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

The Department of Justice logo is seen on the podium during a news conference on the Gozi Virus in New York January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo
The Department of Justice logo is seen on the podium during a news conference on the Gozi Virus in New York January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo

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.

NO NON-MEDICAL RELEASES

Although bureau rules provide for compassionate release on non-medical grounds, those requests were routinely rejected. None were approved in the six years examined by the inspector general's report.

Prison agency officials are revising rules on compassionate release to include inmates with up to 18 months of life expectancy, the report said.

The Bureau of Prisons also lacks standards on how much time it should take to review requests, taking from five to 65 days. Appeals of denied requests can take up to five months.

It also does not have a procedure to tell inmates about the program. Only eight of 111 handbooks that prisons give to inmates had information about it, the report said.

Even though the prisons agency has told Congress it could save $3.2 million by expanding the release program, it has not studied medical cost benefits from freeing inmates. It also lacks a system to track all requests, it said.

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, welcomed the report as a "hard-hitting" response to the Bureau of Prisons' contention that it needed more beds for a growing number of inmates.

"It's really nice seeing the IG office taking a hard look at that premise and pushing back at it," she said.

Federal prisons are at 130 percent of capacity, with 30 percent of inmates in for immigration violations, Fettig said.

Among inmates released on compassionate grounds, 3.5 percent were rearrested. The overall recidivism rate for federal prisoners has been estimated at up to 41 percent, the report said.

The inspector general recommended expanding the release program to include non-medical conditions and updating written criteria. It also called for setting time limits for the release process, informing inmates of the program and examining the savings from releasing ill prisoners.

The Bureau of Prisons said it agreed with nine of the 11 recommendations and partly accepted that it should assess the costs of healthcare for ill inmates and set time limits for processing requests.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jackie Frank)

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