Federal inmates diagnosed with terminal illness may now have a better chance of release so they can die outside of prison walls. A report released yesterday by the Department of Justice urged the Bureau of Prisons to expand policies to release terminally ill inmates. The report notes that the BOP plans to release new guidelines to streamline its release protocols for prisoners expected to die within 18 months.
The federal prison system currently lacks clear standards and protocols for requests for “compassionate release,” the DOJ Office of the Inspector General report finds. Petitions for release can take as long as 7 months before administrators reach a decision. As a result, in 13 percent of cases the DOJ reviewed, prisoners died before they receive a response to a release request. And because only 8 of the Bureau’s 111 prisoner handbooks reviewed inform inmates about the policy, many don’t know they can apply in the first place.
“The BOP…provide[s] no criteria or standards to use in evaluating whether a medical or nonmedical circumstance qualifies for consideration,” the report says. It recommends that the Bureau of Prisons expand the compassionate release practices to other “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances beyond terminal illness.
A shift in BOP practice in this regard could have a significant impact on the rapidly growing population of elderly prisoners. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report revealed that between 2007 and 2010 the number of prisoners in federal and state facilities who are older than 64 grew at 94 times the rate of the overall prison population. About 45 percent of prisoners who died behind bars in 2007 were over the age of 55.