Convicted drug offender Matthew Wilburn was drinking coffee in his room at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman when he alleges he witnessed another prisoner walk up and strike fellow inmate Richard Weems with a deadly blow on Sept. 26, 2022.
After describing the alleged murder days later to Ignite Justice Mississippi Chapter President Mitzi Magleby, the prisoner advocacy organization’s leader, the 45-year-old Wilburn divulged something more personal to her. He was dying of esophageal cancer.
“He had witnessed a murder in Parchman, and he was giving me his account of the murder, and then he mentioned to me that he was terminally ill,” Magleby told the Mississippi Free Press. “The doctor said he would be lucky to live till March (2023).”
Wilburn’s Journey to Mississippi
Before he later ended up in Parchman, Matthew Wilburn worked in Ashville, Ohio, where he was a welder with the New York-based RailWorks, a company that provides and services railroad infrastructure products.
The Mississippi Free Press confirmed Wilburn’s background details by examining documents from the Panola County Circuit Clerk’s office and through interviews with RailWorks, Magleby, Wilburn’s brother, Hank Wilburn, and the Ohio Adult Parole Authority.
In 2018, Matthew Wilburn was on a work trip in Batesville, Miss., where he shared a hotel room with a colleague. On Oct. 19, 2018, police found drugs in the room: less than 30 grams of heroin and below 2 grams of cocaine.
“And the person he was training got caught with drugs and got him entangled in it because they were in the same hotel room. So he shouldn’t even be in prison,” Magleby told the Mississippi Free Press.
Nevertheless, a Panola County jury indicted Wilburn on three felony counts of conspiracy, heroin possession and cocaine possession with intent to distribute in March 2019.
As part of a guilty plea, the prosecution agreed in Sept 2019 to reduce the three felony counts to one day in prison and 10 years probation, with mandatory supervision for the first three years. That meant Wilburn would have to appear before a probation officer regularly. Panola County Circuit Court Judge James McClure III signed off on the agreement.
Following the court ruling, Wilburn returned to Ohio and came under the supervision of probation officials in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. The Interstate Commission for Adult Offender Supervision formed in 1937 to coordinate probationers and parolees who move from one state to the other; all 50 states and three U.S. territories are part of the commission.
By January 2021, 16 months into the period of supervised probation, the Ohio Adult Parole Authority declared Wilburn “a violator at large.” Asked for an interview, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections Chief Communications Officer JoEllen Smith told the Mississippi Free Press in December 2022 that he had “failed to make contact with his parole officer and attempts to locate him were unsuccessful.” Because of that, she said, Mississippi officials took over Wilburn’s case at that time. He would later find out that there was a warrant out for his arrest for violating the terms of his probation.
Wilburn’s brother, Hank Wilburn, said his brother started experiencing difficulty swallowing in December 2021. He told the Mississippi Free Press in December 2022 that his brother did not deliberately act against the terms of his probation.
“He was with me, and I saw that he couldn’t eat solid food. … He had to eat something that would easily go down,” Hank said. “… . But at that time, we didn’t know what it was.”
Hank Wilburn said his brother went to court and got probation. “Then, COVID hit, then all the probation, and all that got shut down,” he said. “He couldn’t get ahold of them, and apparently Mississippi didn’t know nothing about them being closed, and they issued a warrant (because) they weren’t getting no report from the probation officer.”
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections Chief Communications Officer Joellen Smith denies that claim about Ohio’s probation.
“While the specific details regarding an individual’s supervision are not public, this individual failed to make contact with his parole officer, and attempts to locate him were unsuccessful,” Smith said. “Throughout the pandemic, the Adult Parole Authority made contacts with individuals under supervision by utilizing home visits, visits at places of employment, phone contacts, video visits and other arrangements.”
Matthew Wilburn entered the Mississippi Department of Corrections’ custody at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman in early 2022 after Judge McClure sentenced him to two years in prison for probation violation on Feb. 17, 2022, citing “absconding supervision and failing to pay.”
Hank Wilburn told the Mississippi Free Press he learned about his brother’s diagnosis in June 2022.
Filing For Compassionate Release
After learning about Matthew Wilburn’s condition while speaking with him by phone in September 2022, Mitzi Magleby applied for compassionate release for him.
“I filed for a compassionate release for him. Finally, they granted it, and a case manager told him he was leaving on December 22nd, but he never left. So then I start calling MDOC heads, and nobody seems to know who gives out a date. Well, this man needs to go home,” Magleby told the Mississippi Free Press. “He needs to be in hospice. He needs round-the-clock care.”
Mississippi Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner Leo Honeycutt told the Mississippi Free Press in a December email that the organization “cannot divulge any information related to any medical release.”
The organization released Wilburn to a nursing home in Mississippi in March, Magleby told the Mississippi Free Press on April 13. She has continued to pursue medical release for other inmates.
“I have several terminally ill people that are in MDOC,” she said. “(MDOC authorities) have told me now when I submit my medical releases that they have to be within six months of dying to be able to be granted a medical release.”
Mississippi Score Low on Compassionate Release
Families Against Mandatory Minimums rate Mississippi with an F for its compassionate-release program and a score of 31%; just nine states scored lower in the October 2022 report. Kevin Ring, the organization’s executive director, told the Mississippi Free Press in December that many prisons across the country are turning into nursing homes.
“What we found in the report that my colleague Mary Price wrote was that they don’t use it as much as they could,” he said. “Meaning if we’re trying to spend our anti-crime resources wisely, we don’t want to use expensive incarceration space on people who are sick and elderly and pose no threat to public safety.”
“So that’s sort of our philosophy on that as to why compassion release is important, and we find that many states have prisons that are turning into nursing homes because they are keeping people who have been in for decades and who no longer pose a risk to public safety. In the states, we’re seeing that even if they have good criteria and they have relief mechanisms, they don’t use it as much as they should.”
“While the program is authorized by statute, no rules or regulations exist to guide the Department of Corrections’ implementation of CMR,” the report said. “Consequently, FAMM failed CMR in every grading category.”
“People who are bedridden because they are terminally ill or because they have an incapacitating or totally debilitating medical condition qualify,” the report continued. “The Department’s website commendably gives examples of qualifying conditions. The statute and the website differ, however, about the eligibility criteria. The law requires an incarcerated person to be bedridden to qualify, but the Department website (the only Department information FAMM could locate) does not mention that limitation.”
Another requirement is to determine if the state will incur unreasonable expenses if the person’s incarceration continues. But there is no clear way to make that determination, Families Against Mandatory Minimums said in the report.
“The only publicly available information about engaging the process is one sentence on the Department’s website stating that the individual’s treating physician determines eligibility,” the report said. “The website is silent about who initiates the CMR process and how.”
“No agency policy exists, and the program does not outline any procedures. The CMR program flunked in both those grading categories. FAMM could not locate any information or guidance about how the Department of Corrections documents and assesses potentially eligible individuals or determines a release plan, whether individuals have appeal or reapplication rights, or whether they may have the assistance of counsel, all contributing to the program’s overall grading failure,” the report added.
Such vagueness is not uncommon, Ring told the Mississippi Free Press.
“People are incarcerated and their loved ones don’t even know if they’re eligible, and obviously, without that, they’re not likely to apply. They don’t know how to go about applying. They don’t know what it takes to apply, like how to get their medical records and how to make their case. So that has definitely been a big problem is how to even make people aware that this program exists and then how to take advantage of it,” he said.
“But compassionate (release) cases are about cases where somebody’s circumstances change while they’re inside. They might have been sentenced and then, you know, 10 years later developed cancer or had an accident where they can’t walk, and they, in those cases, the purposes of punishment that were given originally just no longer fit the person.”
“In a lot of cases our prisons are turning into nursing homes, and that’s not the best way to keep us safe, and that’s what you want to avoid.”