When I put out the call on Thursday for a Christmas miracle for Betsie Gallardo, a young HIV+ Haitian woman dying of gallbladder cancer in a Florida prison for the crime of spitting at a police officer, readers came through in a heartbeat - and we have the beginnings of a miracle on our hands. Betsie's adoptive mother, a transgender woman from Indiana, wrote asking for help after finding out Betsie was unable to eat and was being refused nutrition via IV drip; she's literally being starved to death.
First, a little backstory... Friend of the site, Todd Heywood, did a profile of Betsie's case for the Florida Independent and the Miami Herald did a large feature on Betsie's story and horrible treatment at the hands of the state. Change.org and Care2.com both started petitions to Governor Crist to have Betsie released under medical clemency and even the religious right started trumpeting Betsie's predicament. The Department of Corrections quickly put out a statement saying they had already recommended that Betsie be released to go home and die surrounded by family members and blamed the parole board for her continued incarceration.
Just when you thought things couldn't be looking better for Betsie, Bilerico contributors Michael Rajner and Nadine Smith sprung into action. They activated Miami's sizeable Haitian community and contacted Crist supporters and donors asking them to plead for clemency for Betsie. Michael took the next logical step and started talking to Florida politicians and on Christmas Eve six state representatives and one state senator sent a letter to the Florida Parole Commission, Governor Crist, and Walter McNeil, the secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, asking for Betsie to be released.
Betsie's mother wrote me a quick update on Christmas Even and on Christmas Day the parole board responded to the state legislators' letter. It's all below.
Here's the letter sent to the Florida Parole Commission from several state legislators on Christmas Eve:
FLORIDA STATE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Representative Daphne Campbell, RN
State Representative Hazelle Rogers
State Representative Ari Porth
State Representative Gwendolyn Clarke-Reed
State Representative Perry Thurston
State Representative Darryl Rouson
Senator Christopher Smith, Chair
Broward County Delegation
December 24, 2010
Ms. Tena M. Pate, Chairman
Ms. Monica David, Vice Chairman
Mr. Frederick B. Dunphy, Commissioner
Florida Parole Commission
4070 Esplanade Way
Tallahassee, FL 32399-2450
Re: Request for compassionate release of Betsie Gallardo
Dear Commissioners Pate, David and Dunphy:
We are writing on behalf of Jessica Bussert, adopted mother of Betsie Gallardo, to urge The Florida Parole Commission to consider the immediate release of Betsie for humane and compassion reasons. Jessica reports that her daughter languishes in the prison's infirmary with stage 4 (terminal) Cancer and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). She is also reported being starved to death and denied minimum nutrition through Total Parenteral Nutrition (TPN) and suffering in pain and denied tolerable pain management.
Jessica states that Betsie is not expected to survive much longer and believes she will die from starvation in prison by January 1, 2011. Jessica is pleading for the compassionate release of her daughter so she can provide the care and love that only a mother can give in the final days Betsie has remaining. It is Jessica's hope, and ours, that Betsie be released and permitted to die with dignity after so many years of suffering a tortured life.
We urge the Commission to consider all the factors contributing to Betsie's life challenges. She was born in Miami with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), and 3 years later deserted in the slums of Haiti and a victim of human trafficking. Jessica reports that among the perpetrators who victimized her daughter was a Haitian police officer.
We understand that the Commission is not scheduled to meet again until February 24, 2011 and in accordance with Florida Administrative Code Chapter 23A-1.008, the Commission can convene an emergency meeting.
We the undersigned respectfully request the Commission convene an emergency meeting and find favor of Betsie Gallardo and release her immediately to her mother and allow her to die at home with dignity.
State Representative Daphne Campbell, RN (District 108)
State Representative Hazelle Rogers (District 94)
State Representative Ari Porth (District 96)
State Representative Gwendolyn Clarke-Reed (District 92)
State Representative Perry Thurston (District 93)
State Representative Darryl Rouson (District 55)
Senator Christopher Smith (District 29), Chair
cc: Governor Charlie Crist
State of Florida
400 South Monroe Street
Tallahassee, Florida 32399-0001
Secretary Walter McNeil
Florida Department of Corrections
2601 Blair Stone Road
Tallahassee, Florida 32399
Shortly after the letter was sent, Betsie's mother e-mailed me this update on what had transpired since I featured the tragedy on Bilerico Project. At the time she was unaware that the letter had been sent on Betsie's behalf.
Dear Family, Friends, and Advocates,
I just wanted to send you all a Christmas Eve update on Betsie.
Although there is a lot of work to go if we are going to get our daughter home before it's too late, all of your calls and emails have made a huge impact! Just two days ago we were being denied any further visits with Betsie, but because of the outcry you all have raised we were able to spend just about six hours with her this morning! We've been told that we will also get to visit Christmas morning and possibly on Sunday as well.
Betsie was in good spirits and very happy to see us all, but she is horribly thin. She had an IV running with D5W fluids at a rate of only 50mL/hour and she still has not been given any nutritional supplements via her IV. For those of you without any medical experience, this means that she is subsisting on less than two ounces of sugar water an hour, with no protein or other required nutrients that her body desperately needs for even just healing her surgical wounds.
Although I don't have much positive to say about the Department of Corrections as a whole, Ms. Scott in classifications, Capt. Veal, and a very friendly sergeant made our visit as pleasant as it could be. They were all three cordial and as accommodating as could be asked for. Well, short of opening the doors and letting Betsie walk free that is. I guess even I couldn't have expected that.
That said, the next step in this battle is to have exactly that happen. We need Betsie out of that horrid place and back home as soon as possible. The only way that will happen is if we all keep up the pressure and refuse to back down.
If we haven't made -significant- strides by this coming Wednesday I'll probably pitch a tent outside the prison and remain there until this all ends. If it comes to that I would welcome any company (especially BIG, STRONG, SAFE company) who would care to show up and help me keep vigil. Bring sleeping bags! Hopefully it won't come to this.
We've had some amazing advocates come forward over the past few days. We've received political assistance from a number of fronts, and the media has responded in mass. We've even received a few small monetary donations. These are much appreciated since we're not bringing in any other income while perched in South Florida.
Well, that's all I can write for now. This evening I attended Christmas Eve services and then responded to a ton of your emails. It's going to be another long day tomorrow and it's starting at 5:30am.
God bless you all for caring for my daughter!
On Christmas Day, Jason Welty of the Florida Department of Corrections contacted Rep Porth to say that the parole board would review Betsie's case on January 5. According to the statement the department put out on Thursday afternoon, the board was originally scheduled to meet again in February. By the time the board met then, Betsie would have passed on - slowly starved to death in a Florida prison for the crime of spitting at a police officer. After hearing from thousands of supporters around the nation and getting the letter from state legislators, the parole board has agreed to bump the meeting up a month earlier. The board has refused the option of holding a conference call meeting which could release Betsie immediately.
At this point, our focus needs to be on getting Betsie the nutrition she needs to continue living until that January 5th parole hearing. Betsie is bedridden and obviously not a flight risk; her cancer is stage four and inoperable. There is no reason for the board to refuse clemency - especially with as many high level supporters that her situation is attracting. At this point it's highly doubtful the board will refuse medical clemency.
But we have to keep Betsie alive long enough to attend that hearing. How can you help?
Second: Send Governor Charlie Crist an e-mail demanding that Betsie be given IV nutrition so she doesn't starve to death while waiting on the parole board hearing.
Third: Share this post (or the original one) on Facebook and Twitter to help bring more attention to Betsie's plight.
The funny thing about miracles is that usually they're more the result of hard work and kindness rather than serendipity. This case is no different. The friendly stranger with a heart of gold? It's you - our readers - and the thousands of other caring folks who've stepped up to the plate and demanded justice for Betsie.
Let's keep up the pressure and finish what we've started, readers. We're a heartbeat away from a holiday miracle for Betsie Gallardo.
(Crossposted from my home blog, Bilerico Project. Come visit me there to see why both the Washington Post and the Advocate magazine named us one of the top 10 LGBT political blogs in the nation.)