true crime

Is sending someone to prison ever an act of compassion?

Yesterday, I read a news story about a 36 year old Pennsylvania woman named Ashley Menser who was in the news recently because in 2018, she pleaded guilty to stealing $109.63 worth of “groceries” and the judge decided to sentence her to incarceration for at least ten months in prison. That would have been shocking enough. Ms. Menser is also very sick with cancer and could die within weeks.

According to The New York Times, she has advanced uterine and cervical cancer and needs to have a hysterectomy and tissue around the uterus removed. A post on PennLive.com states that Ms. Menser has advanced ovarian cancer. She is mentally ill as well, and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder over the loss of her child. At one time, she was addicted to opioids, and she currently takes powerful psychiatric medication that affects her ability to be able to tell what is real, and what isn’t. According to her attorney, Scot Feeman speaking to The New York Times,

“With the psychiatric medicine, she has trouble discerning what’s real and what’s not,” Mr. Feeman said. He said Ms. Menser was distraught after the sentencing, and that he intends to ask the judge to reconsider.

“She is in a lot of pain, and very ill,” he said, “and she’s very concerned about her health prospects going forward.”

Then, I read that Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, a Democrat, was prepared to personally write out a check for the value of the items Ms. Menser took from a Weis Markets store. Mr. Fetterman was shocked by the extreme sentence, even though Ms. Menser did plead guilty to a third degree felony and had a record of minor theft and drug charges. Even the powers that be at Weis Markets seem to be wanting to distance themselves from Ms. Menser’s case, which is proving to be somewhat a public relations nightmare. In a statement to the media, and without mentioning Ashley Menser’s name, a spokesperson for the market said,

“After she left our store, we alerted local law enforcement, who subsequently arrested her. Since then, we have not participated in the judicial or sentencing process.”

In other words, it’s not even like anyone at Weis Markets was dying to see Ashley Menser sent off to prison for such a long time. However, district attorney Pier Hess Graf issued a statement defending the sentence handed down by Judge Samuel A. Kline. She noted Ms. Menser’s rap sheet, which includes 13 prior theft convictions. Ms. Graf also noted that the judge recommended that Menser be sent to a state facility as soon as possible, so that her health conditions can be addressed. He also allowed for a special parole consideration, that could see her out of prison within seven and one-quarter months.

Having read about this– and I did look at another source, which seemed to show Ms. Menser in a less sympathetic light than The New York Times does, I still think the sentence is ridiculous overkill. Nevertheless, a couple of friends seem to think that the judge may be doing Menser a favor. The first friend admitted that she didn’t read the article, probably because it’s behind a paywall. But her comment was something along the lines of, “well, at least she’ll get medical treatment.”

Another friend had the same thought. Like my other friend who opined on this story, she wondered if sending Ms. Menser to prison is somehow an act of “compassion”. Both of them seemed to think Ms. Menser doesn’t have access to medical care when, in fact, she had an oncology appointment scheduled for the day of her sentencing. They probably think that because she stole “groceries”, although it turns out that Ms. Menser didn’t simply steal food.

I’ll admit that I don’t know a lot about Ms. Menser or the Pennsylvania prison system. For all I know, their state run prison facilities may offer top notch medical care for inmates. I just think that too many people are in prison in the United States, especially for non-violent crimes. Moreover, what I have read about American prisons and the quality of healthcare allotted to prisoners, particularly in for profit facilities, makes me think that sending Ashley Menser to prison would be signing her death warrant.

I decided to check out the comments on this story on The New York Times‘ Facebook page. Again– I was baffled by how many people posted comments along the lines of, “At least she’ll be treated…” and “It’s crappy healthcare, but it’s something.” I’m guessing the people commenting also didn’t read the article, which makes it clear that Ashley Menser has access to physicians and even had plans to visit her oncologist on the day she was sentenced. Menser was hoping for house arrest, so she could continue to be treated for her illness, which I’m sad to say, probably will lead to an early death for her regardless.

It boggles my mind that so many people think jailing Ashley Menser over petty theft is a good thing, and I would think that even if she weren’t so ill. Prison is expensive on many levels. Yes, the actual incarceration does cost money from taxpayers and the incarcerated person’s family, but it also costs in terms of “baggage”, which makes moving on from mistakes more difficult. The United States incarcerates a whole lot of people, and for some private companies, putting people behind bars and keeping them there has become a lucrative source of income. But what effect does all of this jailing have on society? And do people who go to prison really “benefit” from the experience? I would guess sometimes they do, but most of the time, they really don’t. Personally, I think prison should mainly be a place to send dangerous people, not non-violent offenders– with some exceptions for very serious non-violent crimes.

Ashley Menser stole “groceries” valued at about $110. According to the PennLive article, she didn’t actually steal food. The items she shoplifted reportedly included makeup, hair dye, a candle, and a “Super Skinny Serum” product. However, as Menser’s attorney pointed out, Ashley Menser is mentally ill and takes psychiatric medication that makes it difficult for her to know what is real, and what isn’t. I’m not at all saying that she shouldn’t be punished for stealing. She has no right to be a thief, and this is obviously a long standing problem for her, given her prior convictions. But even if she wasn’t so ill, I’d still think this prison sentence is overkill.

It will probably cost the state a lot of money to take care of Ms. Menser’s medical needs; the grocery store where she stole the items doesn’t seem interested in seeing her go to prison; and her crime was non-violent. Incarcerating Ashley Menser no doubt costs taxpayers a whole lot more than the value of what she stole, even without the cost of her medical care (of which she may have to pay for herself– some states do make inmates pay for their care– I admittedly don’t know if Pennsylvania is one of those states). Why can’t she complete her sentence on house arrest, under those conditions? What good will come out of warehousing Ashley Menser in prison, where despite the state prison’s greater ability to treat her medical problems over the local jail’s, she’s still going to get poorer care than she otherwise would?

Lieutenant Governor Fetterman ultimately did not deliver a check to Weis Markets to pay restitution on Ashley Menser’s behalf. Instead, he says he’s going to work with the company’s executives to see if they will issue a statement requesting that the court reevaluate the sentence handed down to Ashley Menser. He says,

“I know they don’t want this. Nobody wants this. My hope is to get them on board and say, ‘This has gone far enough.’”

Adding that he is still prepared to pay restitution for Ashley Menser, Fetterman continues,

“If there is no victim, why carry this out? Why are we arguing over whether a woman with cancer should be denied the ability to see her doctor?”

What’s even sadder to me, though, is that so many Americans think that the judge might be doing Ashley Menser a solid by sending her to prison, where she’s constitutionally guaranteed healthcare. The reality is, even though she’s guaranteed healthcare as a prisoner, it’s almost certainly not going to be as appropriate as what she’s already arranged for herself. This isn’t a case of someone who doesn’t have support or access to medical care. So many Americans lack health insurance and access to affordable healthcare, though, that they think this might be a “favor” or an act of mercy. It’s sad on many levels. I think a lot of Americans just have a law and order mindset and like to see people sent to prison… until, of course, it is they or a loved one facing time in the joint.

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