Report: Inmates die in 'poorly managed' compassionate release program

The Federal Bureau of Prison’s “compassionate release” program is “poorly managed” and clogged with delays that have likely resulted in ill prisoners dying before their requests were completed, according to a new report.

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The Justice Department’s inspector general issued a 91-page document Wednesday that says the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) runs a haphazard and “ad hoc” program to consider the compassionate release of dying inmates or prisoners who have an “extraordinary and compelling” situation that merits a reduction in the length of their sentence.

The report determined that the compassionate release program could provide taxpayers with considerable savings by reducing the number of prisoners housed in the system, if it were better managed.

Among the report’s findings, the IG concluded that the bureau does not give staff members clear guidance on the various medical and nonmedical standards for considering a prisoner’s compassionate release.

Similarly, the report also found that there is no formal program to educate inmates about the compassionate release process.

As a result, tens of thousands of inmates remain ignorant of the possibility for compassionate release.

The bureau incarcerates 218,000 prisoners in 132 facilities throughout the country and grants compassionate release to about 24 inmates each year, the report states.

The BOP has not established universal timeline standards for how long it should take to review a compassionate release request, and the special circumstances of medical compassionate release requests are not considered within the timeliness standards for inmate appeals, the report found.

As a result, some prisoners who have been eligible for compassionate release because of a terminal illness have died waiting to be approved, according to bureau staff interviewed for the report   

“We further found that approximately 13 percent (28 of 208) of the inmates whose release requests had been approved by a warden and regional director died before their requests were decided by the BOP director,” the report states.

The bureau also does not have a system in place to track the multitude of compassionate release requests made by inmates. Nor does it have a system to track the timeliness of the review process or whether the ultimate decisions on approving release are consistent with each other or with bureau policy, the report states.

“As a result of these multiple failures, we concluded that the implementation of the program is inconsistent and results in ad hoc decision making by the BOP in response to inmate requests,” states the report.

The public’s safety is not in danger, the IG report determined. From 2006-2011, five prisoners out of the 142 prisoners released through the program were convicted of committing further crimes after their release.

The IG made 11 recommendations to improve the prison bureau's management of the program. It suggested that the agency update its “written national policies to accurately reflect the BOP’s criteria for determining eligible medical and non-medical requests, and establishing timeframes for processing requests at each step of the review process.”

It also recommended the bureau be required to inform all inmates about the compassionate release program and that the status of each compassionate release request be tracked.

The BOP should also collect and assess the costs for providing health services to inmates with terminal medical conditions, a limited life expectancy, and severely debilitating medical conditions, the IG suggested.

According to the bureau, an inmate is eligible for compassionate release based on medical reasons if they are diagnosed with a terminal, incurable disease and have a life expectancy of 18 months or less; or if they have an incurable, progressive illness or have suffered a debilitating injury from which they will not recover, are either completely disabled or are capable of only limited self-care and are confined to a bed or chair more than 50 percent of their waking hours, with consideration also given to any cognitive deficits.