A Costa Mesa woman raced back to Bakersfield Tuesday to hold her dying, incarcerated brother's hand after she and her niece were kicked out of his hospital room Friday because they had used up their allotted visitation hours.
Howard Irving Vines, 59, was serving a 15-year sentence for rape at Valley State Prison when he was admitted to San Joaquin Community Hospital last week with what family members said was a failing liver.
The prison had called the inmate's sister, Cindy Brenneman, 57, of Costa Mesa, to notify her that Vines was brain dead, and she drove up from Orange County to say goodbye, she said. Brenneman also called Vines' 30-year-old daughter, Vanessa Barnett, who flew in from Nashville, Tenn.
The pair visited with Vines on Thursday and part of Friday. They had planned to stay by his side until the end after he was removed from life support about 4 p.m., but a prison guard told them they had used up their time for the day and had to leave.
They couldn't believe it.
"We didn't want him to die alone," said Barnett. "We weren't causing any problems. We were just sitting quietly by his bedside waiting for him to pass away, and they just booted us out like we were nothing."
Barnett and Brenneman were so distraught that they seriously considered asking that Vines be intubated again until they could assert their visitation rights. They tried desperately to appeal to hospital administrators and officials at the prison, but weren't able to reach anyone with the authority to override the guard's order.
The inmate's daughter and sister returned to the hospital on Saturday after they learned Vines had survived overnight, but were again turned away. The women tried once more on Sunday, but still weren't able to gain admittance to the hospital room.
The prison lifted the visitation ban on Monday, but by then it was too late for Barnett, whose return flight to Nashville was Sunday morning. Before she left, she asked a nurse to read a letter to Vines letting him know that his family was there, and they loved and forgave him.
Brenneman left for Orange County after her niece's flight departed, but when she found out the next day that her brother was still alive and visitation had been approved, she decided to drive back up again Tuesday.
"I just think it's important for someone to be there," she said in a mobile phone interview from her car as she was headed back to town.
San Joaquin Hospital said the weekend visitation ban wasn't its decision. When inmates are treated at the hospital, prison visitation rules apply, said spokesman Jimmy Phillips.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it was all just an unfortunate run of bad luck.
"The intention was to extend visitation every day until he died, but that wasn't communicated, and unfortunately the people who could have authorized it don't work on weekends so they couldn't be reached," said spokeswoman Terry Thornton.
Part of the problem was that Vines had been incarcerated at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, but he was guarded by personnel from North Kern State Prison in Delano, which is closer to the hospital. That may have caused some confusion, Thornton said.
Typically, prisoners only see family members on designated visitation days, and then for a limited amount of time. The same rules apply whether inmates are in prison or a hospital, but it's not uncommon for wardens to extend visitation when an inmate is near death.
It's unfortunate that that didn't happen in this case, Brenneman said.
"I was hysterical," she said. "It was very difficult. I just don't understand how this could happen. And if it happened to us, it makes you wonder how many other families this has happened to."
Felicia Cohn is a clinical professor of medicine at University of California, Irvine, as well as bioethics director for Kaiser Permanente in Orange County.
Health care providers are legally and morally obligated to provide the same care to prisoners as for any other patient, she said, but prisoner visitation rules are different for obvious reasons.
Still, Cohn said the situation could have been avoided if life support had stayed in place until an approved visitation day when the family could stay with the patient.
That way, prison rules are not compromised, but the family still has time with their relative.
"In the community, we allow loved ones to be there until the bitter end," Cohn said.
The prisons have since apologized to Vines' family, and Brenneman, at least, will have a chance to be by her brother's side.
Barnett won't, however. She can't afford to fly back from Nashville, and probably wouldn't make it in time, anyway.
Barnett had been estranged from her father in recent years "because of the life choices he had made," she said, and the weekend visitation ban denied her an opportunity to reconcile with him before he died.
Barnett is convinced Vines would have heard and understood her at the end because when a nurse told him Thursday that his daughter had come, he started crying.
"He absolutely knew I was there," Barnett said. "The past is the past, and he wouldn't have been where he was if he hadn't done anything wrong, but we're talking about today.
"They robbed me of my last moments with him."