is incarcerated; one has recovered. Only 32 people incarcerated in the facility have been tested.
On Friday, Wright said that someone in her unit had tested positive and had been hospitalized. “WE ARE NOW UNDER FULL [QUARANTINE] FOR THE NEXT 14 DAYS AND OUR MEALS ARE BEING DELIVERED TO US, OUR MEDICATION IS BEING DELIVERED TO US, WE ARE NOT ALLOWED TO LEAVE THE BUILDING AT ALL, DEPENDING ON STAFF WE MAY GET TO COME OUT FOR PHONES AND KIOSK USAGE.”
Wright had already been feeling desperate. On April 18, she wrote to The Appeal, describing the conditions in the prison. She ended with, “PLEASE TELL MY ATTORNEY TO [H]URRY UP AND GET ME…A COMMUTATION…I DONT WANT TO DIE HERE IN PRISON.”