30 years ago, Congress passed a measure that stated that terminally ill prisoners could be released before their sentence was up. This is called compassionate release, and it is something that many prisoners and their families try to take advantage of. It makes sense — when someone is terminally ill, they want their family members surrounding them all the time, something that is not possible in a prison.
Of course, whether or not a prisoner’s application for compassionate release is approved has much to do with the nature of the crime committed. Someone who committed violent crimes, for example, probably would not be granted compassionate release, but someone who was in prison for tax fraud or another nonviolent crime would be a good candidate. However, a new study shows that it’s more than just that. According to the study, “The BOP (Federal Bureau of Prisons) does not have clear standards on when compassionate release is warranted, resulting in ad hoc decision making.” This means that compassionate release might be granted or might not depending on the feelings of the warden towards the prisoner.
Of course, whether or not those in charge feel a prisoner deserves compassionate release is a huge problem. Terminally ill prisoners are dying in prison because of the decision of a few people. However, that’s not the only problem. Prisoners and their families are not aware of the option, nor are they familiar with the application process. By the time terminally ill prisoners and their families find out about the option for compassionate release, it is often too late for them to go through the application process. Furthermore, the application cannot be filled out by family members of the prisoner; it must be completed by the prisoner him/herself, and by the time he or she is filling out the paperwork, someone who is terminally ill might be too weak to do so.
A lawyer at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy agency for prisoners applying for compassionate release, Mary Price, found that out of thousands of eligible prisoners — hundreds of whom are over 80 years old — only about two dozen inmates per year are granted the privilege. She said, “It’s been neglected for so long, and that neglect can translate into real cruelty at the end of the day… It’s not intended cruelty — it’s the cruelty that flows from a program that has been for the most part abandoned and left to run at all different levels, essentially on its own.”
So what can be done to fix this problem? The first step is to make eligible inmates aware of their options before it is too late. The second step would be to implement some standards for the decision makers so they know who should be granted compassionate release and who should not. Furthermore, those making the decisions need strict deadlines; when inmates don’t have much time left, paperwork needs to be processed quickly. According to Michael Horowitz, the inspector general for the Justice Department, the compassionate release program is one that is filled with confusion and mismanagement. We need to push for more humane standards for this program, because terminally ill inmates deserve the ability to spend their last moments with their families.
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