Giving Compass' Take:

• Emily Widra and Wanda Bertram describe the many debilitating gaps in the compassionate inmate release process during COVID-19.

• What can we learn about inequities in our criminal justice program during coronavirus? How can you help infected inmates be with their loved ones? 

• Learn about resources to guide your coronavirus response giving journey.

With the coronavirus pandemic threatening to turn prison sentences into death sentences, many incarcerated people are seeking compassionate release — the release of people who are facing imminent death and who pose no threat to the public — to save them from dying of COVID-19 in prison. Unfortunately, what they, and the American public, are learning is that compassionate release is not a transparent and linear process, but an unpredictably ordered series of obstacles.

Applying for compassionate release is a lengthy and cumbersome process. Given that those who apply are almost always terminally ill or profoundly incapacitated, the arbitrary nature of this process means many die before their cases are resolved.

Compassionate release programs are plagued by many shortcomings, including:

  • Requirements that a person be extremely close to death, or so incapacitated that they do not understand why they are being punished.
  • Requiring medical professionals to attest that someone is within six months, or nine months, of death. Health professionals are reluctant to give such exact prognoses, which means prison officials will default to saying “it’s safer just to not let this person go.”
  • Allowing the ultimate decision-makers
    to overrule recommendations from medical professionals and prison staff (e.g. by refuting or ignoring a medical prognosis).

But even when a compassionate release system operates efficiently and fairly, the majority of people in prison are still not eligible for it. As currently constituted, these programs exclude too many people and these systems were never designed for quick responses during a global pandemic. States need to look beyond compassionate release — including expedited parole, and mass commutations — to slow the spread of the pandemic and prevent a needless tragedy behind bars.

Read the full article about compassionate release by Emily Widra and Wanda Bertram at Prison Policy Initiative.