Lynne Stewart is 73 years old, and, according to the people who know her, she’s being eaten alive by breast cancer. “The spread of the disease is not only poisoning her body, but diminishing her mind,” an acquaintance of ten years wrote recently. “While there is still a lot of determination in her voice, she cannot hold onto facts, and logical reasoning eludes her.” The only question at this point is whether Stewart, a former New York attorney, will be allowed to die at home or be forced to remain behind bars in a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, where she’s lived for the past three years.
As Stewart’s case winds through the courts, with another hearing due this Thursday, the debate over whether to free her has taken on a macabre tone. Should she go free at once, as her lawyers argue, because she’s close to death? Or, as the Bureau of Prisons claims, is she likely to hang on through the rest of her prison sentence?
We’ve written before about Stewart, a longtime attorney for radical, indigent, and radioactively unpopular defendants. Among others, Stewart represented Omar Abdel-Rahman, better known as the the “Blind Sheikh,” a leader of Egypt’s militant Islamist group Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, and one of the masterminds behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Stewart wasn’t supposed to carry any messages between her client and the outside world. But in 2001, she issued two press releases on his behalf, and in 2005 she was convicted of supporting terrorism and conspiring to defraud the government. She was immediately disbarred as a result of her conviction, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 2009, after a lengthy appeals process and a breast cancer diagnosis, she was ordered to begin serving her time.
As Stewart’s condition has worsened this summer, her lawyers have fought to have her freed on compassionate grounds, asking that she be allowed to return to her native New York City and live with her son. It was Stewart’s lawyer, Jill Shellow, who wrote in a court filing in late July that Stewart’s mental acuity was slipping away; she added that Stewart’s treating physician has placed her life expectancy at “less than 12 months.” Another treating oncologist has put it at 18 months.
Stewart lives in FMC Carswell, a federal prison located on a naval base in Fort Worth, meant for female inmates with medical or mental health issues. There, when she’s feeling well enough, she’s allowed access to the hospital floor and use of a telephone, and can have an hour in the prison library to write e-mails. On bad days, when her white blood cell count is low, she lies in bed wearing a surgical mask.
“She tries to keep her spirits up,” Shellow wrote, “but she reports that she is easily confused (‘chemo brain,’ she calls it) and tired all the time.”
In a handwritten letter to the judge (which you can see here, along with other legal documents pertaining to the case), Stewart wrote, “I am not mistreated in the usual sense of that word, but I have concerns about their ability to care for me without subjecting me to a reality that seems to be one of never-ending semi-isolation.” She added that she is “terribly weak and without much energy,” and that she now weighs 175 pounds, down from 232 when she was arrested.
“Reading is still my greatest joy and pastime,” she added. “But there are days when I have difficulty even holding the book up–no matter how compelling the subject.”
Not surprisingly, the response from the Bureau of Prisons thus far has been, in summary: tough shit. On July 24, Kathleen Kenney, the assistant director and general counsel for the BOP, wrote in a memo that Stewart’s request for a reduced sentence would be denied because “while her illness is very serious, she is not suffering from a condition that is terminal within 18 months.”
The New York Post cheered this decision Tuesday, in their own uniquely classy way, saying that Stewart was “whining” and that her only supporters are “the usual crowd of predictably clueless lefty celebs.” Conservative whatever-she-is Michelle Malkin, meanwhile, has written that Stewart “is a menace to peace-loving society who illegally conspired with killers. … Now she wants mercy, medical comforts and freedom? No, hell, no. This messenger gal for murderous barbarians made her prison bed. Die in it.” (It might disappoint Malkin to know that even prisoners get “medical comforts.” But don’t worry; they’re usually pretty shitty.)
Stewart’s lawyers have filed an emergency motion for her immediate release, something they can only do once. The hearings in that motion will continue this Thursday. Her supporters are expected to rally at noon in Foley Square Park, near the federal courthouse.
In a statement printed in the New York City Anarchist Black Cross‘s August 6 newsletter, Stewart sounded a more desperate and more politically radical note than in her letter to the court, writing that her imprisonment is “barbaric.” But she added that she felt fortunate compared to other political prisoners. She concluded: “How long can the 1% continue to rule and the corporations call the shots? There is so much wrong but we are not allowed to despair since we have been given sight in this land of the blind and hopeless and heartless.”
Here’s Stewart’s statement in full. All capitalization is in the original:
By Now we will have filed papers which take us back into Federal Court in New York City to request that Judge Koeltl overturn the barbaric decision by the Bureau of Prisons and allow me to leave this empty loveless Prison and go home to People and Places familiar and beloved. I certainly am sick enough–even my oncologist revised her prognosis down to 18 months now. However, my spirit remains undaunted and when I compare myself to others far worse off than I am-the Guantanamo and Pelican Bay prisoners, Marie Mason, Afra Siddiqui, Hugo Yogi Pinell, those under death Penalty like Kevin Cooper, the remaining Angola 2, Ruchel Magee and my fellow New Yorkers Jalil, Sekou, Herman, Seth, David, Abdul–let me stop before I choke up here … I know we MUST win my fight and the struggle for all other political prisoners to be freed. And then we must struggle for all to be free in this country.
How much can we, the People, take? Their austerity is barbaric cruelty with food stamps gone and public housing unavailable, permanently. How long can the 1% continue to rule and the corporations call the shots? There is so much wrong but we are not allowed to despair since we have been given sight in this land of the blind and hopeless and heartless. So, that said, let’s once again get out there as often as needs be-for all the causes, for all the humanity. for the future. Forward, ever Forward!