Mismanagement of BOP Compassionate Release Program

Post Date: May 1, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Inspector General Report Details Dramatic Mismanagement in Federal Prison Compassionate Release Program; Findings Confirm Human Rights Watch-FAMM Criticisms of BOP Program.

After conducting a comprehensive review of the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) compassionate release program, the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has concluded that the BOP “does not properly manage” the program, “resulting in inmates who may be eligible candidates for release not being considered.”

Citing “multiple failures” that lead to “ad-hoc” decision-making, the OIG report released today echoes many of the criticisms first raised in a joint Human Rights Watch-FAMM report issued last November, “The Answer is No: Too Little Compassionate Release in US Federal Prisons.” In one stunning finding that demonstrates how BOP bureaucratic mismanagement has thwarted Congress’ intent in creating the compassionate release program, the OIG reported that “approximately 13 percent (28 of 208) of the inmates whose release requests had been approved by a Warden and Regional Director died before their requests were decided by the BOP Director.”

“The BOP’s management of the compassionate release program is both cruel and inefficient. The Inspector General’s report, describing a lack of standards and guidance that border on chaos, should be a wake-up call to the BOP and Congress,” said FAMM Vice President and General Counsel Mary Price, who co-authored the Human Rights Watch-FAMM compassionate release report with Jamie Fellner, Senior Advisor of the U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch. “It is heartbreaking to think that prisoners who present no danger to the public die alone, shackled to a bed, rather than with loved ones, due to BOP’s mismanagement.”  

Congress created the compassionate release program, recognizing that changed circumstances in a prisoner’s life or condition can make continued imprisonment senseless and inhumane. To address these situations, Congress gave federal courts authority to grant early release – commonly referred to as “compassionate release” – for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons such as imminent death or serious incapacitation. But they cannot do so absent a motion by the Bureau of Prisons, which rarely brings compassionate release cases to the courts. In its joint report, Human Rights Watch and FAMM found that, since 1992, the BOP has averaged merely two dozen compassionate release requests annually to the courts, out of a prison population that now exceeds 218,000.

“The OIG report details how the BOP has given short shrift to Congress’s goal of providing prisoners a meaningful shot at compassionate release,” said Jamie Fellner.  “Not only are prisoners’ rights being violated, but the BOP has failed to make use of a program that the OIG has said can both save money and shrink the prison population – goals that are particularly important given that the federal prison system is dangerously overcrowded and financially unsustainable.” The OIG report released today supports Human Rights Watch-FAMM  findings that compassionate release is not being utilized as Congress intended and is being mismanaged. The OIG specified major problems with BOP’s management:

1) The BOP does not have clear standards and has failed to provide adequate guidance to staff regarding the medical and non¬medical criteria for compassionate release consideration; 
2) The BOP has no formal timeliness standards for reviewing compassionate release requests, and timeliness standards for inmate appeals of adverse decisions do not consider the special circumstances underlying medical compassionate release requests; 
3) The BOP does not have effective procedures to inform prisoners about the compassionate release program; and
4) The BOP does not have a system to track compassionate release requests, the timeliness of the review process, or whether decisions made by institution and Regional Office staff are consistent with each other or with BOP policy. 
5) While compassionate release saves money and reduces prison populations, the BOP does not keep track of cost savings that are or could be realized.

The OIG recommendations include expanding the use of compassionate release, publishing consistent guidelines, tracking costs of incarcerating dying and incapacitated prisoners, and establishing timeframes for reviewing requests. 

“We must do better than this,” Price said. “In the coming weeks and months, we are going to push Congress and the BOP to fix this program. We need to restore a measure of compassion to the compassionate release program.” 

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