Twenty-five years ago, Patricia “Patty” Prewitt was ripped from her five children and locked away for 50 years based on bad police work and a falsified motive of “lust and greed.” This past Friday, St. Mary’s faculty and students came out to try and make sure her suffering doesn’t last another 25 more.
Prewitt was accused of the murder of her husband in 1985, and convicted after a four-day trial. Sentenced to 50 years without parole, she has since been detained at Women’s Eastern Receiving and Diagnostic Correctional Center in Vandalia, Missouri. She will be eligible for parole on April 29, 2036, when she is 86 years old.
From prison, according to Associate Professor of English Beth Charlebois, Prewitt has been “a mentor to hundreds of women” through her advocating for prisoner’s rights and her focus on educating others with job skills. Charlebois said, “She has done more good [in prison] than I will ever do out in the free world.”
Charlebois met Prewitt during her 2007 sabbatical working with Prison Performing Arts (PPA), which according to the program’s website is “a nineteen-year-old, multi-discipline, literacy and performing arts program that serves incarcerated adults and children.” According to Charlebois, Prewitt’s leadership and personality immediately showed through. “She was the unofficial leader of the acting troupe and poetry class.” She added, “[Prewitt] recruited about 90 percent of the class.”
It was also in PPA that Charlebois learned of Prewitt’s case, and was exposed to a collection of letters Prewitt had written from prison outlining her experience both leading up to and including her incarceration. Charlesbois said, “I really learned about her past through her letters, and I learned about who she was after five hours a day in class with her. I realized with increasingly horror what it meant for her to still be in prison.”
For many, including Charlebois, Prewitt is unequivocally innocent. Charlebois said that both court documents and Prewitt’s own accounts painted the picture of a trial tainted by sloppy police work, gender bias, bad evidence, and selective attention to details. “To me, the state did not meet the burden of proof.” Charlebois also said she felt Prewitt expressed too much love for her family to have killed her husband in her home with her children sleeping only a few feet away in their rooms. “The woman I met would not have shot her husband. I can’t come up with a scenario in my head where she would’ve done that.”
Charlebois said, “I think she was convicted because, in a small town, if you don’t have a culprit and a smoking gun you need somebody.”
Charlebois also noted even if Prewitt has been in some way implicated in the crime, her sentence demonstrates a powerful gender bias against women who kill. Especially egregious is the lack of parole on her sentence, something that according to Charlebois is granted to many other convicts who commit crimes similar or even worse tthan murder. She added, “My guess is they wanted her to plea, they stuck it to her.”
Ever since meeting Prewitt, Charlebois has sent the governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, weekly post cards from St. Mary’s asking him to free her. Charlebois has also lectured in a number of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WGSX) classes about Prewitt, informing students who have become increasingly desirous to do something about what they also perceive as an injustice.
This year sentiments reached a head when Charlebois’s passion spread to first-year Maddie Alpert, who in February wrote Charlebois asking how she could help. Alpert said, “I heard [Charlebois] talk about [Prewitt’s case], she was so passionate and the case was so appalling to me.”
Since then, Alpert and Charlebois have worked together to coordinate students to write letters and call Nixon’s office, calling for Prewitt’s release. As efforts at St. Mary’s grew, they also became increasingly connected to the “groundswell” of support for Prewitt around the country preceding the 25th anniversary of her incarceration, according to Tim Bazzle and Brian Reichart of Georgetown’s Community Justice Project.
Reichart and Bazzle are some of the major legal forces fighting for Prewitt’s release. Reichart helped Prewitt draft her official clemency (submitted in December), and Bazzle has attempted to draft legislation in the Missouri senate which would grant prisoners such as Prewitt a parole hearing. Reichart and Bazzle, along with providing ethical and legal arguments similar to Charlebois’, also noted that there were economic disadvantages for keeping Prewitt in prison. Bazzle said this was something that legislators seem to have caught on to, and Reichart noted that the upwards of $1 million spent on keeping Prewitt incarcerated could be spent to fund upwards of 14 teachers.
To support the efforts of Bazzle and Reichart, and as a culmination of efforts throughout the week, members of the St. Mary’s community came together Friday to provide a new background for Charlebois’ weekly postcard: over 50 students in front of the Garden of Remembrance, holding a sign that said “GOV. NIXON – FREE PATTY.”
Senior Monica Powell, who helped coordinate the event, said “I feel pretty connected with this [issue] since [Charlebois has] been so passionate about it. I was absolutely happy to help.” Sophomore Aryel Rigano, also part of the event, said, “This is an opportunity to free an innocent women…I don’t know why the entire campus isn’t here.”