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Costly care for an aging and often ill inmate population pits emotion against common sense

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betty biggers knight

Betty Biggers Knight holds up a photo of her late husband Edward Stafford Knight from early in their marriage. He was in his 60s when he went to prison for murder. He deserved to be there, his widow says, because he killed someone. But he didn’t deserve to die the way he did, she says.

Former Army National Guard officer Edward Stafford Knight went away for life in prison in August 2001.

His widow and others believe it turned into a death sentence.

“They basically starved him to death,” says his widow, Betty Biggers Knight.

Although technically eligible for parole in 15 years, Knight, a former first lieutenant with the Army National Guard from Corinth, served over 18 years, battled stomach cancer and died at the age of 80.

Despite his family’s pleas to let them take him home and pay for his care, the Mississippi Department of Corrections chose to let state taxpayers foot the more than $200,000 for his surgery and additional medical bills

MDOC’s 2019 annual report listed 1,113 prisoners age 60 and older in custody. The cumulative medical cost of 198 of those prisoners was $1.97 million, according to the 2019 Final Report of the Corrections and Criminal Justice Task Force.

In 2018, 260 prisoners 60 and older were treated at a cost of $2.63 million; 2017, 223 treated, $1.71 million; 2016, 195 treated, $2.0 million.

In response to an open records request, MDOC said there are 192 state inmates who are 70 years old or older still in custody. Of those, 143 have chronic illnesses.

Between March 4 and July 8, 24 inmates have died in MDOC custody, six of whom were over the age of 65 and seven were chronically or terminally ill and required frequent hospitalizations, some with expensive specialized care. The latest was a 64-year-old inmate hospitalized since May at the State Penitentiary at Parchman.

In recent years, the state Legislature has squabbled over the continuing financial drain of incarcerating ill and aging inmates. Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, and Rep. Kevin Horan, I-Grenada, have introduced bills that would make terminally ill, bedridden inmates eligible for parole.

One such bill cleared the House but died in the Senate in early June.

Senate Bill 2123, called the Mississippi Correctional Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2020, has passed the Legislature and made its way to the governor’s desk. Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed the bill July 8.

A provision of the bill would have allowed inmates 65 or older and who have served not less than 10 years of their sentence or sentences to be eligible for parole with exceptions. Those sentenced to life without parole who would have been ineligible.

“I’ll continue to work with my colleagues and try to get them to see the logic in this,” Simmons says. “But it won’t be easy.”

‘This is about saving taxpayers millions of dollars every year’

Already riddled with numerous medical conditions, Knight, who was incarcerated at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, was diagnosed with stomach cancer in February 2018. He underwent surgery at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson to remove his stomach, and then was returned to the prison’s medical unit.

“He was supposed to have six to eight small meals a day, and wasn’t supposed to eat anything fried,” Betty Knight says. “Instead, they fed him what they fed everybody else three times a day. Some kind of mystery meat. Salads. Turnip greens. Bacon.”

Stafford Knight dropped from 185 pounds to 112. He died Nov. 29, 2018. He had served 18 1/2 years in prison.

With the help of Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi, the family requested on several occasions that Stafford Knight be released so they could seek more specialized care — and at the family’s expense.

Two of those requests came after the surgery to remove his stomach. Johnson stressed Knight’s extreme weight loss in emails to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

MDOC’s chief medical officer, Gloria Perry, informed the family via email 30 days before Stafford Knight died that “there is adamant objection to conditional medical release for Mr. Knight, therefore I cannot make a recommendation to the commissioner for Mr. Knight’s release.”

The objection came from the family of Paul Ferguson, whom Knight shot and killed on May 30, 2000. Ferguson, 43, was a husband and the father of two daughters.

“I’m sensitive to the victim’s family,” Johnson says. “My wife’s aunt and uncle were killed in Rankin County, so we know how that feels. But Mr. Knight should have been released.

“Some say a person who commits murder doesn’t deserve to be treated humanely. As a society, that sort of vengeful thinking doesn’t do us much good. This is about making common sense decisions. This is about saving taxpayers millions of dollars every year.

“And it’s not like Mr. Knight was being set free. He certainly was in no shape to be out on a golf course or out fishing. This was about receiving medical care to keep him alive, to allow his family to provide him that care.

“We sort of realized after a while, though, that he was doomed to die in prison.”

edward stafford knight prisoner card

Edward Stafford’ Knights’ prisoner ID card at the Mississippi State Penitentiary where he was serving life for murder.

‘A miserable and hopeless existence’

Mississippi’s four prisons have been under heavy scrutiny since 19 inmates died between December 2019 and March 1. Seven of the deaths were ruled homicides, three others suicide.

Hip-hop artists Jay-Z and Yo Gotti are helping fund a federal lawsuit against the Mississippi prison system on behalf of 181 inmates who claim they are being held in “barbaric” conditions. Most of the inmates are at Parchman, which opened in 1901 and is the state’s oldest prison.

The lawsuit claims: "The conditions of confinement at Parchman are so barbaric, the deprivation of health and mental health care so extreme, and the defects in security so severe, that the people confined at Parchman live a miserable and hopeless existence, confronted daily by imminent risk of substantial harm in violation of their rights under the U.S. Constitution.”

Betty Knight says her husband talked frequently of the “filthy conditions” he was living in.

“He was in the medical unit all but about two months that he was (in Parchman),” she says. That’s supposed to be the cleanest, safest place you can be, But there were bugs, mice. There was mold around the windows. They had roof problems for a while, and every time it rained, he had to move his bed. There was no heat most of the time.

“His wheelchair was held together with wire. The visitation room was filthy. He was in the same room twice with people who died. It was awful. No one should have to live in those conditions.” 

Asked to respond to the description of the prison’s conditions, its medical care and the refusal to release Knight to his family, MDOC replied via email:

“Our primary mission at the Mississippi Department of Corrections is to ensure public safety while providing for our inmates’ well-being as they serve out their sentences. That includes ensuring access to quality health care. The decision to release an inmate is always considered carefully for all those impacted and is made with empathy and compassion.

“While the department cannot discuss individual care due to HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations, we are focused on providing quality care for all inmates, including the elderly and chronically ill.

“Commissioner (Burl) Cain has four pillars to ensure the safety and dignity of all within the system: good food, good playing, good praying, and good medicine. The Commissioner is committed to improving those pillars within MDOC and ensuring access to services to provide for inmates’ well-being in our facilities.”

Gov. Tate Reeves appointed Cain, the longtime warden at Angola State Prison in Louisiana, as MDOC commissioner in May.

‘He’s not your typical shooter’

Stafford Knight hardly had the profile of a murderer.

He earned an undergraduate degree in banking and finance from Mississippi State in 1962, then a master’s in municipal planning from the University of Mississippi.

“When I met him in 1961, he was with an airborne ranger unit in Alabama,” Betty Knight says. “He went to tank school, officer’s candidate school, airborne school and ranger training.”

Stafford and Betty Knight married in 1963 and had two sons. He had a private pilot’s license.

He worked as the manufacturing supervisor on the night shift at Wurlitzer piano company in Corinth, and later for Baldwin piano, which bought out Wurlitzer and moved the factory to Holly Springs. The plant closed in 1989.

Knight took a job at the Piper Impact plant, which made metal components used in various products. He was fired in May 2000.

Knight was leading a class-action suit against Piper, claiming discrimination of its employees.

“They accused him of not doing his work when they gave him more to do than three people could handle,” Betty Knight says. 

About a week after his firing, Knight went to Piper on the afternoon of May 30, looking for the plant manager because Knight had been told he wouldn’t be able to collect unemployment and find out why they had told the unemployment office he had refused to accept the work offered him. He was carrying a .38 caliber pistol.

“But that wasn’t unusual,” Betty Knight says. “He’d been carrying a gun since he started there.”

The plant manager wasn’t in. Instead, Knight ran into Paul Ferguson, manager of manufacturing, and Thomas Jones IV, a plant management official.

Plant employees said words were exchanged and gunshots rang out. Ferguson died of a bullet wound to the chest. Jones was shot in the hand but recovered.

New Albany Police Chief David Grisham told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal that Knight “calmly” turned himself in about 10 minutes after the shooting.

“He gave his name and said he had shot someone,” Grisham told Morris. “He’s not your typical shooter. He really can’t explain it.”

Grisham said it was an incident where “a disgruntled employee took (his anger) to the max.”

Betty Knight learned of the shooting by phone from a friend.

“It had already been on the news,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it. At that moment, I thought my life was over.

“He didn’t go there to shoot anybody. He didn’t go there to see either of the gentlemen he shot. There was nothing premeditated about it. He just lost it for a minute. He said it was like an out-of-body experience. 

“It doesn’t make what he did right. We’ve never tried making excuses for what he did. But why they let him back into the plant … I’ll never understand that.”

edward knight at home

Edward Stafford Knight seen relaxing in his Corinth home in happier times, before he was fired from his job in May 2000 and “just had a moment when he snapped,” his widow Betty Biggers Knight said. The then 62-year-old former first lieutenant with the Army National Guard went to the New Albany plant where he’d been fired and fatally shot a plant manager and wounded another.

‘He will die soon if nothing is done’

Betty Knight was loyal to the very end.

She was allowed to visit her husband of 55 years twice a month. “In the 18 years he was there, I think I missed going five times,” she says.

She would drive three hours from Corinth and arrive at Parchman around 10 a.m. “It would take an hour or so to get on the bus and ride over to the unit where he was,” she says. “I would stay until 1:30. We had to leave (the grounds) by 2.”

The couple’s two grown sons often accompanied her.

“It was never easy seeing him in there,” she says, “but as his health went down and we couldn’t get anything done, it became really hurtful.

“When they finally diagnosed the cancer (in February 2018), he had lost a lot of blood. He was dizzy and dehydrated. At one point, he hadn’t had a bath in several weeks. He told me one time, ‘I think I’d feel so much better if I could just take a shower.’

“There was one orderly there who was nice. If she knew I was coming, she would put him on a clean gown and shave him. I tried my best to get him basic things like a hair brush and toothpaste, but they wouldn’t let him have them. They said, ‘Whatever he needs, we will supply it.’ But they didn’t.

“He rarely got his mail on time. I would write to him, and I had subscribed to several magazines for him. Seems like he would get them all at once.”

The couple talked on the phone every other day.

When her husband underwent the surgery at UMMC in April 2018, Knight tried to visit him.

“They wouldn’t allow it,” she says. “They told me if I went into the hospital that I would lose all my visitation privileges.”

A month after the surgery, Johnson emailed then MDOC commissioner Pelicia Hall: “(Knight) is doing very poorly, and we believe he will die soon if nothing is done. Anything you can do to get Mr. Knight the care he needs would be greatly appreciated.”

When he didn’t receive an immediate response, he emailed MDOC chief medical officer Gloria Perry and its chief counsel, Leonard Vincent, on May 25.

Johnson wrote: “We ask that you do everything in your power to help Mr. Knight.  He has lost an alarming amount of weight, and it is vital that he be placed on the diet ordered by Dr. (Thomas) Helling, his surgeon at UMMC  (Helling letter attached).  Mr. Knight needs to eat 6-8 small meals each day, and he cannot eat dairy or milk-based products.  Since returning from UMMC following his surgery, Mr. Knight has not received the diet ordered by Dr. Helling.  I do not believe Mr. Knight can receive the care he needs at Parchman (or anywhere else in the MDOC system), and I ask that you have him admitted to a hospital or released to his family.”

Hall responded on June 1: “I understand Dr. Perry and Attorney Vincent have already provided an appropriate response. Should anything change that causes Dr. Perry to change her medical recommendation, I will re-evaluate the position for a conditional medical release.”

Johnson fired back an email that same day: “I have not received a response since sending the opinions of the doctors. We remain VERY concerned about Mr. Knight.”

Knight was eventually sent to a Greenville hospital for what Johnson called “nutritional support.” During his three weeks there, Betty Knight wasn’t allowed to talk with him and wasn’t provided medical updates

Once he was back at Parchman, Betty Knight resumed her trips to visit him. “I could see that he was dying,” she says.

On July 3, Johnson emailed Hall and Perry: Obviously, Mr. Knight's situation is dire and his required treatment regimen is complex.  He has been receiving care in a Greenville hospital for more than three weeks, but he continues to lose weight at an alarming rate.  Mr. Knight's family visited him this past weekend, and they report that he currently weighs 113 pounds.”

Johnson received no response.

A final plea for Knight’s release was made on Oct. 29 in an email to Perry, Hall and Vincent: “Mr. Knight continues to languish in the hospital in Greenville.  I can only imagine what this must have cost the State of Mississippi. It does not appear that Mr. Knight will improve to the point that he will be able to return to Parchman.  I hereby renew my request that Mr. Knight be granted a conditional medical release.  His family remains prepared to take over the effort and expense of caring for Mr. Knight.”

Perry responded five days later: “There is adamant objection to conditional medical release for Mr. Knight. I, therefore, cannot make a recommendation to the Commissioner for Mr. Knight’s conditional medical release. Please be assured that Mr. Knight will continue to receive appropriate medical care.”

Betty Knight visited her husband for the final time around Thanksgiving.

“He was too weak to talk, and I think he was ready to die,” she says.

Around 4 a.m. on Nov. 29, the prison chaplain called to say that Stafford Knight had died.

“It’s been hard, but I’m doing good, my family is doing good,” she says. “I’m speaking out about Edward’s case because something needs to be done about this. If the prison system can’t care for (the inmates), then release them to their families and let them get their loved ones the best care possible. He served 18 1/2 years. It’s not like he didn’t serve any time.

“And I’ll say this: If someone treated a dog or a cat like Parchman treated my husband, they would be in jail for it.”

This story was produced by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to inform, educate and empower Mississippians in their communities through the use of investigative journalism. Sign up for MCIR’s newsletters here.

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