Eight deaths in 10 months at Pulaski State Prison

Eight women have died at Pulaski State Prison from cancer and other medical conditions in the past 10 months. Top row: Susan Weidman, Melynda Holden, Barbara Oreszak and Marlo Nichols. Bottom row: Stephanie Widener, Rosalind Pettiford, Cassandra Gilbert and Mary Ann Rinehart.

These eight women have died at Pulaski State Prison from cancer and other medical conditions in the past 10 months.

Cassandra Gilbert died Feb. 6, 2019 of metastatic colon cancer.

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

Cassandra Gilbert, 55 (died on Feb. 6)

Gilbert’s death was due to liver failure, the result of cancer that was believed to have spread from her colon to her liver and lungs. She began complaining of severe abdominal pain in 2017 but was thought to have a urinary tract infection, records show. Finally, she was examined by a urologist in October 2018. During that exam, a scan found a suspicious mass on her liver. Another scan in November 2018 found the tumor in her colon and confirmed that cancer had spread to her liver and lungs. Despite those results, she wasn’t seen by an oncologist until January of this year, and, by that point, her condition had become so grave that little could be done other than a regimen of painkilling drugs. She died at Navicent Health Medical Center in Macon.

Susan Weidman died of heart and lung issues in February. 

Susan Weidman, 57 (Feb. 26)

Weidman was found unresponsive on the floor of her cell in the Pulaski isolation-segregation unit. According to an autopsy, her death was the result of numerous heart and lung issues, including an irregular heartbeat, enlarged heart and pulmonary hypertension. The autopsy also found that she had a broken nose as well as abrasions and contusions on her nose and forehead “consistent with terminal fall injuries.” Weidman had been in prison since 2014 after receiving a 20-year sentence for her role in a highly publicized scam that involved taking over vacant houses in the Atlanta area. She had long complained that the prison system was denying her vitamins she needed to alleviate her breathing problems and had chosen to remain in lockdown because she didn’t have the strength to walk to the dining hall, her sister, Jeanne Benitez said.

Rosalind Pettiford died June 15, 2019, of multiple organ failure. (Family photo)

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

Rosalind Pettiford, 57 (June 15)

Pettiford died in the emergency room at WellStar Atlanta Medical Center from what the death certificate described as respiratory failure. That, in turn, was brought on by multi-organ failure over several days, the death certificate said. Pettiford’s daughter, Dorisha Culver, said her mother had undergone a series of hernia operations before going to prison in 2017 and as a result had surgical mesh in her stomach. Culver said her mother told her in 2018 that the hernia had returned, but prison medical personnel weren’t able to do anything for it. An aunt, Elizabeth Carter, said she spoke to Pettiford five days before her death. During the conversation, Carter said, Pettiford complained that her health was failing and that she wasn’t getting the medication she needed for her stomach issues.

Stephanie Widener died July 8 at Atlanta Medical Center from sepsis that developed over what her death certificate said was an "unknown" period of time. The 39-year-old had been an inmate at Pulaski State Prison.

Credit: Georgia Department of Correction

Credit: Georgia Department of Correction

Stephanie Widener, 39 (July 8)

Widener died in the intensive care unit at WellStar Atlanta Medical Center from severe septic shock and multi-organ failure 10 days after she was moved to the hospital from Pulaski due to a complaint of chest pain. Her death followed a months-long struggle to recover from complications after surgery for an intestinal blockage. The complications included a fistula that at one point caused the contents of her intestines to leak. In June, she was moved back to Pulaski from Helms Facility, a Department of Corrections medical institution where she had gone to recover after the operation, but she remained sickly and frail. Many who saw her upon her return were shocked by her appearance and concerned that she had been placed back in prison population too soon.

Melynda Holden died July 20, 2019, of Stage IV lung cancer. 

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

Melynda Holden, 48 (July 20)

Holden died at WellStar Atlanta Medical Center from what the death certificate described as Stage IV lung cancer that had progressed over a period of months. Her daughter, Amber Holden, said the disease was first thought to be COPD. Department of Corrections incident reports show that Holden was hospitalized twice in the months before her death. The reports show she was transported from Pulaski to Taylor Regional Hospital in Hawkinsville on May 31 and moved again from Augusta State Medical Prison to the Augusta University Medical Center emergency room on June 17, but the versions of the documents released publicly by the GDC provide no other details.

Mary Ann Rinehart died Aug. 11 of metastatic colon cancer. 

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

Mary Ann Rinehart, 63 (Aug. 11)

Rinehart was an insulin-dependent diabetic who dealt with pain in her legs and feet before she died at WellStar Atlanta Medical Center from metastatic colon cancer, according to the death certificate. A friend who lived near Rinehart in Cordele, Sharon Wright, said she and Rinehart spoke regularly by phone. In one of those conversations, Wright said, Rinehart said she had a suspicious knot on her collarbone. Wright said Rinehart told her she was experiencing pain in the area of her shoulder where the knot was located and was having trouble seeing a doctor. According to Rinehart’s daughter, Susan Roberts, an examination of the knot led to a scan that showed cancer had spread from Rinehart’s colon to her back and spine.

Marlo Nichols died Sept. 21 of Stage IV cervical cancer, according to her death certificate. She was 52.

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

Marlo Nichols, 52 (Sept. 21)

Nichols died in the Pulaski medical unit from what the death certificate said was Stage IV cervical cancer. According to another inmate, Bertha Sullivan, the cancer wasn’t discovered until Nichols was hospitalized in August following months of complaints to medical personnel that she was frequently constipated and dealing with abdominal pain. At the hospital, the cancer was found to have spread to the point that chemotherapy wouldn’t help, so Nichols was returned to Pulaski and housed in the medical unit, Sullivan said. Nichols’ grandmother, Agnes Reid, said she spoke to her granddaughter about a week before her death. Reid said Nichols told her she’d been in the hospital but gave no details. Reid said Nichols had previously complained of feeling “knots” in her stomach.

Barbara Ann Oreszak died Oct. 15 from respiratory failure. 

Credit: Georgia Department of Correction

Credit: Georgia Department of Correction

Barbara Ann Oreszak, 65 (Oct. 19)

A death certificate has yet to be completed for Oreszak, a resident of Maple Shade, N.J., had been incarcerated in Georgia since 2015 for her role in a scam that targeted an elderly couple in Columbia County. Fred Clark III, the Pulaski County coroner, said Oreszak’s death was the result of respiratory failure that followed years of lung problems. He said no one would claim Oreszak’s body, so she was buried at the Georgia State Prison Cemetery in Reidsville.

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