NEW HAVEN >> The family of a 31-year-old city man who is terminally ill with cancer while serving a 7-year prison sentence for selling narcotics, is fighting to get him an early release from Department of Correction custody so he can be home with family in his final weeks or months.
But even with a doctor’s promised recommendation for the release, Jesse Cherry’s family is worried bureaucratic red tape they say they know so well could hold it up until it’s too late. They also claim the DOC has botched Cherry’s treatment and pain management from the start.
A DOC spokeswoman said she cannot comment on specific cases because of privacy laws.
Late last week, after the Register inquired about the case, Cherry was moved from Osborn Correctional Facility in Somers to University of Connecticut Health Center, where family members say he arrived dehydrated; a doctor from the center told the family Monday that Cherry could have anywhere from two weeks to a year to live.
Cherry has stage four pancreatic cancer that has metastasized to his liver and elsewhere. He also has a strong family network and a determined fiancée, who allege Cherry was ignored often by corrections officers when writhing in pain in his cell, was not given chemo medication according to the treatment schedule and essentially was kept from the direct support of his family by rules such as no hospital visitors unless the stay is more than 30 days, his loved ones say.
“They should take better care of the inmates regardless of what they’ve done,” said Cherry’s aunt,Pastor Brenda Adkins of New Haven, noting there was no violence connected with her nephew’s charges. “Whatever you are, you’re still human and you don’t deserve to be treated that way.”
Extremely ill inmates have two options for early release through the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles: a compassionate release or a medical release, and each carries with it requirements, including those which have to do with the type of crime — violent or nonviolent — and time already served, said bureau Executive Director Richard Sparaco.
Although the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles had not yet received an application for Jesse Cherry as of Monday afternoon, Sparaco said based on time served and other specifics of Jesse Cherry’s case, with a medical recommendation, he could eligible for a medical release, but not a compassionate release because his parole eligibility won’t come until May 2017. For a medical release, a doctor must provide information that the inmate has six months or less to live, he said.
He said the board must meet to approve such a release, but that can be done quickly, as it has been known to call a special meeting in dire cases.
Adkins said she finally was told Monday by a caring doctor at UConn who has been treating her nephew that the doctor will support release so he can be with family.
Cherry, who according to the DOC website is a repeat offender, began serving the sentence on a sale of narcotics conviction in December 2013 and became ill months into his sentence, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after months of complaining about pain. Cherry’s fiancee, Tanya Howlett of West Haven, claims they ignored his symptoms until he passed out.
His mother, Ruth Cherry, is heartbroken that her only son has had to go through such an ordeal by himself at his age.
Ruth Cherry said she’s tried for months to get updates, information and more from DOC officials, but there has been no response — just bureaucratic roadblocks.
“He’s dealing with all this on his own. … I pray that he’ll be moved closer to family,” Ruth Cherry said. “I know he has to pay for his crime, but he didn’t kill anybody and he’s not a bad kid — he just got mixed up with the wrong people.”
Karen Martucci, acting director of the External Affairs Division of the Department of Correction, said there are no early releases under the control of the DOC.
She said it is difficult to address individual inmate medical cases publicly because of privacy laws, but that Jesse Cherry’s medical needs “are being met,” and that Osborn Correctional Institution has “the ability to provide a high level of health care within their infirmary setting.” She said it is not uncommon for an offender to receive treatment at an outside hospital if the facility cannot meet their needs.
In response to the family’s claims that they weren’t receiving adequate information on Jesse Cherry’s condition, Martucci said in an email late last week that she asked the medical staff to reach out to the family, assuming all the proper releases were signed. The family received information on Jesse Cherry’s condition after that time.
Upon request, Martucci provided statistics for the number of deaths that occur in DOC custody, noting, “factors that impact these stats are our aging population and the medical challenges associated with the large amount of the population struggling with addiction.”
Martucci said the incarcerated population on any given day exceeds 16,000.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Deaths in Custody Reporting Program, she said in Connecticut there were 21 deaths in 2010, 19 in 2011, 24 in 2012, 20 in 2013 and 24 in 2014.
Jesse Cherry’s sister, Ruthella Cherry, 35 — who also said she understands “you do the crime, you do the time” — believes more could have been done to help her brother before the situation got this bad.
“He’s going through a lot and he has no support system,” because he’s so far from family, she said. Now he is hospitalized and receiving pain care, but Ruthella Cherry said when she spoke with him from prison he’d gone days without chemo treatment medication and pain management, saying, “I’m very fearful for him.”
Howlett said Cherry has been a model prisoner.
Early last week she wrote a letter appealing to the warden, governor, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp and others to get Cherry an early release, but still no response.
That was before Howlett got the news Monday of the prognosis.
Howlett, who is in the nursing field herself, pleads in her letter for early release so he can be treated at Smilow Cancer Hospital, but Adkins said UConn doctors already assured her they consulted Smilow and at this point, nothing can be done.
Howlett said on some days in the last year her fiance had hope, while on others, none. She and family members say he doesn’t call when he’s suffering the worst because he’s unable to make the call or when he was back at the prison, unable to even stand up to make the call.
Ruthella Cherry said her younger brother is a good person overall who has made “a few bad decisions.”
Adkins said she was told her nephew was told by correction officers to “man up” while he was writhing in pain in his cell, pleading for pain medication.
“How is someone supposed to man up when they’re 31 and in the fight of their life?” she asked.
She said for months he’s been in and out of UConn, as well as the prison infirmary, but was first given wrong information about his condition and no one from the prison would answer the family’s question.
Adkins said workers in the prison infirmary hung up on family members when they called to check his condition and they couldn’t get information on his condition or treatment in order to act as his advocate on the outside.
“To me it’s a sad story,” Adkins said. “It’s been really tough on the family.”
She said Cherry’s lost at least 22 pounds since July 1.
Howlett described Jesse Cherry as a generally happy man with a dimpled smile who loves life. She said he’s friendly and goes out of his way to help other people. He also has three children to care for — two teenagers and a 4-year-old, she said. He had high hopes for making a career for himself by age 35, she said. Howlett said that while imprisoned, Jesse Cherry has renewed the religious faith with which he was raised.
“It’s hard for me because I can hear it (the pain) in his voice,” she said. “There were days (before recent hospitalization, when in jail) he was balled up in a fetal position and couldn’t get medication or get to the hospital.”
Howlett said she’s been keeping careful notes of his experiences and treatment by DOC staff.
The fight, Howlett said, “Isn’t just for him, but for other inmates who have no family.
“Prison is not supposed to be a fun thing, but they shouldn’t be treated in ways unbecoming a man,” she said.
Relatives say the only way they know he’s really bad off is if he doesn’t call. She has to encourage him not to give up — remind him that he has a fighting chance and three children to fight for.
“The worst part for me is I’m on the support team, I’m there for him, but I’m not there physically,” she said. “It’s sad he has to go through it alone — some days he can’t eat.”
Via New Haven Register