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The death of a woman in custody is throwing light on Rhode Island's probation rules


The life and death of a Rhode Island woman has become a rallying cry for bail reform. From Rhode Island NPR station The Public's Radio, Olivia Ebertz reports that 1 out of every 73 American adults is on probation, the effects of which can be devastating.

OLIVIA EBERTZ, BYLINE: Carol Pona had a tough life. When she was a teenager in the 1970s, her mother was killed in a house fire. Her father was shot to death by the police. She started experiencing mood disorders and psychosis. When she had kids of her own, she had a hard time caring for them. But her daughter, Tiqua, says her mom still checked up on her.

TIQUA PONA: My mom was, like, in the streets doing Carol, but Carol would always make sure we were tooken (ph) care of. She was always there as a mother. No matter what we needed, we always had.

EBERTZ: Despite Carol's difficult past, her granddaughter, Latiqua, says she was a super sweet person.

LATIQUA PONA: She just basically gave everybody their flowers, like, make you feel good about yourself 'cause life is hard. Everybody faces different challenges. And sometimes you need a certain person to tell you, oh, I love you, or, you know, everything's going to be all right. And she was that.

EBERTZ: But because Carol's mental health issues could make her behavior erratic, she sometimes wound up in jail. And because she was on probation, the judge would hold her without bail. In Rhode Island and in some other states, judges get to decide whether probation violators like Carol are released on bail. Former public defender John Karwashan says his clients were held without bail about 9 times out of 10.

JOHN KARWASHAN: It's just, like, a really bad snowball effect. They get pulled off the street. They go to jail. They may lose a job. They may lose some housing. Then they come back on the street. They need to figure all that stuff out. So now they're in a worse position than they were when, you know, everything began.

EBERTZ: Stories like these are common in Rhode Island. According to federal data, the state has the third-highest rate of people on probation. Just Georgia and Ohio rank higher. Like Rhode Island, those states also allow judges to deny bail to probation violators. That had disastrous consequences for Carol Pona. She was arrested for stealing $202 in January and held without bail.

RACHEL BURGOS: As soon as I met Carol, she was always mentioning that she thought she had cancer, that she was in a lot of pain.

EBERTZ: Rachel Burgos was incarcerated alongside Carol starting in February.

BURGOS: She was always complaining to the COs, asking them if she could get seen by a nurse all the time. By the end of the time that I got out, she would sit in the recreational room crying - like, crying, like, real tears and begging them to give her attention, medical attention.

EBERTZ: Carol's granddaughter, Latiqua, says she was calling her constantly to describe her excruciating pain.

L PONA: They wasn't giving her the proper treatment that she deserved, and that's the wrong thing to do to somebody. She's human. We're all human. Nobody deserves to be treated that way because they're under the state's care.

EBERTZ: I couldn't verify this story with the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. They didn't want to be interviewed and refused to respond to questions over email. But three other inmates who served alongside Carol backed up the fact that she was asking for outside medical attention daily for more than a month before being brought to the hospital in mid-March. Soon after she was admitted, her doctors told the court she'd be put in hospice care, and the judge decided to give her bail. But Tiqua says by then it was too late.

L PONA: She was released at - I want to say, like, around 11:30-ish, and she died at 5:10.

EBERTZ: It's not certain Carol would have lived if she had been out of the facility. Her death certificate lists liver cancer as the primary cause of death. But her family says if she had been out on bail, she could have sought care of her own volition, or at the very least, she could have spent her remaining time with her loved ones.

L PONA: I can't save my mom. My mom's not here anymore, but I want to save others.

EBERTZ: That's why Tiqua Pona says she's fighting for the Rhode Island state legislature to require judges to set reasonable bail for probation violators like her mother.

For NPR News, I'm Olivia Ebertz in Providence. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Olivia Ebertz
Olivia is a News Reporter for KYUK. She previously worked in the film industry in New York City. Her documentary films have screened at festivals worldwide. In 2020 she was an artist-in-residence in Petrozavodsk, Russia. She speaks English, Norwegian, Italian, Spanish, and Russian with decreasing fluency in that order.