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Congress Wants to Know Why the BOP Won't Let Elderly Prisoners Go Home to Die

"Compassionate release" is an excellent tool that the BOP refuses to use.

For years, federal prisoners and their advocates have begged the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to shorten the sentences of elderly and terminally ill offenders using a provision called "compassionate release."

With the stroke of a pen, the BOP has the power to release men like Bruce Harrison, sentenced in 1994 to 50 years for delivering cocaine and marijuana at the behest of undercover federal agents. Now 65, Harrison suffers from a heart condition and has neuropathy in his feet that makes it difficult to walk. His official release date? 2037.

Then there are prisoners like Michael Hodge, who was sentenced in 2000 to 20 years for distributing marijuana while in possession of a firearm. Hodge developed pancreatic cancer while in prison and requested to be released so he could die in the company of family. That request was denied, and Hodge died behind bars in 2015, according to the Washington Post.

In 2013, the DOJ Office of Inspector General encouraged the BOP to send these kinds of prisoners home. Two years later, the office released a report that found "aging inmates engage in fewer misconduct incidents while incarcerated and have a lower rate of re-arrest once released." In 2016, the U.S. Sentencing Commission went so far as to expand eligibility for the program in hopes the BOP would use it more.

But the BOP has largely ignored those recommendations. Yesterday, Congress demanded that the BOP explain why it continues to incarcerate geriatric and terminally ill prisoners who pose no threat to public safety and are unlikely to commit new crimes upon their release.

In a report accompanying the 2018 appropriations bill, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) ordered the BOP to turn over reams of data about the compassionate release program. Including:

  • the steps BOP has taken to implement the suggestions of the BOP Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Sentencing Commission
  • a detailed explanation as to which recommendations the BOP has not adopted, and why
  • the number of prisoners who applied for compassionate release in the last five years, as well as how many requests were granted, how many were denied, and why
  • how much time elapsed between each request and a decision from the BOP
  • the number of prisoners who died while waiting for the BOP to rule on their application for compassionate release

Only 10 percent of America's prisoners are in federal prisons, but it is an increasingly old and sick population due to the disproportionately long sentences tied to federal drug offenses. As of June 2017, BOP facilities held 34,769 prisoners over the age of 51. More than 10,000 of those prisoners are over the age of 60.

Elderly prisoners pose financial and human rights problems.

"In fiscal year 2014, the BOP spent $1.1 billion on inmate medical care, an increase of almost 30 percent in 5 years," DOJ Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz wrote in prepared testimony to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. "One factor that has significantly contributed to the increase in medical costs is the sustained growth of an aging inmate population." In its 2015 report, the DOJ OIG determined that facilities with the oldest populations spent $10,114 annually on medical care per prisoner, compared to $1,916 per prisoner in facilities with the youngest populations.

"It is difficult to climb to the upper bunk, walk up stairs, wait outside for pills, take showers in facilities without bars and even hear the commands to stand up for count or sit down when you're told," Human Rights Watch's Jamie Fellner told the Washington Post. "Prisons simply are not physically designed to accommodate the infirmities that come with age."

Shelby's letter gives the BOP 60 days from the passage of the appropriations bill to submit its data to the committee.

"Elderly and sick prisoners cost taxpayers the most and threaten us the least, and there's no good reason they should stay locked up or die behind bars because bureaucrats can't or won't let them go home to their families," Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in a statement. "It's time for someone to get to the bottom of why the BOP's answer is always no on compassionate release."

Disclosure: This reporter worked for FAMM from 2013-2015

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  • some guy||

    Government is the non-violent criminals we choose to torment together.

  • Rhywun||

    Or "criminals".

  • Ned Netterville||

    Nonviolent? What government are you talking about?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Get old like a thug, stay in prison like a thug.

  • Ned Netterville||

    There are more thugs working as government agents and officials than there are thugs in government prisons--by far.

  • Rhywun||

    50 years for delivering cocaine and marijuana

    Never let it be said that America doesn't have political prisoners.

  • Dillinger||

    ^^ cannot be said better.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Not sure why a drug violation, even one solicited by cops, make one a political prisoner. Unless you want to argue that ALL laws are essentially political. Unjust? Sure. The entire War on Drugs is utter dung. 'Political Prisoner' is usually taken to mean 'spoke unthriftily about those in power'.

    This is another case where I get weary of the Left's hyperbole. Yes, there are too many young black men in prison. Yes, the War on Drugs is idiocy. OTOH when some self-rightious twit pontificates that the U.S. has a higher prison population that anyone else, my first thought is "What about North Korea, where aside from a small political clique the entire population is imprisoned? Or the Islamic countries that treat the female population as something between prisoners and livestock?". The statistic may even be true for a general acceptable definition of 'Prisoner', but it smells of bullshit.

  • Shirley Knott||

    Well, there's another part of this that needs at least a glance.
    For prisoners who do, in fact, have a more-or-less willing/supportive family, okay.
    For the rest, well, shouldn't we at least compare the costs? They have serious health conditions, they presumably have no insurance and near-zero funds. They're going to be wards of the state one way or another.
    Yes, of course, prison is an offense against human dignity, at least in this case. But we're talking old, infirm, ill and thus suffering the indignities of those unhappy conditions. Standard of care/support may be more like "lonely old guy who lives alone" in the 50s or 60s than like hospice today.
    So who pays (real world, this year / next year, not "when we're doing things right")? What are the trade-offs?

  • Stoic||

    The cost of providing care inside the prisons is most likely much higher than providing it outside, especially if the prisoner is having to go off-site (accompanied by a prison guard on overtime). Once the numbers get above a certain point, they'll probably need to start building nursing-home-style units within prison facilities, which I'm sure is a big part of the reason Congress wants compassionate release used more often. Besides the capital expenses, there would be a need to hire more medical staff and purchase medical equipment (hospital beds, mechanical lifts, etc).

    I'm guessing there's a question on the compassionate release request asking where and with whom the prisoner would stay. Someone with no place to go is unlikely to request release.

  • Zeb||

    I think you are probably right. Secure prison hospitals are going to cost a lot more than the county nursing home, or wherever the inmates without any outside support end up.

  • Bob K||

    "It's time for someone to get to the bottom of why the BOP's answer is always no on compassionate release."

    They have 1.1 billion reasons for why they don't release them.

  • JuanQPublic||

    "Elderly and sick prisoners cost taxpayers the most and threaten us the least, and there's no good reason they should stay locked up..."

    Aside from it being morally deplorable.

  • Stormy Dragon||

    I'm not sure kicking an elderly person with a terminal illness and no means of support because they've been in jail their entire lives is much of an improvement in terms of morals.

  • JuanQPublic||

    Fair enough.

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    Why should I trust the government that they can properly diagnose illnesses?

  • Spartacus||

    Shelby's letter gives the BOP 60 days from the passage of the appropriations bill to submit its data to the committee.

    Or else what? A more strongly written letter?

  • BearOdinson||

    The examples given in the article are egregious. And the fact that someone can get life in prison for selling substances to people that want them is fucking absurd.
    However, I disagree with the fundamental premise that just because a convicted criminal is elderly or sick, that they should be let out.
    Let's say a person convicted of 1st degree murder gets sentenced to life in prison. By the author's argument (and by some commenters), that criminal will almost always be let out early. Either because the get old, or they get sick before they get old.
    But, life in prison is supposed to be exactly that.

    So once again, the issue is what things have become considered crimes worthy of extended sentences, not a misguided attempt at mercy.

  • lap83||

    This. I'm wary of any policy with "compassionate" in the title. Sorry, that's not going to make me forget the fact that policymakers are all self-interested a-holes

  • Qsl||

    One part that isn't mentioned is a not insignificant number people commit crimes in order to receive medical care.

    While medical care in prison probably isn't great, it is better than nothing, and if you can't afford it, putting it on the public dime is one way to get treatment.

  • Cloudbuster||

    The problem I see here isn't whether or not to let terminally ill prisoners die at home it's that, in the examples given, the things they were convicted of shouldn't be crimes in the first place. They should be allowed to go home because they shouldn't be in prison in the first place, especially not for such inhumanely long sentences.

    The refusal to let a prisoner die at home seems much less offensive in the context of someone who, say, raped and killed someone.

  • SQRLSY One||

    I for one am VERY concerned about yet MORE increases in violent gangs of roving geezers terrorizing the 'hood! Where I live, there's "drink tea" graffiti EVERYWHERE, and sometimes I get nudged with a walking cane, and even once had prune juice thrown on me!

  • Bubba Jones||

    The whole point of a 50 year sentence is that the person dies in prison.

  • Azathoth!!||

    People screamed for mandatory minimums because they believed that allowing judges discretion meant that they were being lenient towards some (white) people and harsh with other (black) people. They figured that taking discretion away from judges would keep black men out of prison.

    Now people scream for the end of mandatory minimums because they're institutional racism because so many black men are getting longer sentences because of them.

    These are the same people who once demanded harsher sentencing for crack cocaine.

  • ||

    Because in too many cases, the "elderly" or "dying" prisoners are in better health than they pretend. Violent criminals who are sentenced to life in prison should DIE in prison. That's the whole POINT of a "life without parole" sentence; the prisoner should never again walk freely, not even with a cane or walker. They should die behind bars.

    Don't want to die in prison? Don't commit the crime.

  • Amogin||

    Simple answe to why the BOP won't grant early releases to the elderly and the ill- for profit prisons, which get paid by the inmate and receive even more money for treating thos same prisoners!

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    Wasn't one of the Lockerbie Bombers given "compassionate release", and lived for 5-years or more?
    Enough said.

  • Ned Netterville||

    Irwin Schiff was sentencced to 14 years in prison at age 76 by a judge who should have been disqualified for bias because he had a personal, financial interest in the outcome and was in bed financially with Schiff's accusers. Schiff's "crime" was exposing the IRS's crimes and his extreme sentence was for writing books on how to resist unlawful federal taxes. When Irwin had terminal cancer the thugs refused to release him to be with his family and he died in a prison hospital chained to his bed.

    Taxation is theft.Those who receive stolen property in the form of government, tax-funded benefits must share in the blame for FedGov's vicious treatment of my friend, Irwin Schiff.

  • epsilon given||

    I'm guessing one reason why the BOP isn't willing to go for "Compassionate Release", is because they'll be required to release certain prisoners automatically.

    Such as the two ranchers in Oregon who were convicted of "terrorism" because of a controlled burn on their property; the father was in his 70s, and the son in his 50s. At the very least, the 70-year-old would have to be released immediately under BOP, and we can't have that! The State has to have their pound of flesh!

    (It's precisely this issue that sparked the Bundy takover of the Federal property in Oregon. So far, the Feds have had a *very* difficult time in securing convictions of those who were arrested for that....)

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