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August 31, 2023

Spotlighting poor record of new Illinois medical release law

I have followed the stories of "compassionate release" a lot more closely since the passage of the federal First Step Act in 2018 dramatically increased the number of federal prisoners able to make a court motion, and prevail on a court motion, for a sentence reduction.  But it is very hard to keep up with the 50+ other jurisdictions that run prison systems in the US that have their own rules and practices for releasing prisoners on various grounds.  Consequently, it is very interesting and helpful to see local groups and media focus on these issues at the state level, and today brings this notable new report from from Injustice Watch and WBEZ about development in Illinois.  The piece is headlined "Dying and disabled Illinois prisoners kept behind bars, despite new medical release law," and it demands a read in full for anyone concerned about these issues.  Here is how the extended article gets started:

Phillip Merritt’s dementia is so advanced he’s lost the ability to speak. But with the help of his cellmates at Western Illinois Correctional Center, the 71-year-old still manages to get on the phone with his brother every few weeks. “He has to have someone call me, and then I don’t know what to say to him because he can’t understand anything, so I’ll just talk,” said Merritt’s brother, Michael Merritt, in an interview. “All he can say are two words. … I mean, he’s just gone.”

Merritt’s deteriorating condition makes him a prime candidate to get out of prison under the Joe Coleman Medical Release Act, a pivotal criminal justice reform bill touted by Gov. JB Pritzker and Illinois Democrats as an effective way to alleviate the state’s decrepit prison health care system, reduce the “staggering” costs of caring for ailing people in prison, and reunite families with frail loved ones.

Under the act — named after a decorated Army veteran who died of prostate cancer while incarcerated — Illinois prisoners can request early release if they’re terminally ill and expected to die within 18 months or if they’re medically incapacitated and need help with more than one activity of daily living, such as eating or using the bathroom.

But a year-and-a-half since the Coleman Act went into effect, an investigation by Injustice Watch and WBEZ found far fewer prisoners have been released under the law than expected, as the medical release process has become mired in the charged politics of criminal justice reform in the post-George Floyd era. Behind the lower-than-expected numbers is the Prisoner Review Board, a state body appointed by Pritzker and confirmed by the Illinois Senate with final say on medical release requests.

As of mid-August, the board had denied nearly two-thirds of medical release requests from dying and disabled prisoners who met the medical criteria to get out of prison under the Coleman Act — including Merritt. “I couldn’t believe it,” his brother said. “How could they deny him? He can’t even talk!”

More than half of the 94 denied applicants were older than age 60, and half had spent at least 15 years behind bars, according to an analysis of state prison data. At least two died in prison, including an 81-year-old who had been incarcerated for more than three decades and was scheduled to be released in 2025. Another man died five days before the board denied his request.

Meanwhile, the Prisoner Review Board has only granted 52 medical releases — a rate of fewer than three releases per month on average since board members began voting on those requests, records show. Advocates say the board is undermining the Coleman Act and forcing ill-equipped prison staff to care for dying and disabled prisoners, even those with families practically begging to take them off their hands.

August 31, 2023 at 09:42 AM | Permalink

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