Supporters of jailed civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart rallied in New York and Los Angeles this week, demanding that she be granted a compassionate release and allowed to live out her last days among friends and family. Stewart is serving a 10-year sentence for providing material support for terrorism but suffers from terminal cancer.
Compassionate releases are exceedingly rare, but are in keeping with federal prison policy, which allows authorities to free sick prisoners with fatal diseases.
“She could die with respect and dignity among friends and family, especially her husband. She has been able to get the warden and the regional director to approve and support her release,” said Tom Burke, a member of the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, in an interview with Mint Press News.
Stewart, who is being held at the Carswell federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, suffers from stage four cancer. The latest medical reports show that her cancer has metastasized, spreading to her lymph nodes, shoulder, bones and lungs.
Rethinking federal prison policy
Despite collecting more than 23,000 signatures, a recent petition calling for Stewart’s release was denied by the Federal Bureau of Prisons late last month. It is unclear how much time she has left, but supporters have mobilized in what could be a final attempt to secure her release.
Her husband, Ralph Poynter, joined a protest outside a federal courthouse in New York on Tuesday, reporting on Stewart’s rapidly deteriorating health.
“Lynne is getting sicker by the day. And when I went to see her the Fourth of July, I was afraid I wouldn’t get a chance to visit her because she’s in quarantine. What’s quarantine mean? That means her white blood cell count is so low that it is dangerous for her to be in population. So they (prison bureau) didn’t stop her from visiting me, but she’s still not in population,” Poynter said, according to Democracy Now.
Prison authorities claim that she is receiving the care she needs, but Lynne’s supporters tell a different story.
“Stewart’s trips to physicians involve attempting to walk with 10 pounds of shackles on her wrists and ankles. Stewart has lacked ready access to physicians and specialists. It can take weeks to see a medical provider in prison. When held in the hospital, 73-year-old Lynne Stewart is shackled, wrist and ankle, to the bed,” the Committee to Stop FBI Repression reports in a recent press release.
Stewart is not alone in being denied compassionate release. Human rights organizations have complained that federal prison authorities seldom allow dying prisoners the chance to go home during their final days.
Human Rights Watch reported last year that since 1992, the Bureau of Prisons has averaged only about two dozen motions to the courts for early release each year. The Bureau of Prisons does not keep records of the number of prisoners who seek compassionate release, although there are likely hundreds who could qualify every year out of the 218,000 individuals held in federal prisons.
Congress allows federal courts the authority to release prisoners for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons, such as imminent death or serious incapacitation.
“Clearly the policy is supposed to take place. It has been there for years and they do it for some prisoners. To me they are choosing which policies to enforce,” Burke said.
Now, as the window to free Stewart quickly closes, the urgency increases as supporters plan a demonstration set for Friday in Washington, D.C.
“We don’t have a lot of time. She knows she is going to die. Prison care is nowhere close to the care of doctors in New York City who are willing to help her. I think the next step there has been a petition drive, a push to call Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. I think the next step would be protests in many cities,” Burke said.
Who is Lynne Stewart?
Considerations of a person’s criminal history are not supposed to be weighed in cases of compassionate release, but Stewart’s controversial past could factor into any final decision.
Stewart served as a lawyer representing the poor and those who worked within activist communities.
“Well, my impression is that she is a people’s lawyer. She always stood up for the poor and opposed war,” Burke said.
After passing the New York bar in 1977, Stewart began a career defending impoverished clients and members of activist groups like the Black Panther Party and the Weather Underground. Perhaps her best-known client was Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind Egyptian sheik who is currently serving a life sentence for seditious conspiracy.
Rahman was tried and found guilty using evidence that showed he issued Fatwas calling for attacks against specific targets in the New York City area, including the Lincoln Tunnel, the George Washington Bridge and the United Nations Headquarters.
It is believed that his words inspired attackers to carry out the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, leading to the deaths of six people.
Stewart represented Rahman but was charged with conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism in 2005. The charges stem from evidence that shows Stewart had helped Rahman pass messages to to his followers in al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, which was designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Secretary of State.
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