Federal prison authorities have the power to release inmates from custody before the completion of their sentences when there are unusual circumstances, such as the prisoner being very ill or in the process of dying. This power was given to them explicitly in 1984 by an act of Congress. A report on what the federal prisons have done since then with that power reveals that they have been exceedingly stingy with it. Criminal defense attorneys in North Carolina and elsewhere agree that it is rare that a federal prisoner, even one that is gravely sick or dying, is granted such “compassionate release.”
There are a total of over 218,000 prisoners in federal facilities currently. Only around 24 prisoners a year are granted compassionate release, a figure dwarfed by some state prison systems where far more prisoners are released when dying or critically ill.
Critics question the wisdom of the failure of federal prison authorities to use the power more broadly, especially in light of current overcrowding in many facilities. Perhaps more to the point, they say, very ill or dying prisoners pose little conceivable threat to public safety. Generally, the federal prisons have not released prisoners until they are literally in their last days, unable to walk or use the bathroom independently, often with less than 12 months to live.
In one case, a federal prisoner dying from the impact of hepatitis C and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was denied such release, despite the fact that he had tumors growing all over his body. He just wanted to die in his own bed at home. Personnel at the prison hospital thought it was a reasonable request, as did the prison warden, and even regional employees of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The sentencing judge even tried to help.
All to no avail. His request was turned down finally by prison officials in the nation’s capital.
As one critic said, “We don’t sentence people to die alone in prison when we’ve given them a five-year sentence.”
Source: National Public Radio, “Federal ‘Compassionate’ Prison Release Rarely Given,” Carrie Johnson, Nov. 29, 2012
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