LEWISBURG — Donna Coma received a phone call last Saturday morning that every parent dreads. Her son’s heart had stopped, and he probably would not survive.
The call came from a chaplain at the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg to Coma in her Washington state home, some 2,600 miles away.
When she asked what had happened to her son, Charles “Chucky” Coma, 47, Donna Coma said the chaplain told her he could not divulge any more details.
“They left me not knowing the whole weekend,” the mother of four said in a telephone interview. “We didn’t know if Chucky was dead or alive. That is just cruel.”
On Monday, Donna Coma reached her son’s case manager at the prison, Matt Edinger, by phone and he informed the family that her son “had come around” and was sitting up and alert.
She asked to talk to her son, whom she has seen only twice in 12 years as he serves a prison sentence for bank robbery, and was told that could not happen because his throat was sore due to the medical attention received following an unexplained incident on Friday, Feb. 26.
Edinger also refused to say what had led to her son’s near-death.
Prison spokesman Shawn Barlett said the incident is under investigation by the FBI, and details cannot be released, even to family members, until it is completed.
“We would tell her it was turned over to the FBI,” Barlett said.
Donna Coma said she was never told a federal investigation was being conducted into what happened to her son.
Barlett said he would make sure she is kept apprised of Charles Coma’s progress.
A similar complaint was made by Jana Arche, of Los Angeles, last fall following the October death of her father, Gerardo Arche-Felix, 57, in the Lewisburg institution following an altercation with a cell mate.
Arche said she was notified of her father’s death in a phone call from the prison chaplain, who told her no other details could be provided.
Donna Coma said she understands prison officials won’t say what hospital her son is being treated in for security purposes, but is appalled at the way she’s been dealt with by prison staff.
When the elderly mother, who survived breast cancer 21 years ago and is now battling bone cancer, mentioned she wanted to visit her son when he’s returned to the prison to complete the remaining three years of his sentence, Edinger was allegedly dismissive of the request and said it wouldn’t happen.
Barlett said Charles Coma would be allowed visits at the prison from individuals on his approved visiting list.
“I’m 73 and fighting for my son’s life,” Donna Coma said. “I know he’s a mature man, but if we don’t fight for him, who will?”
She wants her son moved to another prison for his safety, as well as a copy of the video of the incident and her son’s medical report. All were denied, she said.
She’s contacted the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Veterans Affairs, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office and Dave Sprout, a paralegal with the Lewisburg Prison Project, an inmate advocacy group, about her family’s concerns.
“You can’t discount the need for security, but the prison should have a little compassion for the family,” Sprout said. “To get a call out of the blue that a loved one may be dead and not tell family any more is not right.”
Charles Coma is described by his mother as a troubled military veteran who returned from the Gulf War in the early 1990s with a drug habit and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
He received medical help for PTSD and bipolar disorder, she said, but couldn’t shake his demons and ended up with a lengthy prison sentence after a second conviction for bank robbery.
She said her son has been transferred to several prisons over the past decade because of his attitude, but he has stayed in touch with her through regular phone calls and letters. He was moved to the Special Management Unit at Lewisburg late last year.
“I know my son did wrong, but my God, he’s paying for it,” she said. “He shouldn’t be killed.”
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