Last year, I obtained a list of more than 3,000 inmates who were at least 50 years old and incarcerated in Maryland prisons. The document gives no names, only the age, gender, race and, in descending order, the amount of time each inmate has served.
The next 75 lines list men in their 60s and 70s, and a few in their 80s, who committed rape or murder 40 or more years ago.
The first female inmate appears on line 77. I’ve since learned that her name is Eraina Pretty and that she has been in prison for 42 of her 60 years. In fact, Pretty is the state’s longest-incarcerated woman, and was so described in 2015 when Diane Sawyer included her in a “Hidden America” report for ABC News.
Pretty grew up in Baltimore, poor and abused as a girl, according to her advocates. In early 1978, at age 18, Pretty became involved with a man, five years her senior, who committed two separate but equally hideous crimes: the robberies and execution-style killings of Preston Cornish, a social worker, and Louis Thomas, the owner of an all-night grocery store and the father of four children.
Pretty did not do the shootings, her boyfriend did. But Baltimore prosecutors said Pretty was party to both crimes: She allegedly disposed of the murder weapon in the Cornish case and, two months later, helped set up the armed robbery that ended with Thomas’s murder in his Reisterstown Road store.
Later that year, Pretty, her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s accomplice pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and other charges. Each received sentences of life plus 15 years. Pretty has been in the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup ever since.
I tell you this now because Eraina Pretty is among dozens of Maryland inmates who have contracted COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. Her daughter, Kecha Dunn, says she heard through Facebook that her mother went to an undisclosed hospital for treatment last week, a fact later confirmed, she says, in a phone call with the warden of the prison.
Dunn and her mother’s advocates, Professor Leigh Goodmark and staff attorney Lila Meadows of the University of Maryland School of Law, think Pretty should be released from state custody. This is a view they held before Pretty took sick. Her illness prompted them to draw attention to her status as a long-serving inmate who was twice cleared for release by the Maryland Parole Commission only to be held back by governors.
Readers of this column are familiar with the issue. I do not excuse anyone’s crime. I merely argue that felons who serve decades in prison get the chance at freedom their sentencing judges granted when they made them eligible for parole. This includes people who committed violent crimes decades ago, when they were young.
To do otherwise — to offer parole, then take it away — strikes me as state-sanctioned bait-and-switch.
In Maryland, the governor can reject a parole commission recommendation that a man or woman serving life be released. It has happened a lot. Some, if not most, of the men on the 50-plus list I mentioned at the start probably were recommended for parole at some point but rejected by governors.
In the case of Eraina Pretty, twice within the last decade the commission concluded that she was sufficiently remorseful and no longer a threat to public safety. Her prison record showed only three rules infractions in more than three decades.
The commission heard that Pretty had been a mentor to other inmates. I’ve spoken with two of them: Rudeara Bailey, 64, and Sirena Williams, 47, both now paroled, restarting their lives and grateful for Pretty’s guidance behind bars. A former warden at the prison, Brenda Shell, praised Pretty for her quiet leadership among inmates. (Attempts to reach the families of victims in Pretty’s case, via the parole commission, have so far been unsuccessful.)
Hoping to earn parole, Pretty developed a plan for her transition. Her daughter and son-in-law intended to help her make a safe landing — a place to live, help finding a job.
But this is another in a long line of Kafkaesque scenarios where a governor rejects the commission’s recommendation, and without explanation. First Gov. Martin O’Malley denied Pretty release in 2011, and Gov. Larry Hogan did the same in 2019.
Last month, as the coronavirus started to spread through the state’s prisons, Hogan wisely directed the commission to accelerate consideration of parole for inmates who are at least age 60 and incarcerated for a nonviolent crime.
Of course, that leaves Eraina Pretty out.
But her advocates want Hogan to reconsider her case. “We are submitting a request to the governor asking that he commute Ms. Pretty’s sentence and release her,” Goodmark says. “The governor can grant that request on his own at any time … We continue to be very concerned about her health.”
There are likely other longtime lifers, in their 60s and 70s, who already earned a recommendation for release from the parole commission, have a plan for re-entry and are waiting for the governor to act. As the coronavirus continues to spread behind bars, why not release them, too?
Dan Rodricks is a long-time columnist for The Baltimore Sun, and a local radio and television personality who has won several national and regional journalism awards over a reporting, writing and broadcast career spanning five decades. He is the author of three books, including "Father's Day Creek" (Apprentice House 2019).