Is Compassion Too Much to Ask from the Federal Prison System?

April 12th, 2018 by Attorney Dan Carman

Is Compassion Is Too Much to Ask from the Federal Prison System?

“Compassionate release” is a way for disabled or terminally ill federal prison inmates in Kentucky, who no longer pose a potential threat to society, to be released to spend their remaining days outside prison walls. Despite the higher costs of medically treating these people and the fact many prisons are over-crowded, this kind of release is rarely used, according to the Marshall Foundation.

Congress created the compassionate release process to free certain inmates, including those who are terminally ill, from federal incarceration if it’s “inequitable” to keep them in prison any longer. This should be a humanitarian and sensible way to reduce health care costs for these inmates too debilitated to pose much risk to public safety. Despite being urged by lawmakers of both parties, prisoner advocacy groups and even the Bureau of Prisons’ own watchdog, prison officials rarely use it.

To be approved for a compassionate release, an inmate needs the approval of the prison warden and must have an acceptable home to go to. Doctors at the prison facility need to decide whether the applicant meets the medical criteria, including being completely disabled or having fewer than 18 months to live.

Those who are considered for this type of release are some of the oldest and frailest in the federal prison system, whose population is aging and becoming more expensive to care for. The Federal Bureau of Prisons spent $1.3 billion on health care in fiscal year 2016. About 12% of federal prisoners are 55 or older, and many die behind bars.

Federal prison officials deny or delay the vast majority of requests. From 2013 to 2017, the Bureau of Prisons approved 6%, or 312, of the 5,400 applications received, while 266 inmates who requested compassionate release died in custody. The bureau’s denials often override the input of those who know the prisoners the best, including their doctors and wardens.

Many requests are rejected because they supposedly pose a risk to public safety or it is thought that their crime was too serious to justify early release. Nearly 60% of inmate requests were denied in 2013 based on the severity of their offense or criminal history. The U.S. Sentencing Commission has stated that these considerations should be made by judges, but they rule on compassionate release requests only if the Bureau of Prisons approves them first. Legislation was introduced in the Senate in February that would allow federal prisoners to ask a court for a compassionate release if the bureau denies or delays their requests.

Early release can also be denied for not meeting medical requirements. One example is a prisoner who was serving 27 years for dealing drugs; he requested compassionate release three times, but was told his cancer wasn’t serious enough to justify it. After his fourth try, his daughter received a call in March 2016 saying the prisoner, her father, would soon be headed home. Early the next morning another call informed her he had died.

Under Kentucky law, prisoners with certain acute and chronic diseases, as well as those who are terminally ill and have less than a year to live, can be considered for medical parole. The parole decision is also based on the medical condition and the seriousness of the crime.

Compassionate release or medical parole is more than a show of compassion for a dying prisoner and his or her family. It just makes sense to remove from incarceration prisoners whose days are numbered and who aren’t in any shape to pose a threat to others. Compassion and common sense can be in limited supply in the nation’s prison systems, and these inmates are living proof.

If your family member is seeking a compassionate release from federal prison or a medical parole in Kentucky, discuss it with one of the attorneys at the Lexington, Kentucky-based Carman Law Firm. As criminal defense attorneys with years of experience, we offer thorough, experienced representation. Contact us today to find out how we can help you.