Dying inmate can’t see family due to coronavirus, asks for release

Shauntrice Murry during a visit with loved ones before her cancer diagnosis.

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

Shauntrice Murry during a visit with loved ones before her cancer diagnosis.

Shauntrice Murry sat in a prison hospital bed the other night, alone and fearing death.

Pain kept the 45-year-old inmate awake, as did the ringing memory of her doctor's words from days earlier: We've done all we can. The doctor said to call in family for goodbyes, but the Georgia Department of Corrections cancelled all visitation amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus. Since her diagnosis, she'd lost a third of her body weight (down to 101 pounds) and could no longer walk to the bathroom without a fellow inmate holding her steady. Now in her darkened cell, with pain pulsing through her body, Murry called out her savior's name: Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.

If Murry dies at the prison, she will have lost a battle with a rare form of cancer. She too will have failed in a six-month campaign for a medical reprieve. While her case is striking because of the complication from the current pandemic, it also offers a window into how difficult it can be for ailing Georgia inmates to get early release so they can seek additional medical treatment or die near loved ones.

For a Georgia inmate to get such an early release, prison officials must send their request to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. Attorneys for Murry, who is serving life for involvement in a house fire that killed two children, first asked prison officials to send her application to the parole board in September 2019. Prison officials sent it, but the parole board denied, encouraging Murry to ask again if her condition worsened.

In the next five months, Murry said, her medical providers did not convey that her condition was becoming so dire until, last week, when the doctor told her she was about to die. Since then, prison officials started a new application that is expected to be sent to the parole board, which has sole power in the state to grant early release. The Georgia Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Murry’s case.

“If there ever was a case warranting an immediate medical reprieve, it is this one,” Murry’s lawyer Atteeyah Hollie of the Southern Center for Human Rights said. “Given Ms. Murry’s terminal illness and the ongoing pandemic, a reprieve is imperative to allow her to spend her final days at home supported by her loved ones.”

Because she’s no longer receiving treatment — apart from morphine for pain — Murry is hoping the parole board will let her go home to Macon so she can be with loved ones when she dies.

“Death is death,” Murry said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday. “But I would be more comfortable (at home), and I’d be at peace. Here, I’d be alone and scared.”

Conviction to cancer

The first traces of Murry’s pain came in the spring of 2018, eight years after she pleaded guilty to felony murder. One morning in July 2008, Murry pumped gas into a drink bottle at a Macon gas station, which she maintains was a favor requested by her then-boyfriend. What was it for? Murry said she did not know. Someone — it remains in dispute who — poured the gas on the porch of a woman Murry had recently argued with in front of the boyfriend, court records say. Someone lit the gas. The house fire killed two little boys who turned out to be inside: Hezekiah Harris, 2, and Tydarious Harris, 4.

After hearing of the boys’ deaths, Murry pleaded guilty to spare the family a trial, and herself a death sentence, her defense attorney said at the time. Through it all, though, Murry maintained her innocence. (The family of the victims couldn’t be reached for comment.)

Murry was sentenced to life, which means she would be eligible for parole at age 65.

At north Georgia’s Arrendale State Prison, Murry spent many days in the law library, pondering a legal challenge, until the pain became too much of a distraction. It hurt so bad that a fellow inmate sewed her a seat cushion.

Murry is mostly the quiet type, but gained friends easily in prison. She was someone you could count on to lift you up. She never had children but acted as a mother to inmates who needed help. Multiple times, she talked her fellow inmate and friend Brianna Render out of committing suicide, Render said.

Lee Arrendale State Prison near Alto.

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In April 2018, Murry requested help for herself. A nurse practitioner saw little wrong beyond a possible urinary tract infection, according to Murry’s medical records, which she shared with the AJC. A vaginal exam revealed a lump. But a doctor ruled out the possibility of a malignant mass on a follow-up visit.

“They didn’t know what was wrong with me,” Murry said.

From July to December 2018, Murry saw medical professionals more than a dozen times, which led to a variety of diagnoses from hemorrhoids to a urinary tract infection. On most occasions, she saw nurse practitioners or physician’s assistants, instead of specialists.

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The pain raged.

In the first three months of 2019, she lost 45 pounds and found blood in her urine. Her friends wrote and called the prison, urging better care for Murry, but they say their messages went unanswered.

That spring, following a battery of tests, including a biopsy and CT scan, Murry finally learned the truth. She was diagnosed with malignant neoplasm of the vagina — vaginal cancer.

“Everyone went crazy,” Murry said.

Friends and relatives mourned the news. Her first cousin, Felicia Coker, who’d grown up playing hopscotch and having sleepovers with Murry, said she wanted desperately for Murry to be released so they could find new doctors.

‘This is it’

Murry left prison only for appointments to take round after round of chemo and radiation therapy.

Vaginal cancer is extremely rare, diagnosed in nearly 1,300 women nationwide in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It often goes undetected during early stages. But the symptoms include bleeding, painful urination, or a lump — all of which Murry experienced prior to her diagnosis, according to the medical records.

By the end of summer 2019, the cancer had spread to Murry’s bones. She was now down to 101 pounds, and needed a wheelchair when not in her bed. Soon she couldn’t use the bathroom on her own, and was given a catheter. The doctors gave morphine. Even so, she said her pain was a “10 out of 10.”

In September 2019, one of her doctors decided surgery couldn’t help. The disease had spread too much. Murry now had stage four cancer. In a letter to prison officials, the Southern Center for Human Rights wrote that Murry’s medical records showed “that doctors do not expect her to recover.”

One doctor noted that she might be a candidate for medical reprieve, and prison officials pushed ahead with that request. After the parole board denied her request last fall, Murry said her treatment continued, but that her providers did not always paint a clear picture of how fast her cancer was progressing. Last week, a doctor broke the news to Murry. The chemo had failed. Murry needed to call her family.

“Let them know,” Murry recalled the doctor saying. “This is it.”

Final prayer

Murry now sits in her prison hospital bed, waiting. For reprieve. For answers. For death.

If she stares at the rose at her bedside long enough, she might forget the grey walls of the cell, the loneliness caused by coronavirus. She said she would feel so much better, even with the ravaging pain, if she could just be at her cousin’s house. Coker has a room set aside for Murry. It has joyful teal walls and leopard print curtains.

The family would come, Coker said. So would friends who were already released from prison. They would travel across the state, damn the social distance, to be with their loved one as she slides from this world. They would tell old stories. They would laugh. They would sing. They would make Murry feel less alone.

As Murry awaits the parole board’s decision, resting in bed, she keeps listening to a song by Yolanda Adams, called “Be Blessed.”

“Too many storms have passed your way,” Adams sings. “Seems nobody cares about you anyway. Now you’re living your life like a castaway.”

Then the singer tells the listener how to feel better: call out your savior's name. So Murry does. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.