Behind bars for 40 years, Maryland woman seeks release due to COVID-19

Eraina Pretty is the longest-serving female inmate in Maryland's system.

May 6, 2020, 11:38 AM

Eraina Pretty is the longest-serving female inmate in the Maryland corrections system and in those 42 years behind bars, her daughter said she has helped countless inmates. But it's Pretty who may need help now after a suspected bout with COVID-19.

Kecha Dunn, Pretty's daughter, told ABC News that she received a call from a friend of a former inmate who served with her mother and said Pretty may have contracted the novel coronavirus.

That prompted Dunn to try to confirm what she'd heard.

Dunn said that two days later the warden called her back couldn't tell her where her mother was. She said she was told that Pretty was rushed to the hospital, was expected to recover and would be back at the facility in a few days,

Dunn said she couldn't get further information about her mother and was upset.

Pretty's lawyers, Leigh Goodmark and Lila Meadows said that privacy laws, staffing and the way incarceration works all lend to an inability to communicate with loved ones.

In a statement, to ABC News the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said that for security reasons, the department does not notify family members if an inmate is transferred to the hospital.

"The hospital will notify the DPSCS regional medical director if the inmate has a threat of imminent death and resuscitate or do not resuscitate orders are required. At that point, the next of kin will be notified," the agency said.

The agency said that it or the medical vendor "also provides updates on medical treatment information if the inmate has a complete release of information on file, designating a recipient of medical treatment information."

The department is not commenting on individual inmates' release however it said it is releasing inmates based on the law and in accordance with the governor's executive orders.

"This is another one of the particular cruelties of prison," Goodmark told ABC News. "We don't know for sure what she had, we believed that she had COVID-19."

"So if what she had was significant enough that they took her out, those dangers are going to be even greater. And there's really no guarantee that she won't get it again," Goodmark added. "We don't know that yet. We don't know what the long-term damage is going to be. And taking her back to a prison environment where the medical care is not everything that one might hope will be particularly dangerous for her."

In light of her health and long sentence, her family members and lawyers are advocating for her release. The Aging People in Prison Campaign, which focuses on releasing elderly inmates from prison, has filed a petition also calling for Pretty's release.

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Pretty is serving a life sentence with the possibility for parole after accepting a plea agreement for her role in a 1978 robbery-homicide. She's been denied parole multiple times.

After helping her boyfriend, Ronald Brown, and a friend of his gain entry to a convenience store, her lawyers said she was leaving when two gunshots rang out. Lewis Thomas, the store owner, died and another man was injured.

Pretty, then 18, was dating Brown and her lawyers said their relationship was abusive and that she had no choice but to help him commit the crime.

"When Mr. Brown came up with the plans for this convenience store, it wasn't a situation that Ms. Pretty really felt like she had much of a choice," one of her lawyers, Lila Meadows, told ABC News. "And in fact, their actions that night sort of reflect that she goes into the store, she assists in the robbery, and then in sort of the first opportunity ... flees the store."

Lawyers for Pretty told ABC News that she took the deal to avoid the death penalty.

ABC News' Diane Sawyer interviewed Pretty in 2015 from prison.

She told Sawyer that in 2003, she wrote to the governor of Maryland and asked him for lethal injection.

“Because of the victim's family and everybody. I wanted them to know I was sorry for the crime I had committed,” she told Sawyer.

PHOTO: Diane Sawyer interviews Eraina Pretty from an unidentified Maryland state prison in 2015.
Diane Sawyer interviews Eraina Pretty from an unidentified Maryland state prison in 2015.
ABC News

In the interview she pleaded for a second chance because she said she’s done “so much to better (herself).”

Advocates say that Pretty should be released from prison because she is older and has served her time. Her lawyers noted that the last time she had an infraction was 22 years ago.

Dunn told ABC News that her mother poses no threat to society and wants to spend time with her grandchildren and family.

"She's very nurturing. She's done that with many, many inmates that have been in there," Dunn said. "She's gotten well educated, she has two degrees. She's made good on her time in there."

In Maryland, the commutation power is uniquely the governor's, Meadows explained.

A parole board makes a recommendation to the governor, and the governor chooses whether to accept that recommendation.

The Maryland governor's office has not responded to ABC News' request for comment about Pretty's case.

The family of the man whom Pretty's ex-boyfriend killed started a petition against Pretty's release, stating in part, that her decisions took her away from her family.

Her daughter told ABC News that Pretty raised her from prison and her lawyers say she is a changed woman.

"And we're in this moment now where I think more than ever we ought to be asking ourselves, is this what we want? Is this justice?" Goodmark asked. "When people are sentenced to sentences with the possibility of parole, there's this idea that if they hold up their ends of what they're supposed to do, of what are statutes and regulations and laws say if you go to prison and you do the following things, you can rejoin the community one day. If we're serious about that, then there ought to be a mechanism for people to be able to do that."

Her mother is "very, very remorseful" about what happened in 1978, said Dunn.

"She's accepted it, even though she wasn't the person who actually did the crime and was an accessory to it," Dunn said. "She never downplayed it. She's accepted it. And she's very sorry, and very remorseful."

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