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Government explores early release for more aging prisoners

A federal review is looking at whether more aging prisoners, many in frail health, should be freed before the end of their sentences, for humanitarian as well as budgetary reasons.

November 12, 2013|By Richard A. Serrano
  • Benjamin Share, 85 with a host of physical ailments, has more than a year left in his sentence at Federal Correctional Institution-Schuylkill in Minersville, Pa. He is among 170 federal prisoners over age 80 whose frail conditions are challenging the federal Bureau of Prisons to release them early.
Benjamin Share, 85 with a host of physical ailments, has more than a year…

MINERSVILLE, Pa. — He hobbled down the dark tiled hallway, leaning heavily on his black wooden cane. His feet shuffled, his hands shook, and finally 85-year-old Benjamin Share nearly collapsed into a chair in the prison visitation room.

Convicted in 2006 for illegally pocketing a quarter of a million in taxpayer money, he struggles with diabetes, tuberculosis, osteoporosis, hypertension and arthritis, which has ravaged his hips and spine. He has undergone kidney dialysis and treatment for cancer on his scalp and scar tissue on his lungs. His prostate is enlarged and his memory is fading. Half of his bottom teeth are gone.

Not scheduled to leave prison until January 2015, the former Navy procurement attorney is among 170 federal prisoners over age 80 — many in failing health or near dying — whose conditions are challenging government officials to strike a new balance between the public interest in punishing criminals and compassion for the sick and aging.

It's not just about mercy. Equally crucial to a federal prison service grappling with a soaring budget is the burden and cost of caring for ailing convicts who, like Share, receive taxpayer-funded healthcare that can make them two or three times more expensive than the average prisoner.

In addition to Share, thousands of others who are gravely ill, suffering from terminal diseases or over age 65 may be eligible for early release under the federal Bureau of Prisons' compassionate release program. But a Justice Department inspector general's report this year found that the program, authorized by Congress in 1984, had been "poorly managed and implemented inconsistently." A mere two dozen ill prisoners are sent home each year.

It's unclear how many apply because the bureau's Washington headquarters keeps a tally only of those requests that have been approved by wardens at the local level and passed up.

The inspector general's findings prompted Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to create a working group that is looking for ways to speed up the process, both for humanitarian and budgetary reasons. "There may be good reasons why they should serve the rest of their lives in jail," he told Congress. "On the other hand, it may be that there's a basis for them to be released."

The new review has been embraced by advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch, which say that the release program has been bogged down in bureaucracy and that wardens and judges remain reluctant to free inmates. They, along with Holder, point to the Bureau of Prisons' $6.2-billion annual budget, which they call "unsustainable."

Costs are being driven up largely by the aging prisoner population and longer sentences. The number of state and federal prisoners over age 55 nearly doubled from 2001 to 2008, according to a report last month by the Pew Charitable Trusts. That has driven up medical costs. In Georgia, for example, medical care for prisoners age 65 and older costs an average of $8,565 a year, compared with $961 for those under 65, according to the Pew report.

In Share's case, taxpayers shell out $68,000 a year for his confinement at the Federal Correctional Institution-Schuylkill, including healthcare, prison officials said. Healthy inmates at the same facility cost half that. If his condition worsens, the bill could rise by hundreds of thousands dollars, officials estimated.

During the six-year period reviewed by the inspector general, nearly 1 in 8 prisoners who applied for release died while awaiting a decision.

Charles McGee was serving 20 years for a 2007 child pornography conviction in Mississippi. He was 67 when he went to prison, and had dealt with pneumonia, diabetes and other complications. A quadriplegic, he could not bathe, dress or relieve himself without help. To summon a prison nurse, he blew through a tube.

He had hoped for early release but died behind bars in April. His warden in North Carolina had deemed him a threat to society.

Some lawmakers oppose expanding the releases. Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said at a congressional hearing last week that it was unwise to release anyone while crime levels remained high. "Leniency for the sake of leniency is ill-advised," he said. "It is an especially bad idea as crime rates are rising."

Bureau of Prisons Director Charles E. Samuels Jr. responded that, under Holder's direction, the bureau was expanding the medical criteria to increase eligibility for release. The bureau also will lower the eligibility age from 70 to 65 and consider releasing healthy inmates who would be the sole caregiver for dependents on the outside. He added, however, that "the sentencing judge ultimately decides whether to reduce an inmate's sentence."

The bureau submitted 39 release requests to judges last year and 52 this year. A spokeswoman was uncertain how many had been granted.

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