by Richard Prince
The case of the Scott Sisters cannot be said to have instantly captured the attention of the media, Black or white. The two Black Mississippi women have been in prison for 16 years, serving double-life sentences in an $11 armed robbery. The journey from incarcerated invisibility began with a small website, and may yet set the Scott Sisters free.
Media’s “Discovery” of the Scott Sisters
by Richard Prince
This article previously appeared in Richard Prince’s Journal-isms, a publication of the Maynard Institute.
“There are still a lot of people who don't know about this case.”
A black nationalist website was onto the case early. Then there were more websites and the muckraking magazine Mother Jones.
A talk-show voice on CNN, a local black radio station and the syndicated "The Michael Baisden Show" joined the mix, as did the NAACP and the Innocence Project.
The social media sites played their role. And now the "legacy" print media have joined in.
So, will two black Mississippi women, whom so many agree have been unjustly imprisoned, now be freed?
On Sunday, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald became the latest to raise his voice. He wrote:
"Let’s assume that two days before Christmas in 1993, a 22-year-old black woman named Jamie Scott and her pregnant, 19-year-old sister Gladys set up an armed robbery. Let’s assume these single mothers lured two men to a spot outside the tiny town of Forest, Miss., where three teenage boys, using a shotgun the sisters supplied, relieved the men of $11 and sent them on their way, unharmed.
"Assume all of the above is true, and still you must be shocked at the crude brutality of the Scott sisters’ fate. You see, the sisters, neither of whom had a criminal record before this, are still locked away in state prison, having served 16 years of their double-life sentences.
"It bears repeating. Each sister is doing double life for a robbery in which $11 was taken and nobody was hurt. Somewhere, the late Nina Simone is moaning her signature song: Mississippi Goddam."
"For the record, two of the young men who committed the robbery testified against the sisters as a condition of their plea bargain. All three reportedly received two-year sentences and were long ago released. No shotgun or forensic evidence was produced at trial. The sisters have always maintained their innocence.
"Observers are at a loss to explain their grotesquely disproportionate sentence. Early this year, the Jackson Advocate, a weekly newspaper serving the black community in the state capital, interviewed the sisters’ mother, Evelyn Rasco. She described the sentences as payback for her family’s testimony against a corrupt sheriff. According to her, that sheriff’s successor vowed revenge."
“The sisters have always maintained their innocence.”
Lenore J. Daniels added last year on BlackCommentator.com:
"Evelyn Rasco has been fighting for her daughters' release the last 14 years. Rasco lost her husband and an older daughter who died of congenital heart failure in 2001. This daughter left behind a 5 year old child. In these last 14 years, Rasco has tried to be the grandmother and the mother of 10 children (includes grandchildren of Jamie and Gladys) while sustaining the battle to free her two remaining daughters from prison."
Unlike in antebellum Mississippi, some of the accused villains in this saga, in both the prosecution and in law enforcement, are African American.
But that distinction hasn't meant much to Jamie Scott. In August 2009, she posted this message on a website maintained by her family:
"Slavery in Mississippi has changed names. It is still very much active and alive in Mississippi. Its new name is called the LAW! So, if there is anyone out there that thinks this cannot happen to their child or family, think about Gladys and Jamie Scott. We were not criminals nor were we drug addicts. I worked every day. I have a right to be bitter, angry, mad as hell at the United States of America, but I choose not to because I know a higher power and Gladys and I WILL walk the streets again."
Among the sisters' most ardent champions is Nancy R. Lockhart, who came across the sisters' case as a law student working with the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. As a volunteer, Lockhart has dedicated her attention to the Scott sisters' case for the last four years.
"I will never forget the frigid, Chicago morning when I opened a letter from Mrs. Evelyn Rasco, a mother and widow," Lockhart wrote two years ago for BlackCommenator.com. "She told the story of her daughters, and said she had written Rainbow/PUSH for 11 years, without a response. She redirected her strategy this time and wrote Congressman [Jesse] Jackson [Jr.] in a plea to get the letter to his father’s (Rev. [Jesse] Jackson) office. The letter was hand delivered."
Lockhart told Journal-isms on Monday that her piece came to the attention of Rip Daniels, a Realtor who owns WJZD in Gulfport, Miss., via a friend who read the piece in Cuba.
Daniels began publicizing the case on his station. He even urged listeners to write in the names of the sisters in opposition to the reelection bid of the presiding judge in their trial, Marcus Gordon.
“Rip Daniels began publicizing the case on his station.”
The case drew more attention in February after a small crowd gathered outside the state capitol in Jackson to push for the sisters' release.
"At the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF) in Pearl, where Jamie and Gladys are incarcerated, medical services are provided by a private contractor called Wexford, which has been the subject of lawsuits and legislative investigations in several states over inadequate treatment of the inmates in its care. According to Jamie Scott’s family, in the six weeks since her condition became life-threatening, she has endured faulty or missed dialysis sessions, infections, and other complications. She has received no indication that a kidney transplant is being considered as an option, though her sister is a willing donor."
Then, in May, Ridgeway quoted from a letter from Jamie Scott:
"The living condition in quickbed area is not fit for any human to live in. I have been incarcerated for 15 years 6 months now and this is the worst I have ever experience. When it rain out side it rain inside. The zone flood like a river. The rain comes down on our heads and we have to try to get sheets and blankets to try to stop it from wetting our beds and personnel property...I am fully aware that we are in prison, but no one should have to live in such harsh condition. I am paranoid of catching anything because of what I have been going throw with my medical condition."
The case caught the attention of cable television when CNN's Jane Velez-Mitchell used it on March 4 to illustrate the disparities in the criminal justice system. Lockhart posted the video on her website.
National black radio helped. An appeal on the "Michael Baisden Show" for a CAT scan to find the cause of Jamie Scott's headaches prompted listeners to pressure authorities. "She's going blind," Lockhart said of Jamie Scott. The scan was performed, but Scott still does not know the results, Lockhart said.
“Columnist Bob Herbert devoted two columns to the case last month.”
Attention in the New York Times raised the case's profile. Columnist Bob Herbert, who is syndicated, devoted two columns to the case last month.
"This is Mississippi we’re talking about, a place that in many ways has not advanced much beyond the Middle Ages," Herbert wrote. "The right thing to do at this point is to get the sisters out of prison as quickly as possible and ensure that Jamie gets proper medical treatment."
The piece "produced a different level of people who responded," Lockhart said, and their numbers pushed the Facebook support page beyond its limit.
Meanwhile, other writers tried to put the case in a larger context. BlogHer's Nordette Adams wrote, "The high numbers of African-Americans being sent to prison for longer terms than whites committing a similar crime, as was seen in the case of the Jena 6, has prompted research that leads some people to conclude the prison system, with its work programs, has become the agent of "neoslavery."
On the other hand, a Mississippi writer objected to using the case as a slur against his state. "I don't want Mississippi's painful history stricken from the nation's textbooks, and I don't want outsiders to stop trying to effect change in the Magnolia state, if they feel so moved," M. Scott Morris of Tupelo's Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal wrote last month. "But there are a whole lot of sins buried in a whole lot of backyards in this country."
For all the news outlets who have mentioned the Scott sisters case, however, many more have not. Lockhart praises Charles Evers, the civil rights leader who is station manager for WMPR-FM in Jackson, and investigative reporter Kathy Y. Times of WDBD-TV in Jackson, who is also president of the National Association of Black Journalists. But Lockhart can also name media outlets that have not returned telephone calls or have made inquiries but never followed up.
"The media have been very important," she told Journal-isms, but the women are still in prison and at least one is in need of medical attention. Gov. Haley Barbour is weighing a pardon, but that is by no means certain. "We still need a lot of coverage. There are still a lot of people who don't know about this case," Lockhart said. "The media are very much needed in this case. I do not exaggerate when expressing the medical condition that Jamie is in. We need more of a public outcry!"
Eve Conant, newsweek.com:Left Wing: Pardon Me, Governor Barbour
Toure Muhammad, the Final Call: Jailed for $11: Sisters locked up 16 years in Dirty South injustice
News release:1961 Freedom Riders Call For Prisoners' Release
Pamela D. Reed, thedailyvoice.com:Mississippi Goddam: Free the Scott Sisters
James Ridgeway, Mother Jones:Haley Barbour Will Decide the Fate of the Scott Sisters