With the pandemic’s devastating effects on the prison communities and the world, this year has been tough on all of us.
August 12th, 2021, was a day criminal justice advocates set aside to remember the life of Valerie Gaiter, my co-defendant. Val never received the proper medical evaluation and attention that could have saved her life. She also was never granted clemency.
A group of formerly incarcerated women, men, and several assembly members came together for Val Gaiter: Chris Burdick, Carmen De La Rosa, Julian Salazar, Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, Harvey Epstein, Taylor Darling Latrice Walker, David Weprin, and Assembly Deputy Majority Leader Solages. We convened at several locations in New York to memorialize her death and ask for the support of the Elder Parole and Fair and Timely bills.
Val suffered in silence with her misdiagnosed cancer as I watched her lose weight and could see the pain and sadness in her eyes. She constantly went to the Regional Medical Unit (RMU) to complain and kept being told it was acid reflux. They did not provide an effective communication system, diagnosis, and prompt and adequate treatment for her until her last days when she could not get out of bed and was admitted to the outside hospital only to die within days.
The sentencing judge convicted us of the murder of Mr. and Ms. Fiet in 1979. It took a long time to accept responsibility for the violence we caused and a whole lot of therapy. We blamed each other for years, and even though we were co-defendants, we had no other real connection. We were cordial to one another and even worked together in certain areas in prison. We were not friends but built mutual respect over the decades. We would talk from time to time about clemency and encouraged each other to apply, yet at each attempt, we were both denied.
I eventually secured the attention of a lawyer who took on my case pro-bono and secured my release in 2018. Val’s lawyers were working on her case, as well. And after my departure, our lawyers collaborated in an effort to get her out; unfortunately, Val would not live to see that day. On the day she was supposed to sign her release papers, she passed away, never knowing that freedom was just around the corner.
Going to the site that I was imprisoned in for 39 years was not easy. Haunting memories of locked cells, inadequate medical treatment, and lives lost quickly surfaced. Yet, I knew that being there was a vital testament to my work as an advocate.
I continue to fight for those women still incarcerated by giving voice to their struggles, advocating for legislative and policy change, and never forgetting the lives lost in the bowels of the beast.
Rest in peace, Val.