FAMM screens “5 to Life” and hosts briefing on compassionate release

Post Date: April 21, 2017


5 to Life: Compassionate Release

The terminally ill deserve to die a dignified death with loved ones able to see them go in peace.

Posted by FAMM on Tuesday, April 11, 2017



Severely ill prisoners, most of whom are facing imminent death, apply for compassionate release in an effort to spend the rest of their lives with family and to seek adequate care. To raise awareness of this important issue, Families Against Mandatory Minimums held a briefing and screening of “5 to Life” at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center in Washington.

Debbie DiMasi, wife of Sal DiMasi, former Massachusetts House Speaker, was on the panel. Sal DiMasi received compassionate release late last year due to his ongoing battle with cancer. During the panel discussion, she described her experience as well as incidents her husband witnessed at the prison health facilities. 

“There were so many people who died unnecessarily, who had been seeking help for months,” DiMasi said. “There were people who died on the floor, or in a shower stall. One was actively dying. He was terminal and no one told him. Another, who was granted compassionate release, died in the car on the way to his family,” said DiMasi. 

Debbie DiMasi mentioned that prisoners rarely spoke out about their needs because they feared being sent to solitary confinement for insubordination.

The Bureau of Prisons reviews the applications and determines which applicants meet the criteria. 

“The Bureau of Prisons is the gatekeeper for compassionate release—that is not what Congress intended,” said FAMM’s Mary Price.

Congress tasked the U.S. Sentencing Commission with setting up criteria for compassionate release. They asked the Bureau of Prisons to identify prisoners who would be eligible and to bring a motion to the court advising for potential early release. They then gave the court the power to assess each motion based on a number of factors including public safety.  

Despite the clarity of the law, the Bureau of Prisons rarely files compassionate release petitions. Their internal evaluation process decides whether or not a prisoner should be granted release, prohibiting the potential motions to move forward to the courts for judicial review.

 “It is time for Congress to step up and tell them to apply the law as written,” Price said.

Over time, the Bureau of Prisons made reforms such as allowing people other than the person who is applying to compassionate release to file for compassionate release for their loved ones.

However, the Bureau of Prisons is difficult to navigate, and even staff can be misinformed about the various policies, according to Jack T. Donson, former Bureau of Prisons official.

 “The policy is clear, but people are still being told that compassionate release cannot be submitted by someone else,” Donson said. “People don’t know because of the policy nuances.”

Michael B. O’Rourke, Policy Advisor, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supports compassionate release reform.

“For any Christians that are thinking about prisoners and the sick, you would go to the 25th chapter of Matthew,” O’Rourke said. “There are certain actions for knowing God and one of those is caring for the sick and visiting those in prison.”

FAMM is a leading advocate for compassionate release reform.