Ill Will

A parolee fights leukemia -- and the constraints of ankle monitors

Like many leukemia patients, Jacob Norris is a virtual prisoner in his own home. The 41-year-old Spring man is on 24-hour call for the phone message that might save his life: that a donor has been found for a bone marrow transplant, the only cure.

If that call comes, he needs to get to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and quickly.

But unlike others with his disease, Norris is a real prisoner in his house. The monitor strapped around his ankle indicates he's on parole and can't leave his residence without prior permission from his parole officer.

Norris already has been hospitalized three times in 
Daniel Kramer
Norris already has been hospitalized three times in 2005.

Around the clock, a sensor that runs off a phone line periodically sends a signal to the monitor. Should Norris go beyond about 100 feet from the sensor, the device alerts parole officials to start searching for him. If they don't locate Norris soon, a warrant is issued for his arrest.

The only exceptions are preapproved trips done during the day and not on weekends: doctor's appointments and grocery trips. Those are programmed weekly into the monitoring system. What can't be entered are the emergencies that are part of his battle against leukemia.

Twice in January, he needed emergency hospitalization. Norris was able to reach his parole officer and narrowly avoided an arrest warrant. However, when more medical problems -- or the call for a transplant -- arrive during the night or on weekends, an order may be issued for his arrest.

"I'm fair game if I leave the house," he says with a sigh.

Norris is a prime example of the apparent conflicts in Texas Department of Criminal Justice policies regarding seriously ill patients under its supervision.

He received an eight-year prison term for writing some expensive hot checks in some shady automobile and real estate deals. In May, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles released him on "medically recommended intensive supervised parole" after he served two years of that sentence.

That form of parole is reserved for inmates with extreme or terminal illnesses. Early parole allows sick convicts to spend what could be their final days with family. It also gets the prison system off the hook for the enormous cost of treating convicts with diseases such as cancer and AIDS.

That policy is hardly controversial, but the accompanying action by the state has come under fire.

As with most of the state's other 200 or so medical parolees, Norris was hit with what officials call the Super-Intensive Supervised Program, or SISP. That requires them to wear the ankle monitors and be subjected to other close SISP scrutiny.

"It is part of our policy that even though an offender has a medical problem, if they're fully mobile the panel will impose SISP," says parole board head Rissie Owens. "We just want to be safe."

"There are guidelines for SISP, and that ain't one of 'em," says attorney David O'Neil. "It has to be tailored to the offense. What they're basically saying is if a guy can walk, he's on SISP."

According to Bryan Collier, head of the state's parole department, SISP is supposed to be reserved for parolees who "have a current or prior conviction for violence or the threat of violence." Sexually related offenses also may result in SISP restrictions. Norris has no convictions for either type of crime.

O'Neil and other attorneys believe the use of leg monitors for medical parolees results from the infamous 1998 case of inmate Steven Russell.

Russell falsely convinced doctors he had AIDS in order to con his way into receiving a medical parole. He later sent prison officials a fake death certificate, ending his parole. Russell eventually was caught committing other crimes and was even found to have visited his lover in prison after his "death."

Had Russell been wearing a leg monitor, it's unlikely he could have pulled off the scam (see "Throwing Away the Key," by Steve McVicker, August 24, 2000).

"They were really embarrassed about that," says O'Neil. "Everybody went high and right after Steven Russell."

Owens says the Russell case had nothing to do with the changes in medical parole policies, although O'Neil notes that the changes came right after Russell was caught.

For whatever reason, Norris had a leg monitor placed on him the day after he got out of prison. He says he immediately began having problems with the monitor and the man who put it on him, parole officer James McKee.

Norris complained to McKee that the monitor was on too tight, that required chemotherapy treatments would cause his leg to swell, compounding his problems. "He said, 'Too bad. This is the way it's going to be,' " says Norris.

Norris eventually appealed to McKee's supervisor and says McKee was ordered to loosen the monitor.

"He loosens it way too much on Thursday, knowing it will set off 'bad fit' notices," says Norris. "He calls Monday morning and says he needs to see me before 10 a.m. When I got there the cops arrested me."

Norris was living with his parents, who insist their son never left the residence during that time.

The day after the arrest, McKee and Norris's father got into an argument when McKee came to retrieve the sensor. A neighbor says McKee pushed Norris's father -- which resulted in police coming out, although no charges were filed.

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