OP-ED: The Need to Change Pennsylvania’s Compassionate Release Program

By Barbara Chavous-Pennock

In April, Spotlight PA’s David Ohl wrote about the plight of the sick incarcerated 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 released and to return to his place.

Such was the fate of Bradford Gamble, who, at 65, was told by a slip of paper placed by a guard in his cell that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He received no further 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 use a little-known law allowing him to be discharged based on his age and a diagnosis of one year or less to live. He chose to go home and die.

Bradford Gamble isn’t the only person to have gone home to die. The Prison Society has shared information about Howard White, who, like Gamble, only became aware of his condition when he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. To make matters worse, as he lay dying at the prison infirmary, it was reported that he was not receiving his medication and was not being treated properly to prevent bedsores.

Howard White’s family requested his release on compassionate grounds. On March 17, 2022, the doctor at the hospital gave White two weeks to live. This diagnosis automatically qualified White for palliative care. However, he was not returned to a hospice, but to a facility that lacked adequate support and needed care for a patient in such urgent medical need.

Hospice, the service provided to the terminally ill, depends on the approval of medical health insurance. Accordingly, the service is not likely to be approved for someone who has spent 35 years in prison.

Pennsylvania’s compassionate release legislation, as noted, is narrowly written. To complicate matters, as in the case of White, Gamble and others, they must be near death before they can be released, and even then in some cases prisoners have been turned away. In the Pennsylvania prison system, when it comes to people who have spent their lives in prison, only 31 have been released in the past 13 years, despite their age or diagnosis of terminal illness. Since 2016, eight people have died while awaiting medical transfer.

This is a parody and needs to change. It is unfair, inhumane, and the financial and emotional toll on the Commonwealth, families and individuals is staggering. Does a life sentence mean that one should die there of a disease that a person, if properly treated professionally in a timely manner with adequate health care and services, could to be healed and healed? Must our prison system take months, allowing the elderly and infirm to waste away inside, while they have loving families ready 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 in desperate 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 country, some might argue that our animals in shelters receive more humane treatment and care than those incarcerated who have spent unimaginable years behind bars. AP News reports that in a state where the overall population of African Americans is about 12%, African Americans make up 47% of the prison population. The disparity is alarming.

Even during COVID-19, the worst health crisis in modern times, 878 people aged 65 or over remained in prison and contracted coronavirus. The Department of Corrections dashboard further reports 166 COVID deaths, of which 83 were African Americans and 93 were 65 or older.

Let’s not forget that we are not talking about numbers. They are human beings… someone’s husband, father, son, brother or loved one. Why would someone who, at the age of 19 or 20, may have committed a horrible crime, but who today, at 68 or 70, with myriad health problems and costly medical needs, is mortally ill behind bars, languishing in the infirmary, when he could live his last days with compassion and loved ones?

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

Ryan H. Bowman