Alabama Denies Parole To Dying 71-Year-Old Black Woman

Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles last week denied medical parole to Leola Harris
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Photo: Alabama Prison

The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles last week denied medical parole to Leola Harris, 71, who uses a wheelchair, relies on dialysis, and is suffering from end stage renal disease, among other life-threatening medical conditions.

The board allotted six minutes to considering whether Ms. Harris had been adequately punished for the 2001 killing of Lennell Norris, an unhoused man she had befriended, when he entered her home, and whether Ms. Harris, who had no prior criminal history, could be released with no threat to public safety after 19 years in prison as a model prisoner.

The board did not allow Ms. Harris to attend the hearing or even see it online. Felicia Hall-Grace, a highly experienced registered nurse and case manager, testified that Ms. Harris should be released to a nursing home due to her severe medical conditions, multiple disabilities, and lengthy stays in the prison infirmary.

The Alabama Department of Corrections certified to the parole board that Ms. Harris met the criteria for medical parole, and there was no victim opposition.

Redemption Earned, a nonprofit led by former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, arranged a nursing home placement for Ms. Harris and two of its attorneys advocated for her release.

But the board denied parole and set off her next hearing for five years.

“Any reasonable person would conclude that 19 years is a sufficient sentence for a 71-year-old woman who is dying in prison,” Justice Cobb wrote. “No one would say that a dying woman, who is confined to a wheelchair, who cannot perform basic personal body functions unassisted, is a danger to the public.” She continued:

This Parole Board not only failed Ms. Leola Harris, but they also failed the taxpayers of the State of Alabama. This denial of medical parole to a wheelchair- bound, weak, and dying woman is an injustice that the people of Alabama ought not accept or be forced to pay for.

The board heard 43 other cases last Tuesday and granted parole to only one person, al.com columnist John Archibald wrote.

Even though overcrowding and understaffing in the state’s prisons has led to conditions so dangerous they violate basic constitutional rights and have prompted a federal lawsuit, the parole board’s grant rates have fallen from a little over half in 2017 to 10% last year, Mr. Archibald wrote.

Alabama’s parole board members are appointed by the governor. Led by former prosecutor Leigh Gwathney, the board has granted parole to just seven out of 106 people over age 60 this fiscal year—and none of the 21 people over age 70 have been granted parole.

The refusal to grant parole where there is clearly no threat to public safety flies in the face of parole guidelines and the recommendations of the board’s own staff, Mr. Archibald reports, observing, “It’s like they want to show they are tough so badly that they hurt us all.”

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