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Death of a Survivor

In April, Darlene “Lulu” Benson-Seay became the first woman incarcerated by New York State to die from Covid-19. Should she have been in prison in the first place?

Courtesy of the Benson family

In the free world, Darlene “Lulu” Benson-Seay would get dressed up just to sit on a porch: matching hat, outfit, shoes, all immaculate. During her nearly seven years at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York’s maximum-security prison for women, Lulu coordinated her pressed uniform with her sneakers to play cards in the rec room with her close-knit group of friends. She was, her loved ones on the outside and inside recalled, “feisty,” “stubborn as hell,” and “a beautiful soul.” Lulu was a sister, friend, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. She had a broad smile, an irrepressible sweet tooth, and a wicked sense of humor.

And, like the overwhelming majority of women ensnared in the criminal justice system, she had lived a life of enormous trauma—and resilience. “She had more than nine lives,” said her sister Brenda Benson. “She had 15 lives. She had been stabbed, beaten, raped. She just got up. Nobody could take her down.”

Then the pandemic struck. On April 28, 13 days before her 62nd birthday, Lulu died of Covid-19, the first such death of a woman incarcerated in a New York State prison. “There is no reason why she had to die in prison,” Kelly Harnett, an incarcerated woman who works in the law library at Bedford Hills and knew Lulu and her case, wrote to me over the prison email system. “She shouldn’t have even been here to begin with.”

Lulu was born in 1958, in Buffalo, the sixth of 13 children. As a child, she was sexually assaulted by multiple family members and beaten into a coma. In 1966, Lulu’s mother was stabbed to death. JET magazine ran a two-paragraph item about the killing, beneath a black-and-white photo of a dozen grieving, wide-eyed children, dressed in blouses and formal clothes. To the far right, Lulu, skinny, eight years old, stares into the camera, her dark braid fastened with two ribbons. The magazine reported that the “young mother” was knocked off a bar stool by her boyfriend, who then “pulled a knife and ‘hacked’ her many times.”

The Benson siblings moved in with their grandparents, who would not see them scattered across foster homes and group facilities. They packed into one apartment, ate beans six days a week and meat on Sundays. They looked forward to an overflowing bag of nuts, oranges, and candy, along with a gift, every Christmas. Lulu acted as a de facto parent to her younger siblings, carrying her baby sister—three months old when their mother died—everywhere with her.

A photo of Lulu (far right, middle) and her family appeared in Jet magazine in December 1966.

Lulu was “fun, fun-loving,” Melissa Love, that baby sister, now 53, told me, but she began to take drugs and became involved with men so violent that she had two strokes from the abuse. She bore scars on her head from a hatchet attack. “She was a drinker, she was on drugs, but she’ll give you the shirt off her back,” her sister Brenda said. “She had such a hard life. Some of the stuff we went through, I tell people and they don’t believe it. But it’s all the truth.”

Lulu’s story, seemingly extreme, is common in women’s prisons: Studies have shown that up to 98 percent of women involved with the justice system have experienced physical or sexual abuse. Black women are incarcerated at twice the rate of white women.

In 2012, Lulu and her boyfriend of 15 years, Ron, were deep in a shared drug addiction. One September night, in Lulu’s account, men came to the house to collect on a drug debt, knocked her unconscious, and stabbed Ron. When she woke, she yelled to her brother, in a downstairs apartment, to call 911, and tended to Ron, removing the knife and applying pressure. Authorities arrested Lulu and charged her with Ron’s death. She gave statements to police and attended legal proceedings while intoxicated. Scared at the prospect of a 25-year sentence, Lulu pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and received 12 years.

“She couldn’t speak very well, and they put her in prison,” Melissa said. “We don’t know what happened. We thought she was going to court, like with a jury, and she just got railroaded.”

“Our society gave up on her long before Covid-19, long before her sentence started,” said Beth Richie, author of Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation. “She was probably a uniquely wonderful person, but she is also tragically typical of the way that black women’s lives are considered disposable and our humanity is undermined, both by the ways she had to witness horrific violence as a child and then figure out how to survive within the context of structural racism and the mean-spirited carceral state.”

Over the past few years, Lulu, who was determined to educate herself on legal matters, had tried to find a way to freedom. She hoped to qualify for resentencing under the Domestic Violence Survivor’s Justice Act, a law signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in May 2019. The law, which can be applied retroactively, allows a judge to exercise discretion in sentencing if a claimant can prove that the abuse they suffered contributed to their crime. Brittany Penberthy, an attorney based in Buffalo, took on Lulu’s case. “When the law came out, you’re like: This is the candidate; she deserves the reprieve,” Penberthy told me. If the hearing, expected to take place this year, were successful, Penberthy said, “she could have been granted time served and released the same day.”

Alternately, Lulu hoped that she might qualify for clemency, granted by Cuomo. She was a member of Survived & Punished, an organization that advocates for mass clemency for criminalized survivors of gender-based violence. But Cuomo has been reluctant to use his powers: In his nine years in office, Cuomo has commuted only 21 sentences, including those for just two women whose apparent crimes were related to surviving abuse.

Having served over half her sentence, Lulu was a candidate for medical parole based on her age and health even before the coronavirus crisis. Her medical history included chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hepatitis C, seizure disorder, and stage-five chronic kidney disease. She also had a heart attack and open-heart surgery in January. Release for Lulu and others in similar situations became a more urgent public health issue during the pandemic. Since early March, academic experts, medical and legal professionals, and advocates have been requesting broad release for incarcerated New Yorkers—especially the elderly, the pregnant, and those with underlying health conditions.

In jails and prisons, social distancing is impossible, and there are minimal sanitary supplies and limited medical capacity. The Release Aging People From Prison Campaign, or RAPP, had called for the 9,550 people age 50 and older in state prisons to be freed. As of April 30, Cuomo had released 116 older people from prison—or approximately 1 percent of the over-50 population. (He also ordered the release of up to 1,100 people in local jails on low-level parole violations.) Were Cuomo to allow the most vulnerable to go home, Donna Robinson, RAPP’s Western New York regional organizer, told me, “so many lives would not be lost—not only of people who are incarcerated, but the guards, the vendors, the volunteers.”

As of May 1, 1,074 staff members and 375 incarcerated people at New York State prisons are confirmed positive for Covid-19; 10 incarcerated people and two staff members have died. On March 30, a top doctor at New York’s Rikers Island Jail tweeted that, in 12 days, one Covid-19 case had exploded into 200, that the virus was spreading rapidly, and that it was “unlikely” that the jail could “stem the growth.” By April 30, there were 376 cases, an infection rate of nearly 10 percent, compared to the civilian rate of 1.5 percent in the rest of the state. All numbers only reflect those who have been given tests, which are notoriously in short supply. When the Bureau of Prisons, which controls federal facilities, tested 2,700 incarcerated people for Covid-19, 71 percent of the tests came back positive.

A drawing Lulu made in prison
(Courtesy of Survived and Punished)

All visitation to Bedford Hills was canceled on March 16. Incarcerated women, civilian workers, guards, and their families fell ill. Lulu wrote to Melissa on March 20, cheerful as usual, grateful for her care package of popcorn and Honey Buns. Hey Sis, How are you doing? Is the sun out up north? I got the stuff you sent me.… Thank you very much for all that you did.… Love you both and tell the kids I said hello and to continuously wash their hands and face. Love LuLu. As the virus circulated, she grew anxious. On March 28, she asked Melissa to “contact people in higher places and let them know.” With her underlying health issues, she added, “I cannot afford to get this virus. It may kill me. Please help.”

Many people at Bedford Hills, soon confined to their units for nearly 23 hours a day, began to experience symptoms. Meanwhile, the policies in place seemed arbitrary and unclear, ever-changing. One day, they were given a ticket if they wore a mask; the next day, they were given a ticket if they did not. Long before the virus, the women did not, typically, trust the infirmary to treat them properly. Now they heard, through the elaborate prison grapevine, that those who became critically ill were secluded without any outside communication.

One woman told me that, after collapsing, she was briefly treated for Covid-19 and then held in a cell without soap or belongings for five days. She was allowed no contact with her family until a sympathetic guard helped her call her mother—who had been phoning the prison daily, looking for her daughter. As she began to recover, she recounted, she was placed in a refashioned suicide watch room with nine other sick women; they took their own temperatures, washed their clothes in a sink, and collected cold bagged meals. Another woman told me that her headache and nausea were dismissed for nearly a week, until she was vomiting bile, after which she was admitted to the infirmary, where she stayed for two weeks, delirious and unable to eat. “It was a nightmare,” she wrote. At least seven women in her unit had the virus, and others were “not well but don’t want to go through what I did, so now no one wants to admit it.… I honestly don’t blame anyone.”

Lulu kept quiet when she started to feel sick. She wrote to Melissa that it was “just a little cold.” Her friends brought spicy teas to her bedside. Lulu was a respected elder to many: During normal times, they braided her hair, cooked her food, and carried her bags. On April 3, Crystal Whaley noticed that Lulu, a fixture in the common areas, had been absent for days. She visited Lulu’s cell. “When she got up, I knew something was wrong,” Crystal wrote me. On April 7, Crystal insisted that Lulu needed medical care. She helped dress Lulu, who was taken to the infirmary, then the hospital. “I never heard from her again,” Crystal wrote.

Lulu was admitted to an intensive care unit and placed on a ventilator. Melissa knew her sister was hospitalized, but she couldn’t find the facility. Penberthy, Lulu’s attorney, contacted the prison’s doctor to find out her client’s whereabouts. “He was steadfast about not giving out that info, citing patient privacy laws,” she told me. Penberthy appealed to her local court to have the medical records released, “but it cost me 10 days.” According to Penberthy, the prison doctor “knew her condition was serious, and he had tried encouraging applications for her clemency.”

Hospital staff ultimately decided that Lulu, who had developed gangrene in her hands and feet and whose organs had shut down, had no chance at recovery. A doctor approached Lulu, intending to facilitate a last video chat with her family, but the prison guard at the door intervened: Per policy, no such communication was permitted. Lulu’s sisters called Bedford Hills to get special authorization. “After 30 minutes of them transferring us here, there, everywhere, we didn’t get any approval and no answer,” Melissa said. “We finally called the doctor back and asked if someone could hold the phone to her ear.”

The doctor put his phone on speaker. “Hi Lulu, we miss you,” Melissa said. “The next time you open your eyes, you will be in the glory of Christ.… You’ll be able to see Mom and Grandma and the loved ones that passed before you.” Lulu was taken off the ventilator, and died on April 28.

Lulu’s friends in prison had to mourn her alone in their locked-down cells, rather than at a chapel service. “I had hoped that there would have been some way her plight would have reached the ears of someone with the power, courage, and mercy to grant her compassionate release,” wrote Pamela Smart, who has been incarcerated at Bedford Hills for the length of Lulu’s tenure.

Four hundred miles away, Lulu’s sisters were trying to arrange for the transport and handling of her body. For the past year, in anticipation of Lulu’s possible early release, Brenda and Melissa had been planning a barbecue and preparing a room in Brenda’s house. “We were just gonna let her live the rest of her life until God called her home,” Brenda said. Now, they were trying to arrange a “social distancing service” on what would have been Lulu’s sixty-second birthday, on May 11, in a Buffalo park. They would remember her for her ability to pull through nearly impossible struggles. “My sister was never a victim in her heart,” Melissa told me. In 2019, Lulu herself had made a piece of art reflecting this: a raised brown fist with red fingernails, clutching a rose, surrounded by chains. Beneath the image, Lulu wrote in pencil: We’ve been punished for a lifetime. But we still survived.