Why Keep Dying Prisoners Behind Bars?

Massachusetts needs to fix the system for compassionate release, pardons, and commutations.

MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry tried to take a humorous approach to the unforgiving times we live in with her letter to a turkey last week, where she asked President Obama to pardon people—not turkeys.

Pardon, the act of forgiving someone’s crime, has nearly dried up in the U.S. Of people who petitioned during Obama’s first four years, the president has pardoned only 22 people out of 1,019, or about 2 percent, less than any modern president, according to a report by ProPublica. Reagan pardoned 33 percent of those who petitioned, and George W. Bush pardoned 3 percent. In Massachusetts, pardons are virtually non-existent. In July, WBUR reported that “pardons have dwindled from 70 in the 1990s to … none in the past 10 years.”

However, the fresh start that comes with a pardon isn’t exactly the plight of the thousands of sick and elderly prisoners in Massachusetts. They simply want to go home and die in peace. A report just released by Human Rights Watch and Families Against Mandatory Minimums creates a shocking picture of a broken compassionate-release system at the federal level for a growing population of sick and elderly prisoners. Among the findings is how the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) fails to bring prisoners’ cases to the courts.

It’s similar in Massachusetts. Right now, in spite of the fact that recidivism and dangerousness drop precipitously with age, the sick and dying are not getting out early on medical exceptions. This is largely because Massachusetts has no workable process for medical parole. The only way a gravely ill prisoner can try for clemency is to apply for a pardon or, more commonly, for a commutation, a way of remitting some or all of a sentence in times of ”exceptional circumstances.” But the commutation process is arduous even for a healthy prisoner. And the Governor has to wait to get petitions from the Parole Board. If those votes aren’t favorable, the Governor usually never sees the petitions.

Since Gov. Deval Patrick took office, at least 280 pardon and 220 commutation petitions have been filed in Massachusetts, according to WBUR. Just one petition made it to Patrick’s desk. It was denied. It is unknown how many of those were filed by the gravely ill, but it is clear that those who do apply and don’t get out ultimately die in prison.

Gavi Wolfe, Legislative Counsel for the ACLU of Massachusetts, says he considers the lack of commutations in Massachusetts a “moral issue.” Many others insist we need a safety valve, in particular for our graying prison population, and they are demanding a compassionate release law. Sen. Patricia Jehlen sponsored such a bill in the 2011-12 Legislature, but it died in session. Prisoner Legal Services is now working on a bill for the new year.

Aside from the issue of morality, activists and the Department of Corrections (DOC) alike are all concerned about the staggering cost of not having a better medical release process. The DOC says it costs $46,000 a year to house a prisoner in Massachusetts. The ACLU says, nationally, it costs more than $68,000 to house a prisoner who is sick and dying, and that’s a conservative figure for Massachusetts, considering our costs are far above the national average of $34,000 per prisoner. Prisoners inside are not eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, leaving the taxpayers to foot the bill.

What’s also disturbing is that inside prison, age 55 is borderline geriatric because life expectancy is reduced, according to a December 2011 report by consultants for the DOC. While no one has the exact number of prisoners who will die in Massachusetts prisons each year, the ACLU estimates that without medical release, by 2030, “over one-third of all prisoners in the United States will be over 55.”

With a broken commutation system and without a compassionate release law, we have more expensive bad news in the works. In Mother Jones, Jim Ridgeway writes that “by 2020, according to the state’s DOC Master Plan, Massachusetts will need three ‘new specialized facilities’ to house an estimated 1,270 prisoners with medical or mental health issues.” The state is planning to build these facilities in spite of exorbitant costs.

Wouldn’t it be more humane, more logical, and less expensive to let sick and dying prisoners go home?