Most of Pa.’s sick and elderly inmates die in prison. Medical parole could change that

By: - March 8, 2019 6:31 am

Pennsylvania’s prison population grows older by the day, but only a handful of people are released from state corrections facilities each year due to failing health.

That’s according to state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, who told senators last week that Pennsylvania’s program to release elderly inmates from prison is underused and ineffective.

Now, state lawmakers are out to fix it.

Three separate proposals circulating in Pennsylvania’s House and Senate would create a new medical parole program for sick and aging prison inmates.

The most recent proposal came from Senate Judiciary Chair Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne. In a memo her office published Tuesday, Baker said that inmates would be “more effectively, efficiently, and humanely treated” with a medical parole program than under current state law.

Lawyers and legal advocates say that Pennsylvania is in dire need of medical parole. But they also have lingering questions about who would be eligible under a new law and where parolees would go when they’re released from prison.

The current system

Right now, the closest thing that Pennsylvania offers to medical parole is its compassionate release program. But lawyers say it’s a stringent, time-consuming process that keeps many sick prisoners behind bars.

To petition a judge for compassionate release, an inmate must get a doctor-certified note saying he has less than a year to live.

According to Angus Love, executive director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, few doctors are willing to say with certainty when someone will die. That makes it hard for inmates to get the documents to petition a judge for release.

Even if an inmate does get the medical opinion he needs, it can take a long time to move compassionate release cases through sentencing courts, according to Yolanda Lollis, a managing attorney with the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania could expedite those cases by moving them out of the courts and into an administrative setting, Lollis said.

That’s what lawmakers aim to do with medical parole. The bill Baker plans to introduce this spring would let Pennsylvania’s Board of Probation and Parole grant medical parole to sick, elderly inmates after considering a number of factors, including the prisoner’s age, criminal history, and potential danger to the public.

In a memo seeking support from her colleagues, Baker said that parole decisions would include input from the incarcerated person’s victim, if applicable, or the Office of the Victim Advocate.

She also hopes it would save the state money.

Under federal law, inmates receiving care in a corrections facility don’t qualify for Medicare or Medicaid. That means state taxpayers pick up the tab for their treatments and prescription drugs.

Parolees, on the other hand, do qualify for federal healthcare programs.

Sen. Lisa Boscola, R-Northampton, outlined a similar, separate proposal in a memo published Feb. 28. She told the Capital-Star she’s willing to work with Baker to move a medical parole bill through the Senate this year.

In the details

While Lollis welcomes the news that Pennsylvania lawmakers are drafting medical parole bills, she hopes any law they pass will include an option for home release, allowing inmates to spend their final days in the care of family.

Lollis said Pennsylvania’s compassionate release program used to allow prisoners to be discharged to private homes. That changed in 2008, she said, when the home release provision was axed from state law.

Currently, inmates or their families must secure placement into a hospital, nursing facility, or — depending on the severity of the illness — hospice care.

Since prisoners can no longer be released to family members, Lollis said, it can be hard to find them a place to go.

“It is the placement outside of prison that’s the question,” she said. “It delays things trying to get someone institutionalized, which can take a little bit of time. You’re really just moving from one institution to another.”

Last week, Wetzel called on Pennsylvania to follow the lead of states like Connecticut, which operates a secure nursing home for parolees that’s partially funded by Medicaid dollars.

An aide to Baker said the placement of parolees after their release is a consideration in the senator’s bill.

Baker is currently focused on creating a “process that works” to grant inmates medical parole, said Mike Cortez, executive director and counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Special facilities for medical parolees may be a result of that process once it’s in place.

“If we put all the pieces together, there is a financial and humanitarian component and other incentives for [the Department of Corrections] to make sure there’s someone out there that is willing to accept these folks,” Cortez said.

Love, of the Institutional Law Project, agreed that home release would be a humane alternative for a parolee who would otherwise spend his final days in a long-term care facility.

He also hopes Pennsylvania’s medical parole program would be open to as many inmates as possible.

That’s one issue Love foresees in House Bill 642, which was introduced this year by Reps. Stephen Kinsey and Danilo Burgos, both Democrats from Philadelphia.

Their proposal, which was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, would establish new medical parole criteria for aging and infirm inmates — a group they define as inmates older than 55 years old who haven’t committed a violent offense.

Pennsylvania’s geriatric prisoner population grew to 6,458 inmates by September 2017, according to the bill. Love fears that few of them would be eligible for parole based on the bill’s definition of “violent offense,” which includes everything from murder to robbery.

Burgos said that they arrived at the bill’s current language following discussions with other House members. While he’d be open to broadening the criteria, he also doesn’t want the bill to lose support from conservative lawmakers.

“We’re trying to find the middle ground,” Burgos said. “We want to enact the bill that will give relief to the most people possible.”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.