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Death Penalty for a Fifty Dollar Crack Deal

Robert Rowry, affectionately known as “Wolf“ or “Oil Can“, in later years “Cotton Top“, self-declared “Last Mountain Man“ and “Tactitioner“, was born on May 4, 1954. Robert was a free spirit, a volcano of energy, highly intelligent, well liked, respected and appreciated for his ever present willingness to help and his compassion for the plight of others, always in high demand for his excellent work as a mechanic. A gifted, self-taught percussionist, Robert performed with Albert King, a famous blues artist, and many local bands from the mid-1970s until the mid-1980s, when decades of deliberate political and economic neglect and the ‘War on Drugs‘ took a toll not only on his decaying neighborhood but also on him. Robert was not a perfect human being, none of us are. He had a drug problem. Incarcerated from 2003 to 2008 and again in 2011, Robert died shackled and chained to a bed in a community hospital as a prisoner, nine days after denial of medical parole – a fate he did not deserve.

Robert represents hundreds of thousands of black men in the U.S. who were railroaded to prison during decades of the ‘War on Drugs‘, when police and prosecution tactics such as racial profiling, intense surveillance with targeted arrests through ‚buy-and-bust‘ and stop-and-frisk‘ methods were increasingly used to gentrify formerly neglected, disadvantaged, mostly black urban area slated for re-development. The ‘War on drugs‘ disproportionally targeted African Americans despite surveys showing that they are no more likely to use and sell drugs than whites. Representing about 12% of the population, Blacks constitute 33% of all drug arrests and 50% of those serving time in state prison for drug offenses.

Tough sentencing laws and policies, specifically ‘three strikes‘ and other ‘habitual offender’ laws, stiff mandatory minimums enacted under the Clinton Administration to name a few, as well as the disparity of 100:1 in cocaine penalties (crack vs. powder, only recently reduced to 18:1 by the Obama Administration), have blackmailed generations of non-violent drug offenders like Robert into accepting plea bargains that result in long prison terms and render legal counsel virtually powerless. (1)

Robert’s experience shows the crucial and powerful role parole officers play in the judicial process and regarding a parolee‘s success or failure. It also reveals how being black poses a severe disadvantage from start to end, since state prisons are almost exclusively located in struggling white, rural areas where prejudice and racial bias still prevail. Institutional decisions that determine a prisoner’s daily life as well as his ultimate fate – disciplinary measures, access to programs, prison jobs and leisure activities, treatment outcomes, medical and psychiatric care, granting of parole – are often guided by attitudes that are at best ignorant and culturally incompetent, at worst openly arbitrary and racist. Furthermore, Robert’s exposure to drug treatments in prison shows the ineffectiveness of boot-camp style programs whose focus is obedience and subordination, rather than empowerment through healing and personality enhancement in order to rehabilitate. That’s why, despite what was institutionally viewed as several opportunities to ‘better himself’, Robert never stood a chance.

As the Missouri Department of Corrections covert policy is to not release any offender on medical parole, instead intends to expand hospice care within its fences to accommodate the steadily growing number of older, chronically ill prisoners, not even Robert’s death is exceptional.

Robert, tired from fixing a customer’s car, exhausted after walking a mile or two with his heavy tool box, drops by a liquor store on his way home through the blighted municipality of Wellston, Missouri adjacent to University City, where he has lived with his wife for a little more than a year. This stop to buy a flask of whiskey will lead to a sequence of events that ultimately take his life. What he does not know is the repercussions this move will have – away from dilapidated Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd of St. Louis with jobless felons on every street corner to a nicer part of town – where he had hopes of making it through parole.

What the man knows but does not give a damn about because it’s been like this for all the 57 years of his life, is, he has three strikes against him: he’s male, in combination with black, he comes from the wrong part of town, and on top of that he’s self-determined – to his Parole Officer’s annoyance so head strong he does not accommodate her expectations of streamlined re-entry into society.

What he will notice, but too late and with fatal consequences is that he’s being closely monitored, targeted by police in an attempt to stem the tide of crime spilling over the city limit. Whether there was cooperation between his new, zealous Parole Officer – she‘s his daughter’s age and black – and the police, or whether the latter acted on their own account chasing success for an extra bonus, remains unclear. What is clear from court records is that the main characters in the game – a named, but never charged female (black) crack addicted informant and an unnamed (male and white) under-cover cop – set the trap, and the man walks right into it, hoping for a ride home in exchange for a ‘little favor‘, that turns into a ‘buy-and-bust‘ deal, the seized box with mechanical tools worth a couple of hundred dollars later never to be retrieved.

That‘s the tragedy’s prelude which gets the man another five years with plea bargain. Could’ve been ten or fifteen without an attorney, given the fact that the ambitious prosecutor, female and white, charged him as a ‘persistent offender‘.

It was the ‘third strike’ after a $50 crack deal and an ‘under-5-grams“ marijuana deal ten years earlier in the neighborhood he grew up in, which, after decades of deliberate political neglect, economic depletion and incessant flooding with illegal drugs had turned from a once vibrant community into a ghetto with invisible walls. Fact is that in all those years the police was never to be seen when needed. Now they are back. Their mission: sweep clean deteriorated parts of town in preparation for gentrification.

St. Louis’ Northside re-developer McKee’s deal with the Mayor that involves millions of TIF dollars on tax payer’s expense of course is perfectly legal, whereas the man’s two illegal drug deals warrant a ‘120 days’ drug treatment in prison after languishing through half a year of continuances in jail. Ten years ‘back-up time’ in case he fails. The so-called ‘shock treatment’ (meant to deter) ends abruptly one week before completion because the institutional parole officer, white country girl and viciously racist in her deliberate falsification of facts that make the man appear violent and “not benefitting from the program“ (wrong spelling is hers) wants him locked up. The judge (male and white) follows her recommendation, revokes probation.

So there he goes, railroaded on an odyssey through the Missouri prison system, a night mare not only for him but for tax payers as well. Robert experiences can be summarized as follows: “The key features of the U.S. crisis in corrections – long before the financial crisis of 2008 hit - include: severe overcrowding, a lack of effective programming and treatment, the persistence of dangerous and deprived conditions of confinement, and the extensive use of forceful, extreme and potentially damaging techniques of institutional control.” (2)

Nearly four years of warehousing under maximum security conditions (22 hours/day lock up) despite being classified ‘custody level 4‘ go by before Robert even gets the chance to do something that would justify the name ‘rehabilitation‘: his GED. In 2005 he gets kicked out of a boot-camp style ‘Therapeutic Community‘ drug treatment because he frankly voices his opinion where mindless subordination is a ticket to success. On top of that he demands respect, refuses to be ridiculed as punishment for minor infractions in front of a sneering crowd of hip-hoppers who could be his grandsons. Challenging the all-white staff, what this has to do with drug rehab delays his parole.

Cancer takes 7 – 10 years to develop, depending on circumstances. It has been gnawing on him ever since the man was first locked up. Progressing age, years of coerced sedentary life style and malnutrition on a prison diet high in cheap carbohydrates and low in antioxigents, supplemented or replaced with over-priced prison commissionaire junk to avoid meals tampered with by other inmates, and staples overtly labeled “not fit for human consumption“– he’s seen it with his own eyes while assigned to kitchen duty – all of this has taken its toll.

Upon release in September 2008 Robert is severely overweight, but that is all that shows. Within a couple of months on parole 20 pounds are gone. He eats healthier, is back to hard physical work as ‘roadside mechanic’ and the self-determined life he likes. Eventually his parole is revoked for ‘technical’ violations: no progress finding employment, failure to report, testing ‘dirty’.

Back in prison since November 2011, Robert is placed in yet another all-white staffed boot camp style program, according to a counselor “one of our finest“. After four weeks he gets kicked out. Trying to fathom the Parole Board’s reasoning to set a parole date for March 18, 2014 none-the-less, two things come to mind: a) prison overcrowding and/or b) they plan to claim him for good the next time around.

While waiting to be sentenced for the last $50 crack deal, Robert has lost significant weight, but does not even get a physical – not in 2012 at Fulton Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center (as name and purpose would imply), not in 2013. This fact is of significance since the Department of Corrections, in accordance with the Missouri Revised Statutes, RSMo 270.230, and the 8th and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, claims to “ensure that offenders receive medical care that is equivalent to community standard”.

Robert’s strong physical constitution and matching mental strength keeps him level-headed under conditions that he knows are not personal: he’s a “pay check” (3), destined fodder for the Prison Industrial Complex, as are millions of other black men sentenced under biased, harsh drug laws – whites at that time were still collateral damage.

Fact is, Robert has never been sick in all his life. For 18 more months he plays baseball, throws horseshoes, gives prison concerts any chance he gets, participates in the weekly one-mile walk for inmates over 50, to make an extra dollar - until the summer of 2013 that will also be his last. His body is supposed to function, no questions asked. But it doesn’t. It’s been mistreated for too long with the only legal stuff abundantly available in prison, ironically highly addictive: sugar and carbohydrates. Underweight rapidly turns into overweight. It feeds the cancer, but he doesn’t know that.

The heat, Algoa Correctional Center has no A/C, slows Robert down. A vague, unknown pain comes and goes. Aware, he won’t make it to his regular ‘12/12‘ outdate in September 2017 alive, he stops going to the yard, to chow hall, even to the gym, where playing the Blues or Motown gives him peace of mind, takes him “home”, to another place, beyond the chain-linked fence with razor wire on top. He stays in his cell, now restricts himself to a sedentary lifestyle, eats junk food – all that not to risk his newly set parole date of March 18, 2014, hoping to avoid trouble with inmates who don’t give a damn, and with mean and/or racist guards who get more vicious by the day, the closer an outdate comes. Robert is caught between a rock and a hard place.

Robert fears medical more than the devil fears blessed water. Over the years he has seen ripped-out eyes treated with Tylenol, gangrene spider bites treated with Tylenol, amputated legs and poorly mended broken arms treated with Tylenol, raped ass holes ripped open with a flip-flop, left untreated, he’s seen inmates with poorly tended, pus-oozing staph infections, with Hepatitis A,B,C, Syphilis and HIV in general population. The last dead inmate he told his wife about had what he thought was GERD, more likely: a ruptured stomach ulcer. Robert knows: people die in medical. With determination he tells his wife: “I ain‘t gonna be one of’em. “

It takes four weeks of suffering through increasing pain and loss of 20 pounds of overweight until, on September 21, Robert, already weak, dehydrated and malnourished, gets in the long line of inmates who seek medical attention at what is called ‘open sick call‘. Only to be told to come back the next day since the time is up.

It takes another two months until, on Nov 22, he declares a ‘medical emergency‘. He‘s been coughing up blood.

It takes ten days of waiting for the result of a useless x-ray at Jefferson City Correctional Center, the x-ray machine owned by CORIZON: that’s easy money, reimbursed through the state prison budget, no questions asked.

It takes an altercation with the man’s institutional case worker (male, white) for the wife to learn that “nothing is wrong” with her husband since CORIZON staff did not admit him to the infirmary.

It takes two more weeks, until, on December 6, 2013 when Robert’s liver cancer the size of a baseball with metastases in both lungs is finally detected and confirmed through a biopsy, on December 9.

It takes another week of fighting for his liquid diet with guards (male, white) who don’t give a damn until the man’s condition worsens to a degree that his medical score is raised and he’s shipped to Tipton Correctional Center‘s infirmary.

It takes ten days of CORIZON infirmary care with all-white staff for the bed bound man to develop a lung embolism that is only detected by chance, on December 23, during a lung biopsy at a local hospital. No precautions were taken.

It takes four weeks from diagnosis to the ‘staging’ of his cancer on January 3, 2014 – anxiously awaited since ‘stage 4‘ means eligibility for medical parole. The community oncologist (female, white) orders chemotherapy. A CT scan that could have determined his life expectancy, therefore further underscored his eligibility, is not done until the day of his death.

It will take another ten days until the man receives the cancer drug, according to CORIZON Director of Nursing (female, white) because it is „hard to get“. In reality the expensive treatment is delayed until after the Parole Board decision. Meanwhile, the CORIZON doctor (male, white) discards Robert’s right to a second opinion as „not warranted“.

It takes three days for the CORIZON doctor to submit his - still undisclosed – recommendation, based on the - equally withheld - oncologist’s report.

It takes three more days until, dated January 9, 2014, the letter of denial of medical parole is written, despite, or due to, continued advocacy of the man’s attorney in cooperation with a Missouri State Senator.

Releasing him would have saved the prison budget tens of thousands of dollars. Furthermore, the Missouri Department of Corrections was aware that Robert’s wife’s private health insurance would have covered his treatment in the community.

It takes another six days until, on January 15, 2014 Robert receives the notification of denied medical parole. Now he is officially transferred to Tipton Correctional Center, where he has ‘technically’ been languishing on ‘sleeper status‘ – no access to his personal belongings, no comb, no dentures, no music tapes, no envelopes and stamps, no pictures of family and friends, denied even his wife’s Christmas card to him – for four weeks. After another chest x-ray he is declared fit for – yes: kitchen duty. Four days before his death. Ironically, his labs show he has HEP A and B. Now he is given Sorafenib. The cancer drug pushes him over the edge.

During the roughly eight weeks of Robert’s ordeal his wife has constantly been on the phone to monitor his condition and what they do with (to) him. Because of this Robert was harassed by CORIZON Director of Nursing (female, white) to a degree that he almost withdrew his consent for Release of Medical/Health Information (HIPAA) to his wife, feeling held hostage.

For eight nightmarish weeks she has been given the run around, traumatized by incessant assaults of misleading and/or conflicting information, half-truths and deliberate lies until the very end – like: they had just shipped him off to the hospital now that he suddenly ‘qualifies‘ for ICU (Intensive Care Unit) care while she’s on her way to an approved visit. Upon arrival, she is told he’ll be back after the weekend: all he needs is a “little hydration” and a blood transfusion to treat his anemia that, one day before, CORIZON‘s Health Administrator (female, white) denied it even exists. Only later Robert’s wife finds out that he was put on oxygen the previous night: on January 17 at 4 am. At 8 am she is told: “No major changes“. – Getting confused? That’s how it was: deliberately misleading, to keep her at bay.

Robert Rowry passed away on January 18, 2014, isolated from his caring family, tortured – spare you the details to preserve his dignity as a man, there’s a haunting parallel to Jim Crow days. He died shackled and chained to a hospital bed at St. Mary’s Hospital in Jefferson City, ironically allowed self-administered morphine as much as he needed, a drug he never wanted to use in his whole life.

Who is to blame for the man’s inhumane death? Likely it’s a well established cooperation, a collusion of motives re-enforcing each other. It can reasonably be assumed that the oncologist does research. Considering her indifference under what conditions Robert would die, and given the incessant flow of van loads of helplessly exposed, dying long-termers from the Maximum Security prison in Jefferson City who receive chemo and/or radiation at local hospitals under her supervision, it feels like the infamous Tuskegee experiment (4) revisited, because: what value has ‘informed consent‘ under prison conditions, with a second opinion denied?!

CORIZON, on the other hand, obviously has no interest in letting a valuable cancer patient go. 24/7 infirmary service means: big money. BIG MONEY. This then is the consequence of out sourcing services to private companies.

Missouri Department of Correction‘s intentions are less obvious. No question that Robert met the criteria for medical parole. RSMo 217.250 states: “Whenever any offender is afflicted with a disease which is terminal, or is advanced in age to the extent that the offender is in need of long-term nursing home care, or when confinement will necessarily greatly endanger or shorten the offender's life …”. The letter of denial indicates: “Criteria require that you have a terminal condition with death imminent in six months or less …”. – Was it incompetence? Flawed procedures? Or was it a matter of principle not to let the man die in peace at home?

Regardless, Robert Rowry’s premature death at age 59, roughly eight weeks after diagnosis of cancer, is caused by Missouri Department of Corrections and the private health company’s deliberate indifference and – not surprising – CORIZON’s single-minded focus not only on making money, but on exacerbating profits through medical negligence and malpractice.

We wish that Robert’s treatment was an anomaly, but unfortunately what happened to Robert occurs on a daily basis to prisoners throughout the United States.

Looking at Robert Rowry’s fate and beyond, it is obvious what needs to change. The list is long and likely incomplete, but this is what comes to mind:

  • Repeal drug laws, de-criminalize all illicit drugs while expanding job training, livable employment and culturally centered drug treatment opportunities in the community;
  • Overhaul the ubiquitously prevailing stupidity of ‘Law Order‘ ;
  • Reverse militarization of the police and police tactics that deliberately target communities of color (‘hot spot policing’, ‘stop & frisk’ and ‘buy & bust’);
  • Establish Civilian Oversight over police departments to end arbitrary arrests, killings, abuse, free casing and entrapment;
  • Paradigm shift for the prison system: away from warehousing towards genuine rehabilitation (as in the 1960s and 1970s), with educational and vocational opportunities, empowering classes for personality enhancement, (trauma) psychotherapy, etc. in every prison;
  • Diversification of staffing, cultural competency as hiring requirement (DOC and for outsourced services);
  • Prison closures as the only means of effectively reduce state budgets; drastically decrease incarceration in favor of creating supportive communities that naturally deter negative behaviors;
  • Focus on prevention: Drop-In Centers (an unstructured, ‘low-level‘ approach for young people who fall through the cracks of traditional youth work), action-oriented youth projects that serve the community;
  • Abolish ‘adult crime – adult time‘ idiocy: the young brain does not mature until age 25!
  • Establish independent Civilian Oversight for all prisons/jails, including oversight over medical/food services and dietary needs;
  • Stop outsourcing of medical services, provide medical care through local physicians and/or community clinics with sufficient funding;
  • Paradigm shift for institutional drug treatment programs: away from mindless subordination towards strengthening self-esteem through character building;
  • Restore civil and human rights upon re-entry (voting rights), abolish any form of discrimination of ‘ex-offenders‘ (‘The Box‘, denial of foods stamps and other benefits);
  • Provide access to adequate, affordable housing (including HUD), free educational/vocational and/or job opportunities with livable wages upon re-entry;
  • Abolish court fees and ‘intervention fees‘ for people on probation or parole;
  • Provide a variety of trauma therapeutic intervention options in the community, for victims and perpetrators alike, according to their needs.
  • Acknowledge the fact (but that’s probably asking too much of mainstream America) that much of young people’s angry, provoking and ‘anti-social’ behaviors are simply a reflection of what they experience. One rap song that Robert accompanied with his guitar play in prison was titled: “You live what you learn! “

  1. Michelle Alexander: ‘The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness’ (2012); Marie Gottschalk: ‘Caught – The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics’ (2015)
  2. Craig Haney, Journal of Law & Policy 22, 2006 (in: Gottschalk, p. 40)
  3. On a tape sent from prison Robert turns the lyrics of James Brown’s famous hit “It’s a Men’s, Men’s World” into: “Man makes penitentiaries to give someone a job, man makes ’em guards, to keep ’em out of the dark, man makes everything, everything he can …”
  4. A clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service, to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural African American men who thought they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government. (Wikipedia)