The last time Sean McQuiddy called home from federal prison, it was just before Christmas in 2020, and he had grim news: He’d tested positive for COVID-19.

“If I don’t make it out of here,” his brother recalled him saying on the call, “just know that I love you.”

McQuiddy, a 54-year-old man from Nashville, Tennessee, was 23 years into a life sentence for selling crack. The two dozen other defendants in his case had already gotten out, including his younger brother Darrell, who had scored a reduced sentence a few years back.

But due to a technicality, Sean wasn’t so lucky. And when the pandemic hit, he was worried: He was overweight, with high blood pressure, asthma and other breathing problems. In August, he begged prison officials for compassionate release, citing the heightened threat of the virus. But court records show the warden ignored his request. Four months later, McQuiddy started coughing.

Tens of thousands of federal prisoners applied for compassionate release after the virus began sweeping through lockups. But new Bureau of Prisons data shows officials approved fewer of those applications during the pandemic than they did the year before. While the BOP director greenlit 55 such requests in 2019, a new director who took over in early 2020 approved only 36 requests in the 13 months since the pandemic took hold in March 2020. The downturn in approvals came even as the number of people seeking compassionate release skyrocketed from 1,735 in 2019 to nearly 31,000 after the virus hit, according to the new figures.

Because the numbers were compiled for members of Congress, BOP spokesman Scott Taylor said the agency would not answer any questions about the data, “out of respect and deference” to lawmakers.

Read the full article about compassionate release by Keri Blakinger and Joseph Neff at The Marshall Project.