May 15 2013 10:32 AM

Stricken with terminal cancer, Robin Reid languishes in county jail

Robin Reid
Photo by Kelly Davis

Two weeks ago, on a Monday morning, Robin Reid's doctor called. The breast cancer she'd been diagnosed with almost six years ago—that had already spread to her bones and liver—had metastasized to her brain. The tumor explained Reid's recent headaches and memory loss. Treating it would require radiation therapy to hopefully zap the tumor.

At such news, most folks would turn to family or friends, or milk the Internet for details about the procedure and prognosis. But Reid had to go into jail.

Every Monday morning since early November, Reid drives 21 miles from her Ocean Beach home to Las Colinas Detention Facility in Santee. She parks her car several blocks away—she's not allowed to park on jail property—walks into the jail and gets rebooked into a solo cell in the jail's medical unit, where she'll remain until Thursday morning. It's a unique deal, part of a plea agreement that allows her four days out to receive, and recover from, chemotherapy.

Reid will do this until at least December 2014. It's the soonest she can be released after time-served and good-behavior credits are applied to the four-year sentence she got in November for running a full-body massage business. But, she's not expected to live that long. She's on her ninth chemo drug, and it's stopped working, says Dr. Marin Xavier, Reid's oncologist. The prognosis is grim.

"Once you're on your ninth different kind of chemo," Xavier says, "you're kind of coming down to the bottom of the barrel."

Not long ago, a four-year sentence would have landed Reid in prison, where she could have requested to be resentenced—and sent home—under the state's compassionate-release law. But under prison realignment—a plan to reduce prison overcrowding—responsibility for low-risk prisoners like Reid has been shifted from the state to the county. While a new law allows county sheriffs to authorize compassionate release for inmates with less than six months to live, the law's implementation is mired in bureaucracy, leaving inmates like Reid hanging.

"If I'd actually been sent to prison, I probably would already be out by now—signed, sealed, done and with my family," Reid says.


In 2004, Reid was a 39-year-old divorced mother of four, working as a notary-signing agent—the person who finalizes real-estate loan documents. When work started drying up, she asked friends if they had any ideas for a new career. One suggested she go to massage school and start her own business. She could make $60 an hour, he told her, and if she added on a happy ending, she could make even more. She asked him to explain what "happy ending" meant.

"He told me, and I said, ‘Seems to me, I do that for free on dates, so why not?'" she laughs.

Reid started out on her own, eventually growing her business to 19 masseuses. She rented four houses—in Carlsbad, Del Mar, Rancho Bernardo and downtown San Diego. The homes, she says, offered more privacy and had showers where clients could wash up afterwards.

She admits she knew what she was doing wasn't legal, but attorneys she'd talked to told her that if she were caught, the penalty would be minor.

In 2008, after a disgruntled employee tipped them off, the San Diego and Carlsbad police departments launched an investigation of Reid's business, sending undercover officers to her various locations. According to court documents, the officers were greeted at the door by a girl wearing lingerie and told that $200 included a massage and a hand job. According to court documents, none of the officers stayed until the end.

Reid insists she told her staff that anything beyond a hand job was forbidden.

At the end of the investigation, Reid was charged with pimping and pandering. None of her employees was arrested, but in court papers, they're described as prostitutes.

"None of them had a history as prostitutes or were charged with prostitution," Reid says. "I never considered myself to be madaming. I really cared for everybody who worked for me."

Reid turned herself in at the Carlsbad police station. A lawyer she'd hired told her she'd end up with no more than misdemeanor charges. That lawyer was wrong. Reid was booked into Las Colinas Detention Facility, the county's women's jail. Though she had no prior record, she was held on $500,000 bail with her sentencing scheduled for August.

Reid had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. A few months before she was arrested, the cancer recurred, and she had a lumpectomy in November 2009. She was in the process of finding an oncologist when she was arrested.

She was booked into jail on Jan. 8, 2010, and, shortly after, started feeling pain in her chest, near her sternum. The jail made an appointment with an oncologist Reid had seen before she entered jail—someone she hadn't felt comfortable with, so she rejected the appointment, thinking she'd be allowed to pick her own doctor. Instead, for the next two months, according to jail records that are part of her court case, Reid was told that her pain was caused by anxiety and prescribed an anti-depressant. It would be mid-May before she'd get a CT scan showing that the cancer had spread to her liver and bones, and another month before she got to see an oncologist. It was around this time that she received a small inheritance from her grandfather; she used it to hire Paul Pfingst, a criminal-defense attorney and the former San Diego County district attorney. He got her out of jail on June 18, 2010, so she could begin aggressive chemotherapy and asked the judge to delay Reid's sentencing hearing.

Reid's not supposed to be alive right now. The treatments she's received have prolonged her life, but they've never put her cancer into remission. Her liver's still full of tumors, her doctor says.

While the prosecutor pushed for sentencing, Reid's doctors argued that putting her in jail would be inhumane.

The prosecutor ultimately agreed to a plea deal—Reid would be released to receive chemo—but also argued for the maximum sentence of three to four years. Such a sentence, court documents say, would ensure that Reid "will not continue to profit from illicit sexual activities at least while she is in prison" and would be punishment enough "to ensure that such actions are not seen as a legitimate means of supporting one's self."

The deal says Reid's on the hook for her own medical care—if she'd been sentenced to jail fulltime, the county would have to pay for it.

Each week, Reid's doctor and her attorney have to send signed letters to the jail's detentions processing department and the District Attorney's office requesting her release for treatment. It takes jail staff an hour, sometimes longer, to book her in on Monday and release her on Thursday. Though Reid's considered a low-risk inmate, her need for a single cell—because chemo lowers her immunity—means she's housed on a floor with high-risk inmates who can't be put into the general population, locked behind a steel door with only a small window.

Recently, Reid started getting excruciating headaches. She can't keep medication in her cell, so she has to wait until a nurse comes by. During her most recent stay, her cell was at the end of a hallway. She put a note up on her window: "I'd like some Tylenol," but staff apparently forgot she was there. The med nurse passed her up twice, as did the meal cart.

"I'm in a corner cell, and I'm just quiet. I'm not on the tip of everyone's tongue as ‘Shut up, Reid'—they're, all, ‘Oh, you're always go good and quiet.' My head hurts. I don't want to yell."

But she started banging on the door anyhow.

"‘Hey, my head hurts, someone.' And I did that for two hours before I got some help."

Deputies, she says, tell her they can't believe she's being put through this.

"People ask me, ‘What are you in here for?' I say, ‘I made people happy.' You can call it prostitution; I call it a full-body massage. Porn stars get awards, they're on the Internet with everything hanging out, pictures for children to see. You give a happy ending behind closed doors—you're going to jail."

A lot of her clients were elderly and unattractive men who had nowhere else to go to relieve sexual urges, she says.

"Some of them had their prostates removed. They were older and so weak, they couldn't even pull it themselves, if I could put it lightly," she says. "There were people who would come to the door who were so fat, old and ugly, there's nobody on the face of the Earth that's touching them. Do they have to be criminalized because they can't attract a mate? Much less marry one and have legal sex? That was where my heart was coming from. It wasn't about We're the fanciest bitches in town…. Our clients were the old people that needed someone to hug 'em."


Facing a Supreme Court order to reduce California's prison population, Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011 signed AB 109, legislation that, among other things, sentenced low-risk offenders to county jail rather than state prison. Prior to realignment, the average jail stay in San Diego County detention facilities was 75 days. Post-realignment, folks are looking at sentences as long as 10 years, meaning counties are having to reevaluate how they house and care for seriously ill inmates.

At least two state-court analyses of realignment note that terminally ill inmates sentenced to state prison can petition the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for compassionate release while county-jail inmates cannot. An April 2013 memo from two judges (one retired) to state court officials on new sentencing policies questions whether jail inmates could argue they're being denied equal protection under the law:

"It seems illogical to deny these procedures to the less serious offenders sent to county jail, but grant them to the more serious offenders sent to state prison," the memo says.

In February 2012, Sen. Mark Leno introduced SB 1462, a bill that would give county sheriffs the authority to release inmates with less than six months to live and inmates so physically incapacitated they require constant care. In both cases, a jail-system doctor would need to verify the inmate's medical condition and the sheriff must determine that the person poses no threat to public safety. L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, whose office co-authored the bill, estimated that while maybe 10 inmates would qualify annually, the savings on medical costs—$7.3 million—was substantial.

The bill passed easily, was signed by Brown in September and theoretically took effect on Jan. 1, 2013. But a late amendment requires a county's Board of Supervisors to approve a process to ensure that indigent inmates' medical bills would be fully covered should they qualify for compassionate release. 

Craig Sturak, spokesperson for San Diego County's Department of Health and Human Services, says the county's waiting for direction from the state's Department of Health Care Services (DHCS).

"Because this bill establishes what is essentially a new discretionary Medi-Cal program, we must wait for program regulations and procedures," Sturak writes in an email. "To date we have not received from the State regulations implementing SB 1462, and have therefore not presented anything to the County Board of Supervisors."

Norman Williams, a spokesperson for DHCS, confirmed this. He didn't say by press time when this might happen.

"It's already being done at the state level," Pfingst says. "How hard can it be to incorporate it at the county level? And look at how much time we've had to do it."

Leno's office rejected a request for comment on the bill's hold-up.

SB 1462 was Reid's best hope; without it, any change to her sentence requires the DA's cooperation, and there's no indication that will happen.

On May 8, Pfingst requested, and the DA and a judge agreed, that Reid be released for 10 days for radiation therapy and to work with her doctor on a treatment plan. She has to go back to jail on May 20.

DA spokesperson Steve Walker says prosecutors have been mindful of Reid's situation.

"This is an unusual case, and both sides have been working toward effectuating both her punishment and treatment needs," he says.

But Pfingst wants to know what's accomplished by her continued incarceration.

"She could have gotten probation. She could have gone home," he says. "She's got kids… and they should be with their mom until the last minute. This should be a no-brainer." 

Email or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.


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