Locked up: Meet the elderly and infirm women now in prison for pro-life activism

pro-life activists in prison Joan Andrews Bell, Jean Marshall, Heather Idoni, and Paulette Harlow are four pro-life women serving time after being convicted on federal charges for for blockading the inside of an abortion clinic in 2020. | Credit: Chris Bell/Laura Gise/Heather Idoni/Paulette Harlow

Since she has been in prison, Jean Marshall, 74, a Catholic and pro-life nurse from Massachusetts, told CNA that she’s received over 150 letters of support, which have lifted her spirits.

Marshall and three other women with major health issues spoke with CNA about their imprisonment and their treatment by the justice system under the Biden administration.

Their crime? In an attempt to save the unborn on Oct. 22, 2020, they participated in a human chain, blockading the inside of a Washington, D.C., abortion clinic run by well-known late-term abortionist Dr. Cesare Santangelo.

The women are among 10 protesters who participated in the attempt to save the unborn at the clinic that day who were convicted on federal charges under the controversial Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which has largely been applied to the prosecution of pro-life activists. All of them, including Marshall, are now incarcerated.

Santangelo’s clinic made news in 2022 when the secular pro-life group Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising (PAAU) announced that it had obtained the remains of 115 aborted babies from the clinic by a driver for a medical waste company.

Five of those babies appeared to be of late-term gestation and have become the center of a public dispute between federal lawmakers, pro-life groups, and the D.C. medical examiner’s office — which possessed the remains — over the medical examiner’s refusal to conduct an autopsy to determine whether the babies were killed in an illegal partial-birth abortion.

Jean Marshall, 74, serving 24 months in jail 

Marshall was convicted on Sept. 15, 2023, of felony conspiracy against civil rights and violating the FACE Act, to which she was sentenced to 24 months of incarceration. She has already served nine months of her sentence in the Alexandria Detention Center in Alexandria, Virginia. 

When Marshall, of Kingston, Massachusetts, participated in the blockade, she said she wasn’t thinking about herself or what could happen to her. For her, it was a “rescue” of the unborn.

Marshall, speaking by telephone to CNA from the Alexandria detention center, explained that she wanted to save lives. 

“When you’re about to save the life of a child you don’t think, ‘Oh, what will happen if I get hit?’ or ‘Oh, what will happen if I don’t have enough insurance?’ I’m just there to save the child. I don’t think about all of that. It is the right thing to do at the right time, yes it is,” Marshall said. 

“Talking to my sister she told me: ‘Jean, thousands of people are praying for you,’” she added. “And I said, ‘Well, if I don’t become a saint after this, then shame on me. I really do need those prayers.’”

Marshall maintains her innocence, but the penalty is exacerbating her health problems. She suffers from osteoporosis, acute hip pain, and gastroesophageal reflux disease.

She is supposed to walk for exercise to treat her osteoporosis, but she can’t because of her severe hip pain. That hip pain was supposed to be treated with surgery scheduled prior to sentencing but wasn’t allowed by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, Marshall said. 

She said that she fears she will fall and break her hip, with no one to help her since correction officers only check on her every 30 minutes.

“We’re suffering as Christ did,” Marshall said.

Heather Idoni, 59, serving 24 months in jail

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Heather Idoni, 59, was found guilty Aug. 29, 2023, of felony conspiracy against civil rights and violating the FACE Act. She was sentenced to 24 months of incarceration and was in the DC Central Detention Facility at the time of CNA’s interview with her. 

She has since been moved to a facility in Michigan, near her home in Linden.

Marshall told CNA that the health issues that Idoni has dealt with during imprisonment “trump” her own suffering.

Idoni told CNA in May that she had a stroke in April while imprisoned. She said she was also neglected by jail staff who failed to administer her necessary diabetes treatment.

She said she started feeling tightness in her chest on April 24 and was taken to the hospital in Richmond, Virginia. Doctors found “three areas of disease” and placed three wire mesh stents in the main arteries above her heart, Idoni said.

During her recovery in the hospital, doctors conducted tests on Idoni, who had lost some vision in her right eye, only to find that she had suffered a “mini-stroke,” she said. 

“Probably the hardest thing was being disallowed from contact with anyone outside the hospital, being in ankle shackles [even for sleeping], and no one knowing where I was,” Idoni, a Christian, said. 

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“But God did so many beautiful things! I had two guards at all times and got to witness to them. I also had a few dynamic Christian caregivers, one being a federal marshal. I am doing well now, although in a tough place since I was moved to DC jail. Whole ’nuther world! But glory to God!  His mercies are new every morning,” she said.

Idoni said the jail staff had made a grave error in failing to treat her diabetes. She said that her blood sugar should be under 200 mg/dL, but it had risen to 426 mg/dL after not being given insulin for almost two days during her transfer from the hospital to the D.C.-based jail.

After becoming “weaker and dizzier,” she was finally given insulin by the jail nurse and told to remain seated until she was stable. However, some correction officers told the nurse she had no authority over Idoni and forced Idoni to make the long walk back to her cell.

Idoni said that the next day, nobody checked on her condition, and she waited all day without any insulin. She didn’t receive the medicine until that night, after she alerted a corrections officer. 

Those who suffer from diabetes and go without insulin for an extended period of time, about three or four days, could face death, according to Healthline.

Joan Andrews Bell, 76, serving 27 months in jail

Another Catholic, Joan Andrews Bell, 76, was found guilty on Sept. 15, 2023, of felony conspiracy against civil rights and violating the FACE Act. 

Bell, of Montague, New Jersey, was sentenced to 27 months of incarceration and has been serving time in the Alexandria Detention Center, but she will be moved, according to her husband.

Speaking to CNA, Bell’s husband, Chris Bell, said he is offering the pain of being separated from his wife in reparation for the sins of abortion. The Bells have seven children and seven grandchildren.

“One day at a time, one prayer at a time, I’m getting through,” he said. “It’s a very unusual position to be in at this point in our lives because I rely on her a lot for the family. Even though our children are not children, they’re young adults, still, it’s a very active and big family. And I’m missing my better half.”

Chris said that although the separation is “incredibly disorienting,” he fully supports his wife. “She should be here because in a just society, she would be appropriately applauded. And in an unjust society, she is condemned. And so we’re all condemned.”

Joan spends most of her days praying all four mysteries of the rosary, novenas, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and watching Mass on EWTN’s television channel, Chris said. She has even started her own “inside prison ministry” using her “listening ear” to encourage some of her fellow inmates to pursue a better path in life, he said.

Paulette Harlow, 75, sentenced to 24 months of incarceration

Another elderly convict in the case — and the sister of Jean Marshall — is Paulette Harlow, 75, of Kingston, Massachusetts. Harlow, a Catholic, was found guilty on Nov. 16, 2023, of felony conspiracy against civil rights and violating the FACE Act.

She was sentenced to 24 months of incarceration but has remained under house arrest throughout the proceedings of the case because of her severe health issues. 

Speaking to CNA from her home in a phone call in early June, she said she has multiple health issues: diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, spinal stenosis, severe arthritis in her neck, sleep apnea, bronchial asthma, fibromyalgia, neuropathy in both of her feet, migraine headaches, arthritis in her right hip, psoriasis in her left hip, and tinnitus in her left ear, which is causing short-term memory loss. 

Harlow’s lawyer, Allen Orenberg, told CNA last November after her conviction that he was “optimistic” that the judge would sentence Harlow to home detention, given her health issues.

“Mrs. Harlow has some significant medical issues that need to be addressed on a regular basis. And the judge said on the record that this will allow her to see her doctors rather than having to deal with the Bureau of Prisons at this stage where the level or the quality of medical care may not be the same,” he said.

But he was wrong. On May 31, Judge Kollar-Kotelly, who sentenced each of the defendants in the case, handed down a sentence of two years of imprisonment. 

Orenberg told CNA after her sentencing that Harlow would be sent to a “medical prison,” a facility that is able to offer a high level of care. 

But Harlow is still at home, under house arrest, while awaiting a spot to open up in the medical prison. She told CNA that she gets no credit for time served.

She said that during her eight months of confinement, she has not been legally allowed to leave her home to attend Mass at her local parish. On several occasions, a priest has come to her home to celebrate Mass. Her husband brings her home holy Communion consistently, she said.

She told CNA that she is “concerned” about going to the prison but “not afraid because I know wherever I’m going, Jesus is going before me.”

Leaving her husband, she said, will be the hardest part. Harlow said it was an “honor to work and stand up before the unborn.”

“I’m heartbroken for all of us. I’m heartbroken for America. I really am,” she said.

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