A dozen U.S. Senators have asked the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to consider making wider use of compassionate leave to release elderly or ill inmates as a “way to focus scarce BOP resources and improve public safety.” Federal penal institutions currently hold more than 10,000 inmates aged 60 or over.
The bipartisan group of Senators headed by Brian Schatz (D-HI) sent the letter to BOP and the Department of Justice (DOJ), noting former Attorney General Eric Holder announced back in 2013 there would be greater use of compassionate leave for federal inmates who were seriously ill, elderly, or both. Yet despite that pronouncement and BOP guidelines for an expanded compassionate leave program, the Senators’ letter pointed out, BOP wound up granting compassionate leave to just two of the first 296 elderly inmates to request it.
The Senators’ letter asked for updated statistics on BOP’s use of compassionate leave, then posed two questions for BOP and DOJ: why is compassionate leave granted so infrequently, and what can be done to expand it? It noted the U.S. Sentencing Commission had amended its own guidelines to expand the “extraordinary and compelling reasons” that can justify use of compassionate leave; that action broadened and clarified conditions already in the Commission’s guidelines, such as exceptional family conditions or terminal and debilitating health or mental conditions.
The Commission’s changes also urged BOP to begin a compassionate leave proceeding — by notifying the sentencing judge and giving the reasons when it believes a sentence reduction is merited — whenever it finds any of the multiple factors that, separately or in combination, might justify compassionate leave, believing that determination is best made by the sentencing judge, rather than by BOP.
A 2015 report by the DOJ’s inspector general noted that, over a recent five-year period in 2009-2013, inmates ages 50 and up constituted the fastest-growing segment of inmates in federally-managed prison facilities, having risen 25% over the period, compared with a 1% decline for prisoners in the 49-and-younger age group, and a 16% drop for inmates ages 29 and younger.
Not only were aging inmates comprising an ever-greater share of the overall federal prison population, the report noted, but they present particular costs and difficulties for BOP. In fiscal year 2013, for example, the average cost for an inmate age 50 or up was about $24,500, around 8% higher than the average of about $22,700 for younger inmates. Much of the disparity stems from their more extensive medical ailments, requiring more expensive medications and more highly trained staff.
In addition, the physical structure of BOP facilities – such as the relative scarcity of elevators and other features to accommodate mobility-impaired inmates, or overcrowding — which restricts the availability of lower bunks — presents particular obstacles to housing some elderly inmates, and BOP has few programs aimed at addressing the special needs of elderly inmates.
The DOJ inspector general’s report also observed that, although elderly inmates have fewer incidents of misconduct while they are incarcerated and lower recidivism rates when released, BOP policies “limit the number of aging inmates who can be considered” for an early release, and thus act to restrict the numbers of elderly patients who gain early release from federal prisons.
About Christopher Zoukis
Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoner rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, New York Daily News and various other print and online publications. Learn more about Christopher Zoukis at christopherzoukis.com and prisoneducation.com.