The current compassionate release statute in Pennsylvania purports to provide sick and aging incarcerated people with a way to spend the end of their life free from prison. In reality, it is so narrowly written that only 48 people have successfully used it in 14 years, according to Spotlight PA.
The law grants release only to those who are sick or
older, cannot walk, and have less than a year to live.
Because of the narrow criteria, the state has
received very few petitions since the legislature established the process in
2009. And in many cases, petitioners have died before their petitions came
before a judge.
The process is obscure even to lawyers such as Trama
who regularly defend clients in civil rights and defense cases. Before
Caliman’s case, the attorney had never heard of it, much less represented an
incarcerated person in a petition. Trama received a “huge lift,” she said, from
ALC attorney Rupalee Rashatwar.
“I was terrified the entire time that we were going
to be one day too late,” Trama said.
Rashatwar and the firm have driven the uptick in
successful petitions in recent years. There were 24 petitions granted between
2009 and 2020, before ALC began its focused practice. Courts have granted
release to 24 people in the past three years alone, with ALC representing
nearly half of them. The firm now partners with
Pennsylvania University law students to help file petitions.
But the small rise in successes still represents a
fraction of the aging population receiving costly medical care for chronic and
serious health conditions inside state prisons.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections
incarcerates 10,300 people over the age of 50 who are considered elderly
because lack of access to health care and atypical living conditions age them
at a faster rate than those on the outside, according to state officials. These
people account for more than a quarter of Pennsylvania’s prison population and
there is a financial as well as human cost to keeping them incarcerated.
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