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Freedom Denied: A father faces a parole denial, COVID-19 and remorse for a crime

When Marsha Mason visited her father at Alabama’s Limestone Correctional Facility in 2014, he had a seeping open wound on his leg.

At the time, Marsha was a newly licensed registered nurse. She wrote up what she saw – “severe swelling,” an “inflamed, deep crack in his skin” with a “brownish discharge” – in a letter to the warden. She wrote that doctors prescribed for her father, Melvin Mason, only lotion and a compression sock.

Worrying about her father’s health was nothing new for Marsha. He had been in prison for more than eight years already for attempted murder. The wound was another ailment among many he had to treat or manage in prison. The elder Mason also had sleep apnea, arthritis pain, heart problems, and even two old bullets fired into his leg decades ago and lodged there ever since. He needs a wheelchair to get around.

Marsha often found there was little she could do to help him from her home more than an hour away, near Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Once, Melvin returned an expensive and finely tuned breathing machine that she had bought for him to help manage his sleep apnea. It required purified water and electrical outlets, which were scarce in prison. The prison gave Melvin a different model, but it had problems, too.

“All this one does is pump air. It doesn’t moisturize or nothing,” he told the Southern Poverty Law Center. “And you got to do the best you can do with it. It’s just awful how they do you. I believe they want you to die.”

In 2020, when Marsha began to see COVID-19 patients arrive at the hospital where she works, she knew the coronavirus posed a huge risk to her father. The virus began to infect incarcerated Alabamians in April. Some died of COVID-19, often older men like Melvin, who is 76.

The situation faced by this father and daughter is one example of Alabama’s broken parole system, which denies release to people despite advancing age and deteriorating health – even amid a pandemic.

Confinement and coronavirus

Avoiding the virus in a packed prison dormitory would be difficult. But the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles gave the Masons some hope when it set a Sept. 10, 2020, parole hearing for Melvin, who would be one of the oldest people to have a parole hearing that year.

On parole, Melvin planned to live with Marsha. As an experienced nurse, she could care for her father. Marsha wrote a letter to the parole board on his behalf on Sept. 2.

“While visiting with my father over the past 16 years, we had several discussions [about] the crime committed,” she wrote. “He acknowledges, and more importantly is remorseful, for the crime committed.”

Prepared as the Masons were, when the day came, the board denied Melvin parole.

Then things got frightening.

Within a few weeks, Limestone saw its first confirmed COVID-19 death. A 74-year-old man who had been incarcerated in the prison died from the coronavirus on Oct. 8 at a local hospital.

On Oct. 13, Melvin called Marsha and told her he was in the infirmary.

“He said he thought he had COVID. They said that they took his temperature,” she said. “The way my father was describing it, it sounded like he had the symptoms of COVID.”

It was the last time Marsha would hear any news from her father for weeks.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus continued to spread. On Oct. 15, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) reported seven confirmed cases among incarcerated people at Limestone. On Oct. 22, it reported 19 more. Like most other Alabama prisons, Limestone is over capacity. Overcrowding makes social distancing, the critical preventative measure against COVID-19, all but impossible according to a medical expert in the SPLC’s lawsuit against the prison system, Braggs v. Dunn.

Marsha prepared for the worst. She called the prison seeking updates. Once, while trying to reach the warden, she connected with the prison’s chaplain.

“I just gave him my number to make sure he had the right number, and I just told him, ‘Well, can I have the body when he dies?’” she recalled. “Because if you know [COVID-19], it can take you out in a second. You can be here one second and then you’re gone.”

A ‘heinous’ crime

Melvin Mason was born in 1944 in Florence, Alabama. He described his childhood as “horrible.”

“My mom didn’t want me, my dad didn’t want me,” he said. “So, I had to do the best I could.”

In 2005, he told a psychologist in a court-ordered examination that he was “whupped” with an extension cord as a child. The psychologist reported that Melvin “did not regard that as abusive but recognized that, by today’s standards, that would be considered abuse.”

Without a father figure in his life, Melvin had to piece together a kind of masculinity for himself growing up.

“I had a stepfather, but he was never there,” he said. “I didn't know anything about him. So, when I grew up, I had to learn what it was to be a man.”

At 17, he married Marsha’s mother. The two remained married for 20 years, divorcing in 1983.

About 12 years after the divorce, Melvin began a relationship with the woman whom he would one day shoot. The two never officially married, but Melvin would refer to the woman as his wife.

By 2004, Melvin suspected the woman of infidelity.

“I felt everything. Jealousy, anger and … not being a man,” he said.

He moved out of their shared house on a corner lot in Sheffield, Alabama, but didn’t go far. His new apartment was less than half a mile away.

Around dusk on Sept. 7, 2004, he went to her house and shot her. Then he immediately turned himself in to police.

The victim survived the gunfire, and prosecutors charged Melvin with attempted murder. She is still alive today.

Melvin spent more than a year in jail while awaiting trial. In October 2005, the psychologist assessed his ability to stand trial and his state of mind during the crime. His assessment in a report to the court noted that Melvin could stand trial. Melvin’s actions were “not a direct result of any mental disease or defect.” He did, though, appear “appropriate for a diagnosis of dysthymia,” or persistent depressive disorder.

A few months after the examination, Melvin pleaded guilty. The court sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

In the days between the attack and Melvin’s guilty plea, Marsha would visit her father at the Colbert County Jail on Sundays. She waited in long lines to speak with him for a few minutes through a thick glass window into his cell.

The experience was surreal for Marsha, who said: “It’s like, am I dreaming this? My dad, at this age, I’m having to go see him at the Colbert County Jail in an orange jumpsuit, and when I do get to talk to him ... he’s got chains on his legs and chains on his arms like he’s an animal,” She recalled. “Like, oh my goodness, what has my life become?”

Surviving a severe illness

As the coronavirus pandemic continued in October 2020, Marsha remained without any health information about her father. Meanwhile, Melvin blacked out at the prison and was taken to a hospital, he said.

“I woke up and I had patches on me, and patches here and patches there, and it looked like something was dug into my arm. It was really horrible,” he said.

Still, he survived his brush with a possible case of COVID-19. (Marsha believes he was tested for the coronavirus at the hospital, but at the time of this story’s publication, she had not obtained test results through her power of attorney.)

Melvin estimated that he stayed in the hospital “a week or longer.” He said that when he got back to the prison, he discovered his belongings were gone. Among the missing items were his new winter clothes, which Marsha bought – clothes that could keep her father warmer than his standard-issue prison clothes. Marsha suspects the other prison residents assumed Melvin was dead and helped themselves to the clothes.

Lingering symptoms, whether from COVID-19 or something else, made life in the dormitory hard for Mason.

“Everything hurts. And I’m half crippled in this wheelchair. Waiting on people to do things for me. Arthritis, or rheumatism, or whatever those folks call it, that’s what I got. And not only that. I’ve been having a bad time with this breath,” he said.

He also has persistent diarrhea and said that there are only two toilets in his dorm for 50 people.

“If I don’t hurry up and make it to the toilet, I’ll do it on myself,” he said. “It is what it is.”

He often relies on other incarcerated helpers around him to push his wheelchair. When a man pushed him to a bank of phones for an interview with the SPLC in early December, he said he would pay him with a commissary item later. “I don’t want to work a man for nothing,” he said.

Although he thinks about his crime “every day,” there are few people he can talk to about it.

“Mostly in here, [they] are children,” he said of the prison residents around him. “They are not able to comprehend what I’ve been through. And I’m not able to comprehend what they are going through. So, we’re at a standstill. And besides that, there’s only a few people that’s left my age to talk to.

“It makes you feel like you really don’t matter. It makes you feel like you’re not a part of this whole world.”

When he was denied parole, “it was like the whole world had come to an end,” he said. And that was before his brush with a possible case of COVID-19.

Though Melvin is 76 years old, the parole board noted it might consider him again after five years. That means if he gets another hearing, it won’t be held until he’s at least 81 years old.

The board chair, Leigh Gwathney, remarked in the Sept. 10 hearing notes that Melvin hasn’t completed prison programs since 2006. (He did complete two programs, including anger management and a drug recovery program, soon after arriving in prison.) Melvin nowadays feels isolated from the programs because of his age and limited mobility, he said. He likely will not complete any more programs in the next five years.

It’s the parole board’s job to consider the seriousness of the crime, public safety and any input from victims on parole decisions. But especially amid a pandemic, it should also consider public health, according to public health and criminal justice experts who spoke to the SPLC in the spring.

Alabama-based attorneys and advocacy groups have also called for many more paroles. Melvin seemed a strong candidate for release – and not just due to his medical conditions. According to his ADOC classification, he poses no significant threat to himself or others.

“If I could talk directly to the parole board, I would tell them that I’ve done my time, I’ve tried to do the best I could do to maintain my life in prison,” he said. “I don’t know what else to do. [But] those programs – I’m through with those. It’s going to break me down. I cannot do them. And what good is a program going to do me at 77?”

As for Marsha, she knows the crime that sent her father to prison was serious. But she will continue to stick with her father. She supports him with money and contact from the outside, even as COVID-19 patients pack her hospital during her night shifts.

“Even though family does something heinous like that, family is family,” she said. “And I try not to turn my back on people – especially family.”

Read more about the Freedom Denied series here.

Illustration by Ryan Simpson