Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Marie Neba feared dying in federal prison. The 56-year-old had stage 4 cancer—and three children waiting for her at home. “Right now, I can barely walk around because of generalized body pain and feet numbness,” she wrote, as she struggled through chemotherapy earlier this year. “The way things are going regarding my treatments here at Carswell can lead me to my grave.”

But last year when she tried to get a rare compassionate release from Carswell medical prison in North Texas, the warden denied her request. When COVID-19 hit, she tried again with a fresh request on March 30—and this time the warden ignored her altogether.

In total, 349 women, about a quarter of the prison’s inmates, asked for compassionate release during the first three months of the pandemic. The warden denied or failed to respond to 346 of them, including Neba, who was in prison for Medicare fraud—even though federal guidelines allow compassionate release for terminally ill prisoners if they do not pose a danger to the community. In the months that followed, more than 500 women at Carswell fell ill with COVID-19 and six died. Neba was one of them.

As the pandemic ramped up, federal prison wardens denied or ignored more than 98 percent of compassionate release requests, including many from medically vulnerable prisoners like Neba. Wardens are the first line of review; ultimately, compassionate release petitions must be approved by a judge. Though the Bureau of Prisons has previously posted information about the number of people let out on compassionate release, it wasn’t clear until now just how many prisoners applied for it or how frequently wardens denied these requests despite widespread calls to reduce the prison population in the face of the pandemic.

Read the full article about compassionate release during COVID-19 by Keri Blakinger and Joseph Neff at The Marshall Project.