By Megan Keller, Lancaster Bail Fund and Put PeopleFirst! PA
By definition, freedom is the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. Freedom is:
- absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government.
- the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.
- the state of being physically unrestricted and able to move easily.
Civil liberties are guarantees and freedoms that governments commit not to abridge, either by constitution, legislation, or judicial interpretation, without due process. Though the scope of the terms differs between countries, civil liberties may include the freedom of conscience, freedom of press, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, the right to security and liberty, freedom of speech, the right to privacy, the right to equal treatment under the law and due process, the right to a fair trial, and the right to life. Other civil liberties include the right to own property, the right to defend oneself, and the right to bodily integrity. Within the distinctions between civil liberties and other types of liberty, distinctions exist between positive liberty/positive rights and negative liberty/negative rights.
The Civil Rights movement made great strides in increasing civil rights, but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr realized that civil rights are legal rights, and we need to move on to having human rights. These include the rights to housing, healthcare, quality education, a living wage, clean environment and the pursuit of happiness. Dr. King commented that it doesn’t do much good to win the right to eat at a lunch counter if you can’t afford a hamburger. Without our human rights to education and good jobs, poverty will continue.
While equal treatment under the law is a civil right, something written into the Constitution, fair and humane treatment are human rights. Sometimes right in front of our eyes the harshest and most cruel punishments are happening, including neglect of our healthcare needs, but people fail to pay attention or recognize them.
Many years ago, our Lancaster County Commissioners decided to outsource the care received within our local prison system to a for profit medical resource company called PrimeCare. PrimeCare outsources doctors, nurses and licensed practical nurses within our correctional facility. They are the go-to person(s) for anything healthcare related while incarcerated; therefore, it’s of the utmost importance that these individuals are skilled and humane care givers. Individuals are considered the most vulnerable while incarcerated, as their medical needs are regulated by others, providers that they should be able to trust and rely on to uphold their basic human rights. Sadly, with PrimeCare being the primary care provider within our local prison system, these simple human rights seem to be simply ignored.
Once incarcerated, an individual is subject to the time, will, and effort of PrimeCare staff. PrimeCare’s goal should be to protect one’s health while in their care. For example, for a person on life-altering medications for physical or mental ailments, suddenly stopping or altering these medications can have severe side effects including death. Without care or concern for these incarcerated individuals, PrimeCare staff take their time to access potentially lifesaving information.
It should be the goal of the prison system to keep prisoners safe as well as healthy under their custody and control, yet so many inmates are left traumatized by an unjust and inhumane system. The criminal justice system continues to devalue our incarcerated individuals’ most important human rights. The right to healthcare, humane treatment and the right to prosperity and happiness.
Could you imagine someone having a heart condition where medication was needed everyday, or several times a day, and then, BAM!, the individual becomes incarcerated, and the staff doesn’t evaluate or assess the severity of the individualized situation. Imagine a day, two days, sometimes three days, to get basic human necessities, such as medications to keep you alive and prospering efficiently while still in “Adult Time Out.” To have people die while awaiting sentencing is not only inhumane, it flaunts the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Sadly, at the recent Lancaster County Prison Board Meeting, when asked about an inmate who died, Mr. Choma, and the lack of medically necessary potentially life saving medications, County Commissioner Josh Parsons wanted to point fingers instead of taking responsibility, verbally attacking members of the public who were sincerely concerned for our inmates’ safety.
They attack because it’s not something they want to hear or take care of. They are planning to use thousands, possibly millions, of dollars in American Rescue Plan Act funds to build a new jail. This will incarcerate more people and cost thousands of dollars in revenue – only to subject these inmates to inhumane health care conditions. It will also bring in revenue from cash bail that reaches almost $100,000.00 per person in the city. Judge David Ashworth and Warden Cheryl Steburger will preach during election time that they want people of all races/origins/ethnicities to succeed. Killing an innocent person due to inadequate healthcare isn’t promoting success. And depriving the public of basic knowledge, like true reasons for death, instead of blaming it on suicide, to me, isn’t a definition of county officials wanting people in their local community to succeed. To me it seems to be a representation of the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer.
We need to stop turning our heads. It’s time to listen up and pay close attention. Members of our community shouldn’t feel attacked simply for stating facts, and answers from our Commissioners shouldn’t justify inhame treatment by a person having a criminal record. County Commissioner Josh Parsons and Judge Ashworth repeatedly states Mr. Choma was a habitual offender, or “career criminal;” the truth was he had a retail theft from 2013, a Criminal Trespassing from later that decade, along with failure to provide proof of valid vehicle inspection and registration. That’s a huge disconnect or lie from the picture the Commissioners are trying to paint. This is not justice. The commissioners going after our bail fund isn’t justice, and the audacity to say that Lancaster Bail Fund had anything to do in Mr. Choma’s death is simply ludicrous. If anything, Lancaster Bail Fund and Michelle Batt, along with her team, kept Mr. Choma from dying alone in a cage like an animal. At least he was able to depart this earth with his dignity.
In the first week of February, the local Lancaster County volunteer-run bail fund posted a $5,000 cash bail for a 66-year-old man with severe health issues. He was placed in jail because he allegedly stole $28 dollars worth of product from Sheetz. Prior to his incarceration he was hospitalized at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital (LGH) for a number of weeks, during which time warrants were issued for his failure to appear for his court date for a retail theft case and three traffic citations. When he was discharged from LGH, the kind advocates at Penn Medicine paid for a hotel room for him until February 10th, as John was unhoused and the hospital needed a location to send their nurse to visit John for outpatient care.
Unbeknownst to him and many of us, officers have predatory ways of finding out information about people, and found him while searching the Hotel Active Guest List at the hotel where he was residing. So without hesitation or humanity, our criminal justice system sucked our dear neighbor up and spit him out at the front steps of Lancaster County Prison, still in his hospital scrubs. For most, a few days incarcerated wouldn’t mean you are going to die or get sick. But to some, it most definitely is a life or death matter.
We bailed John out on Wednesday February 2nd, 2022. 5 days later, We sadly found out that he had passed away in his sleep. We can’t help but think- what if John would’ve been offered medically necessary prescriptions while incarcerated? What if he had been supplied with the necessary resources for the prosperity of his life- actually addressing his human rights to healthcare and housing!?
What if this had been your family member? What if it had been the Judge’s or one of the Commissioner’s or Warden’s family Members? Would their answers and reactions have been the same?
A real question to think about is: how was $28 comparable to $5000 cash bail?
My first thought, being in a non profit surety bail fund, is: how can anyone let this happen? John told us he had 23 surgeries in the past five years, and many medical diagnoses. He told us he was on over twenty different medications. And John appeared for his bail hearing in the hospital scrubs he was discharged in.
Yet Magistrate Judge Clark Bearinger DID NOT believe this poor man’s story! John had been admitted to Lancaster General for two weeks prior to this incident. Instead of showing humanity–recognizing John’s serious medical problems and lack of housing—the judge threw John in a cage.
Now, a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU PA), shows that judges assigning cash bail in violation of the rules is not an issue confined to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. It’s a statewide crisis.
In partnership with a team of incredible data scientists, ACLU PA examined statewide bail practices based on data from 2016 and 2017. Broken Rules: How Pennsylvania Courts Use Cash Bail to Incarcerate People Before Trial, their new research report, finds that across the commonwealth, in counties red and blue, urban and rural, there is an ongoing crisis that keeps far too many Pennsylvanians wrongfully incarcerated.
In all 67 counties, magisterial district judges (also known as MDJs or magistrates) routinely set unaffordable cash bail for people awaiting their day in court. This practice means that, at any moment, tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians are locked up in county jails simply because they could not afford to pay bail.
This isn’t just unethical. It’s also in violation of the state Constitution.
In principle and by law, bail is a mechanism for pretrial release. But, in practice, magistrates use cash bail to jail people before trial. According to the data reviewed by ACLU PA, magistrates routinely set bail in amounts too high for people to afford. Across the state, more than half of those assigned cash bail were unable to pay and were incarcerated as a result.
ACLU PA also found that cash bail was the most common type of bail set in Pennsylvania. Magistrates have other options, like setting non-monetary bail or release on recognizance. Options that have been shown to work just as effectively, and often more so, than cash bail. But time and again, magistrates choose to set cash bail- driving up rates of pretrial incarceration. And pretrial detention can quickly devastate a person’s life.
After just a few days in jail, a person can lose their job, access to necessary medical care, custody of their children, and even their homes. Studies have also found that pretrial detention leads to a higher likelihood of conviction and lengthier sentences.
In 1 week Judge Bearinger set extremely unreasonable bails on two separate individuals that led to their death sentence.
Paul, another man who was admitted into LCP, passed away nearly a week later after being at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital, along with John. Thankfully for John, he didn’t die in a cage like an animal. He died in a hotel room where he at least had his dignity.
POVERTY and HEALTHCARE DO MATTER! Because healthcare in the United States is not public and is out of reach for millions, including: low-wage workers (even some with insurance, who can’t afford deductibles or copays), the unemployed, and the homeless. These folks face systemic disparities in health and even the right to live, often right from the start of their lives.
The time to do something about it is NOW! We have to stand up against all lines of division and UNITE to work together for this MOVEMENT. To be the voice for the voiceless and to not remain silent.
Our goal as a society needs to be to offer our most vulnerable citizens a social safety net, decent housing, free medical care, anduu assurance that no person ever suffers as John and so many voiceless others have. The resources are available but they do not reach the hands that need them most.
May John’s death not be in VAIN, but be in AWARENESS of the struggles faced by the poor day after day without ANYONE ever realizing. Just because something hasn’t ever happened to you, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It means that one way or another you were blessed with a privilege that 9 times out of 10 you never realized was there to begin with.
With a heavy heart, my sincere condolences to this man’s family, loved ones and friends. May his memory live on forever!
- Video of Prison Board Meeting