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Arizona Family Seeks Compassionate Release Of Incarcerated Man Stricken With MS, COVID-19

Aurelia Williams says her son Ramon Stewart was a good kid. 

“He just got with the wrong people at the age of 18,” she said.

Stewart first went to prison in 2006, and then again in 2008 for second-degree murder. He’s been incarcerated in Arizona prisons ever since.

In 2009, at the age of 21, Stewart was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Williams says her son’s condition is deteriorated rapidly.

“He started walking with a cane. And then he went from the cane to the wheelchair. And then he went from a wheelchair to totally bedridden,” she said.

Williams says prison workers bathe him, feed him, and hold the phone for him to call home. Making matters worse, she says Stewart was recently infected with COVID-19 at the state prison in Florence, and he has become increasingly weak.

“He can say very few words because the muscles in his voice are starting to go,” Williams said. She says she feels helpless about the situation.

“It’s horrible to me," she said. "It makes me feel real bad. That’s my child — it makes me feel bad.”

At Risk Of Death

Dr. Barry Hendin is a neurologist at Banner University Medical Center and clinical professor of neurology at the University of Arizona. He says multiple sclerosis is a disorder in which the immune system mistakenly attacks parts of the central nervous system.

“The brain, the optic nerve and the spinal cord, specifically,” he said.

Ramon Stewart has what’s called primary progressive multiple sclerosis. Dr. Hendin describes the clinical course of the disorder as one of insidious progression.

“We’ll see people who ultimately have less and less independence,” he said.

Because the body is in a weakened state and cannot defend itself, Hendin says people with primary progressive multiple sclerosis can have an earlier onset of death "by things like respiratory infections and skin infections.”

A Prisoner In His Own Body

Katie Puzauskas is a lawyer with the Arizona Justice Project and the director of the Post Conviction Clinic at Arizona State University. She says due to the nature of his sentence for second-degree murder, Stewart is not eligible for clemency, even though medical experts say he is under imminent danger of death.

Puzauskas says she is instead pursuing a request for compassionate leave for Stewart from the Arizona Department of Corrections, "to ask that he be released to a nursing facility where he would receive specialized treatment for his MS.”

She says compassionate leave is usually temporary, “so that an Arizona state prisoner can receive medical treatment that they can’t receive within the Arizona Department of Corrections.”

Puzauskas is advocating for an exception to be made in Stewart’s case in which he would still be under Department of Corrections custody, but live in a nursing home.

“Unfortunately, he will always be a prisoner in his own body," she said. "So we think that the most humane thing to do here, is to have him go to a facility where there are specialists, who can give him this extremely specialized care that he needs.”

She says the decision is up to the Arizona Department of Corrections Director David Shinn. So far, their requests have been denied. Puzauskas has also filed a petition for post-conviction relief on behalf of Stewart in Maricopa County Superior Court.

Asking For Mercy

Warren Stewart is the senior pastor at the First Institutional Baptist Church and the chairperson of the African American Christian Clergy Coalition.

He and several other faith leaders in the Valley have called for Ramon Stewart’s release. 

“Yes, he committed a horrendous crime,” Warren Stewart said, “but we believe he has reached a point of remorse.”

He says because of Stewart’s rapid deterioration, the just and merciful action would be for the state to release him to the appropriate medical care he needs outside of a prison. 

“Jesus Christ said in the final days, we’re going to be judged by how we visited the sick, and clothed the naked, and cared for those who were in prison,” he said.

Stewart is not scheduled to be released from prison until March 2030, but his mother is afraid he won’t make it that long.

Aurelia Williams says they found a nursing home right by her house that would take her son. She says it would allow him to be with family.

“He’d get better care and he could do some form of rehab,” she said. “In prison he’s getting nothing.”

She says her son couldn’t harm anyone, and she is asking the state to release him early.

“He’s done over 10 years, and now he’s gotta suffer even longer," Williams said, "for however long he has left on this Earth in his body."

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Jimmy Jenkins is a senior field correspondent at KJZZ and a contributor to NPR’s Election 2020 and Criminal Justice station collaborations. His work has been featured on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Takeaway and NPR Newscasts.Originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, Jenkins has a B.S. in criminology from Indiana State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University.Much of his reporting has focused on the criminal justice system. Jenkins has reported on Tasers, body cameras, use of force, jail privatization, prison health care and the criminal contempt trial of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.