Coronavirus Florida: Inmate’s life term for cocaine takes on new desperation with COVID diagnosis
On Mother’s Day, Gloria Taylor sent an email to her daughter in Weston.
“(M)y results are back and I am positive,” she wrote. “(A)nyway I’m still living alone because my fever won’t stay down. … They just closed another dorm. I’m leaving it all in the hands of God. He knows best, I love you …”
Taylor, 64, is in her 30th year of a life sentence at Homestead Correctional Institution for trafficking less than four tablespoons of cocaine.
But since the coronavirus pandemic hit Florida, the state prison has become a COVID-19 hotbed. Eighty inmates and two staff members have tested positive and another 325 inmates are in medical quarantine, Florida Department of Corrections records show.
Now, Taylor has the deadly respiratory disease, too. And a decades-long effort by her family to free her has taken on a new urgency.
“I can't let her die in prison," said her daughter, Jemena Taylor, who worries because her mother has underlying health issues. “I’ve been fighting too long and too hard. She needs to come home and see freedom."
Jemena has been leading the fight for her mother’s release, using the #FreeGlo hashtag and arguing the penalty is grossly disproportionate to her nonviolent crime.
Jemena said she is worried that her mother, who spent days this week in the prison infirmary with fevers and diarrhea and is breathing with help from an oxygen tank, isn’t getting proper care.
Jemana stayed in touch with her mother through periodic phone calls and emails, which she shared with The Palm Beach Post.
“No staff has been coming to see me at all," Taylor wrote Monday. “I don’t know how they expect for the oxygen to get better when you don’t have no plugs in here to use the machine. The oxygen tank is older than the prison. And yes my cough is getting worse. I told you it’s as if they said **** me. I’m about to go crazy in here. …"
On Thursday, Taylor’s condition deteriorated and she was transported to an undisclosed hospital, said her attorney, MiAngel Cody.
Even before COVID-19, Taylor’s case shows why Florida needs to reconsider the sentences of inmates long ago jailed for nonviolent crimes, said Cody, founder of The Decarceration Collective, an initiative to eliminate life-without-parole sentences for federal drug offenses.
“What was so shocking is she's doing a life sentence for 56 grams of cocaine, a fistful, and there doesn't seem to be any relief or doors opening for her," said Cody, who took on Taylor’s case last summer.
“Add her health issues, age, length of sentence, it is all a hurricane effect," Cody said. “And now her COVID diagnosis is added to the mountain of reasons why she should be released."
‘Deadbolted into these tinder boxes’
Statewide, 843 inmates and 208 staff members have tested positive in the prison system, with 12 inmates in medical isolation with symptoms. Another 1,673 tests are pending.
Nine inmates have died of COVID-19, state records show.
“We know about Gloria Taylor what we know about every prisoner: They didn't get it from the community. They are deadbolted into these tinder boxes, unseen and unheard," Cody said.
Taylor is at least being heard in emails to her daughter.
“(A) better solution needs to be found as far as this isolation cell," Taylor wrote May 10. “The bed is hard, my back is hurting and this was built for disciplinary inmates. They throw you in here and forget about you. ... I just need out of here!’’
An email earlier this month described the virus’ continued march into the prison.
“Well Jemena,the **** done hit the fan… my dorm is on total quarantine!!!" she wrote May 5. “I’ll know more after the test come back from the person who may possibly have the virus. Meanwhile I’ll pray God keep us safe I love you and lift us up in prayer as well… MoM”
Three days later, Taylor emailed her daughter again.
“Well we all were tested today and now we wait on the results. I’m tired of Bologna, p’nut butter and jelly. I just got a lil appetite back this evening, diarrhea etc. but I am better now. Anyway we’re still not in the clear yet…’’
As of Wednesday, about 60 percent of the test results inside Homestead Correctional were positive. Another 580 tests were pending.
Cody said she has been told by prison officials that Taylor is receiving medical treatment. Even if that’s true, she said, Taylor and other nonviolent prisoners should have a chance to recover away from a prison.
Feds freed Manafort
Taylor wouldn’t be the first prisoner to receive leniency during the pandemic.
Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, was released from prison Wednesday and put in home confinement because of coronavirus risks in the federal corrections system.
Manafort, 71, served about a fourth of his sentence after going into prison in June 2018 for his involvement in two criminal cases resulting from the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 election. He was scheduled for release in November 2024.
As of Wednesday, 2,818 inmates and 262 staffers have been infected with COVID-19 across the federal prison system. Fifty inmates had died. The pandemic has not reached the low-security prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania, where Manafort was held.
Since late March, 2,471 inmates have been designated for home confinement, the Bureau of Prisons said.
If Manafort can get released, Taylor should be able to go free, too, her supporters say.
“We are in the middle of a pandemic and we see people in prison who are being infected at a gasoline-accelerated rate," Cody said. “Does Gloria Taylor really need to be in prison?"
‘She got a raw deal’
No one disputes that Taylor committed a crime.
She was busted in Polk County in 1990 with 56 grams of cocaine — that’s less than 2 ounces or less than four tablespoons — and charged with trafficking, the latest on a rap sheet of drug-related charges dating to the 1970s.
Prosecutors offered Taylor’s public defender a plea deal: The possession counts would be dropped and she would be sentenced to 12 years for trafficking, according to court records.
But the agreement also came with a risk because it called for Taylor to be charged as a habitual felony offender. Although Taylor and her lawyers knew there was a chance she could get life in prison, they were optimistic prosecutors would stick to the terms of their deal calling for a 12-year sentence.
That didn’t happen.
Taylor and her lawyers apparently did not know that recent case law required a life sentence if she was found to be a habitual offender, court records shared by Jemena show.
At her sentencing in March 1991, the prosecutor and judge exercised their discretion to max out her sentence to life.
“At no time were there any discussions in our meetings discussing the plea that she would receive a mandatory life sentence," Austin Maslanik, the assistant public defender at the time, said at her sentencing hearing in 1991.
Appeals filed by Maslanik were denied.
“The problem with Gloria’s case was that it occurred at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic in Polk County," Maslanik, who retired in 2015, said in an interview this week with The Post.
“She had a pretty defenseless case and because of her prior record she was eligible for a life sentence. But what happened was she ended up entering a plea straight up to the judge hoping the judge would give her some benefit of her entering a plea. Unfortunately the judge didn't do that," he said.
“It was a risk we took that was discussed with the client. Unfortunately, she sort of got screwed by the system."
Maslanik said he was contacted by Taylor’s family a few years ago about their efforts to free her. He said they left him with the impression that it was his fault. He suggested they keep fighting.
“If you talk to the family again, tell them I'm very sorry to hear about Gloria having the coronavirus. And I’m sorry she is still in prison. I agree: She got a raw deal. But there’s nothing I can do about it," he said.
Hoping for ‘compassionate relief’
Jemena, 40, said she was a fifth-grader when her mom went to prison.
“My mom never knew she was facing a life sentence," she said. “She sold drugs, yes. She deserved to be punished. But not a life sentence that has kept her away from her children all these years. It’s like I’m serving a life sentence, too."
Inspired by the bond she shares with her own son, now 21, Jemena said she started fighting for her mom only in the past 10 years by launching petitions and talking to anyone who will listen.
“I just saw how she really needed somebody on the outside," she said.
When Rick Scott was governor, Gloria Taylor asked for parole but was denied, Jemena said. In February, Jemena said, she and Cody went to Tallahassee to raise awareness about Gloria Taylor.
Last fall, Jemena attended a speech at Florida International University by Alice Marie Johnson, who had served more than 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to a nonviolent drug tracking offense.
Johnson’s story gained national attention after Trump commuted her sentence June 18 at the urging of Kim Kardashian West, who worked on the case through The Decarceration Collective.
Jemena Taylor met Johnson through Tray Johns, a West Palm Beach activist with two support groups that organized the event, New Florida Majority and Dignity Florida.
“It is time for the government to give some compassionate relief to a woman who has served over 30 years already as a nonviolent offender," said Johns, who fought for a Texas woman who was given clemency in February by Trump.
But Jemena said she is concerned any momentum in the movement to free her mom will be disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I'm afraid my mom will pass away in prison and never see freedom," she said.
As Taylor fights the virus, Jemena has served as an intermediary of sorts for her mother. When Taylor emails her with a complaint, Jemena tries to reach someone at Homestead to give her mother what she needs.
“Jemena, the people have been checking (on) me on a regular basis this time I guess because of you showing up here," Taylor wrote Wednesday.
“(F)eeding me Tylenol and ibuprofen...yes I’m staying hydrated. They should put on face book for how they treated us with this virus bull… take care i love you."
Palm Beach Post researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.