Early release could help ill prisoners and U.S. prisons: Justice Department

Wed May 1, 2013 3:21pm EDT
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By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Compassionate release programs at overcrowded U.S. federal prisons are poorly run and lack clear standards, resulting in some eligible inmates dying before they can be freed, the Department of Justice said on Wednesday.

Few prisoners are released early on compassionate grounds. An average of 24 gravely ill prisoners were freed each year from 2006 to 2011, but another 28 died in custody during that time while waiting for the Bureau of Prisons to make a decision on their cases, the department's inspector general said in a report.

The report recommended 11 ways to improve the program, including taking a look at how much it costs to keep seriously ill prisoners in custody.

"We concluded that an effectively managed compassionate release program would result in cost savings ... as well as assist the (bureau) in managing its continually growing inmate population," the inspector general's report said.

The way the program has been run "has likely resulted in potentially eligible inmates not being considered for release," it added.

The compassionate release program allows prisoners to be freed on extraordinary grounds, including terminal illness and severe medical conditions. To gain release, a prisoner must initiate a request through the Bureau of Prisons and a judge must approve the release.

The report found that inmates at some prisons were eligible for release only if they had a life expectancy of six months or less. At other prisons, eligibility was set at 12 months or less.


An inmate stands in his cell at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, in this May 24, 2011 file photo. Co REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/Files