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20 May 2022

OP-ED: The need for a change to Pennsylvania’s Compassionate Release Program 

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May 20, 2022 Category: Commentary Posted by:

By Barbara Chavous-Pennock

Barbara Chavous-Pennock

In April, David Ohl of Spotlight PA wrote about the plight of the incarcerated ill in Pennsylvania’s prison system and the fallacy of Pennsylvania’s Compassionate Release legislation that would cause an inmate to choose death in order to be able to be released and go home.  

This was the plight of Bradford Gamble, who at age 65, was notified by a slip of paper a guard placed in his cell that he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  He was provided with no other information.  In time, after much pain and confusion, he learned that he had metastatic colon cancer that had already spread to his liver.  His choice was to receive treatment or to use a little known law allowing him to be released based on his age and diagnosis of a year or less to live.  He chose to go home and die.

Bradford Gamble is not the only person who has gone home to die.  The Prison Society shared information about Howard White, who like Gamble, only became aware of his condition when he had reached a stage 4 diagnosis of cancer.  To make matters worse, while he lay dying in the prison infirmary, it was reported that he was not receiving his medication and was not being properly cared for to prevent bedsores. 

The family of Howard White petitioned for his compassionate release. On March 17, 2022, the hospital doctor gave White two weeks to live.  This diagnosis automatically qualified White for hospice care.  However, he was not discharged to hospice but to a facility that lacked adequate support and needed care for a patient in such dire medical need.  

Hospice, the service provided for the terminally ill, is dependent upon medical health insurance approval. As a result, the service is not likely to be approved for someone who has spent 35 years in prison.

Pennsylvania’s Compassionate Release legislation, as reported, is narrowly written. To compound matters, as in the case of White, Gamble, and others, they have to be at death’s door before they can be released, and even then, in some instances prisoners have been denied. In Pennsylvania’s prison system, when it comes to persons who have spent their lives in prison only 31 have been released in the past 13 years, despite their age or terminal illness diagnosis.  Since 2016, eight people have died waiting for a medical transfer.

This is a travesty and must change. It is unjust, inhumane, and the financial and emotional toll on the commonwealth, families, and individuals is staggering.  Does a prison life sentence mean that one should have to die there from an illness which a person, if properly treated in a timely professional manner with adequate health care and service, could be healed and recover? Does our prison system need to take months, allowing older, infirmed individuals to waste away inside, when they have loving families willing and waiting to care for them at home?

As a society, we can and must do better.  Our prison system is broken.  Compassionate Care legislation in Pennsylvania is desperately in need of change. Howard White returned home on April 6, 2022 with bedsores on his body and the heels of his feet.  He died on April 14, 2022.  

In Pennsylvania and across the nation some might say that our animals in shelters receive better humane treatment and care than that of incarcerated individuals who have spent unimaginable years behind bars. AP News reports that in a state where the overall population of African Americans is approximately 12%, African Americans make up 47% of the prison population.  The disparity is alarming.

Even during COVID-19, the worse health crisis in modern time, 878 individuals 65 years of age or older remained in prison and contracted coronavirus. The Department of Corrections dashboard further reports 166 deaths from COVID, of which 83 were African American and 93 were 65 years of age or older. 

Let us not forget –we are not talking about numbers.  These are human beings…someone’s husband, father, son, brother, or loved one.  Why should someone who at the age of 19 or 20 may have committed a horrible crime, but now at the age of 68 or 70 with a myriad of health problems and costly medical needs is deathly ill behind bars, languish  in the infirmary, when he could be living his last days with compassion and loved ones?

Disclaimer: The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the management of the Philadelphia Sunday SUN or its advertisers.

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