Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Scott Sisters Won’t Get Pardoned by Gov. Haley Barbour

by Dr. Boyce Watkins, Syracuse University – Scholarship in Action 

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has stated that he has no plans to pardon Jamie and Gladys Scott.  When he was asked if he planned to pardon the sisters after releasing them from prison, Barbour told the Associated Press, "Tell 'em don't save any space in the newspaper for that to be announced."

Jamie and Gladys Scott were recently released after being incarcerated for an armed robbery that netted just $11 back in 1994.  The sisters were released on the condition that Gladys donate her kidney to Jamie, who has been diagnosed with kidney failure.  Gov. Barbour likely chose to release the sisters to alleviate some of the pressure he’d received for sounding like the racially-divisive political figure that he actually is.  Many of his comments about President Obama and black people in general made him sound exactly like the kind of man who’d be elected governor of a state like Mississippi.

When I think about the Scott Sisters, a couple of things come to mind:  First, I am confused as to why the state won’t pay for the kidney transplant.  The horrible conditions of the prisons in Mississippi are part of the reason that Jamie was sick in the first place.  The state should be covering the cost of this operation.

My second question is why the world felt that freeing the Scott Sisters was more meaningful than it actually was.  First, there’s no evidence that they were actually innocent of the crime for which they were convicted.  I must confess that the $11 was less  of a concern for me than the fact that the crime was violent.  This is not, in any way, a defense of the Mississippi criminal justice system, which is barely a step away from slavery.  But it does make me wonder if the Scott Sisters case was a matter of the squeaky issue getting the Civil Rights oil.  I also doubt the nation would have felt such sympathy for the case if they were the “Scott brothers” instead.

A case that got my attention to a greater degree was that of Rodney K. Stanberry.  Rodney has been in prison for well over a decade for a murder that I am firmly convinced that he did not commit.  Not only is there an abundance of reasonable doubt in his case, but one could even go beyond the standard legal expectation and actually prove that he was innocent.  Personally, our energy would be just as well spent fighting for men like Stanberry as it is arguing that the Scott Sisters’ punishment was extraordinarily harsh.  I am in agreement with the decision to free the Scott Sisters, but this case is hardly the greatest Civil Rights violation occurring in the United States right now, and the benefits of their exoneration don’t go beyond the Scott family itself.

The final thought that goes through my head is that both the cases of the Scott Sisters and that of Rodney K. Stanberry are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems with our nation’s criminal justice system.  My email and mailbox are filled with cases in which people of color have been denied the basic necessities of equal justice because they couldn’t afford a good attorney or were victims of lazy police work.  Perhaps it’s time that we as a community start pushing our elected officials and civil rights leaders to make mass incarceration a top priority of the 21th century.   If we keep celebrating small victories and don’t start pushing for systemic change, there will be hundreds of thousands of Scott Sisters cases to occur in the future.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.


  1. Dr. Watkins, I agree that we need to use these opportunities and other to make a systemic change. Until we are at the table helping to plan the menu, we will always be relegated to accepting what is dished out. I am from Mississippi and now live in Florida, where the new Governor, Rick Scott, and his Republican syndicate has decided to over turn every possible piece of legislation that remotely gives anybody a right to do anything. The latest on the prison system is making sure that people who have paid their debt to society, will have to wait an ungodly amount of time before their rights are restored, if at all. One of the most important things that I have to do going forward is make sure that I do everything in my power to get out the vote in the 2012 election,re-elect President Obama and hopefully remove some of the legislators who have forgotten how they were put there. It's time for us to clean the slate here in Florida and in Mississippi.

  2. Dr. Watkins I am a female residing in California and unfortunately I have been incarcerated in the past. I am well aware of the many challenges inmates face when they have a medical problem. If the medical staff at the correctional facility cannot provide adequate medical care to Jamie, well Jamie should definitely be given a compassionate release. This is a care and concern which should be addressed. I am pretty sure Jamie and Gladys regret, and are very remorseful for the crime they committed on that day in 1994.

  3. We need to take action as a people and stop this type of behavior he needs to be out of office. It's time for a change in Mississippi...

  4. I really don't understand the hoopla about who is paying for the transplant. Our government picks up the tab for transplants, not the local or state. Just like any monies that went out for the one sister's dialysis was picked up by the US. Please, too many of our brothers & sisters have either CKD or ESRD for so many not to know more about this matter. Better get educated before you become the next renal patient.