Aging in Prison: One Woman's Story


Phyllis Hardy turns 71 in September. Instead of celebrating with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she will spend the day in federal prison. This will be her 22nd birthday behind bars.

In 1991, her husband Willy Hardy was sentenced to 15 years for conspiracy to import and sell cocaine. Shortly thereafter, Phyllis Hardy was arrested and charged with conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine and money laundering. She pled not guilty and took her case to trial. She lost and was sentenced to 366 months (30.5 years).

These days, Hardy is known as “Grandma” to many of the younger women at the federal prison camp at Danbury. Virginia Douglass, who spent 14 years with Hardy, recalled that when a person first entered the prison, Hardy would make sure that she had supplies. “She would go in her locker and share everything she had,” Douglass recalled. “Or she’d take up a collection from the other women so that the new woman wouldn’t be lacking.”

She also utilized her years of experience to help others. Douglass recounted Hardy assisting a mother with a child custody case. “Her husband was trying to take her kids,” she explained. “And Grandma was right there- getting her into the law library, helping her write petitions and paperwork. When the woman got out, she got her kids back.”

But as Hardy has aged, her health and mobility have declined. Beatrice Codianni, who spent 15 years in Danbury, remembered noticing Hardy’s decreased mobility, and, despite her best efforts to hide it, her pain.

“When she got off her bed, I’d see her wince,” she told Truthout. She also remembered Hardy’s apparent breathing problems. “She didn’t like to talk about her problems,” she recalled. “You’d ask her how she was doing and she’d say, ‘Good, good.’ But you could tell that something was wrong.”

According to women who spent time with Hardy in Danbury, medical care “is nil.” Sandra, who spent six years in Danbury, has a list of horror stories about prison health care from one woman who fractured her ankle, and waited hours to be transported to the hospital, to another woman with a bad gallbladder whose complaints were ignored, even when she was vomiting blood.

“They asked why I waited so long,” she recalled the woman telling her. “Like I had a choice!”

In 2011, women at Danbury wrote a letter to President Barack Obama beseeching him to commute her sentence.

“She wears a brace on each wrist, a brace on her right knee, and is awaiting a type of cervical spinal surgery, which are just the worse of her many physical ailments,” they said of the 67-year-old Hardy. “We come to you as caring human beings, placing a great hope on your compassion and humanity. She has five years left on her sentence; it could prove to be a life sentence, and no one should be subjected to a life sentence if they were not sentenced to one.”

They went on to plead: “We are all in prison and we come to you selflessly asking you to free someone else.”

They received no response.

Federal Bureau of Prisons regulations state that if a person age 65 or older has served half of her sentence and has a serious or chronic medical condition, she is eligible for early release. If she is 65 or older but does not have a serious or chronic condition, she must serve the greater of either ten years or 75 percent of her sentence before being considered.

In 2013, Danbury officials told Hardy that she had been approved for early release and would be home by Christmas. A federal probation officer even inspected her son’s home in North Carolina where Hardy would live.

But then Hardy was transferred to the Federal Medical Center at Carswell, Texas.

Although Carswell is a medical prison, women report inadequate, if not dangerous, care. Codianni, who had been sent to Carswell in 1999 for a hip operation, recalled that staff were overworked and waits were long. After surgery, her wound became infected. She waited a week for antibiotic cream and antibiotics.

“People were in pain, and staff didn’t want to give them proper pain medications,” she recalled. “They’d tell them, ‘Wait in line – we’ll try to get approval for medications for you.’ “

She attributes the neglect to the overall culture of the prison environment, not necessarily the individual doctors and nurses.

Willy Hardy, who was released in 2005, told Truthout that his wife recently received her knee operation, but now has bronchitis. While he was able to visit her in Danbury, driving over four hours from his home in Maryland, even bringing two of their 10 grandchildren to meet their grandmother, he has not been able to travel to Texas.

Not Giving Up

The women who formed a community at Danbury—and petitioned the president on her behalf— aren’t planning to allow Grandma Hardy to die in prison.

Andrea James has gathered signatures on her behalf. When she and her parents, who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the original March on Washington, went to Washington, DC, for the 50th anniversary, James gathered nearly 2,000 signatures demanding Hardy’s release. Through a petition on RH Reality Check, they gathered another 8,000 signatures.

In 2013, James, her husband and the men in Hardy’s family—from Willy Hardy to the couple’s youngest great-grandson—drove to DC to raise awareness about her case at a rally called by the Institute of the Black World, an organization to empower black communities and organizations.

“Phyllis Hardy’s family will go anywhere to get her home,” James said. “All I have to do is call and they’re there.” Willy Hardy drove to DC again this past June to represent his wife at the Free Her rally.

On July 2, 2014, Hardy, who does utilize the BOP’s email system, filled out the survey for executive clemency. She requested assistance from a pro-bono attorney via the Clemency Project 2014, a coalition creating a network of attorneys willing to process clemency applications. But the process will be slow. Currently, attorneys are still being trained.

On July 18, 2014, the US Sentencing Commission voted to allow federal drug war prisoners to retroactively apply for reduced sentences, predicting this would affect over 46,000 people. Congress has until November 1 to disapprove the drug guidelines amendment. However, the Commission has ruled that no one will be released before November 2015, after judges determine each person’s individual petition.

In the meantime, Phyllis Hardy remains in prison.

Vikki Law is a 2013 John Jay/Langeloth Health and Crime Reporting Fellow. This is an abridged version of a story that appeared in Truthout August 20, 2014. For a full version, please click here.

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