Senate budget would expand medical release for aging, sick prisoners
About 2,500 more people in NC prisons would be eligible if the law is changed
Aging and infirm inmates make up a growing percentage of North Carolina’s prison population. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
State senators have proposed expanding the eligibility criteria for the medical release of people in North Carolina prisons, potentially giving thousands of sick and aging people in state custody an opportunity to go home before they die.
The law change, which can be found on page 310 of the Senate budget, comes after an NC Newsline story about a man named Bobby Norfleet, who spent 43 years in prison, in part because of North Carolina’s narrow eligibility requirements for medical release.
“You do have to essentially be dying in order to access that medical or compassionate release provision and policy from inside a North Carolina prison,” Ben Finholt, director of the Just Sentencing Project at Duke Law’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice, told NC Newsline for that story.
To qualify for medical release under the current law, imprisoned people must be so sick that they’re likely to die within six months, have a condition that makes them “permanently and totally disabled,” or be at least 65 years old and have chronic, debilitating diseases related to aging.
A report produced by the Department of Correction indicates 10 incarcerated people were considered for medical release in 2022. One was denied, seven were released and two cases are still pending.
In 2019, the Parole Commission considered nine people for medical release. Seven received it, and two died before a decision was made.
There were 30,835 people in North Carolina prisons as of May 24, 2023.
The Senate budget would roll back the age criteria for medical release by a decade, making people age 55 or older eligible if they suffer from a chronic disease or illness that is so serious it has made them “medically incapacitated.” The incarcerated person must also pose “no or low risk to public safety.”
The budget also would expand the medical release criteria for individuals with a terminal illness, making people eligible if their death is likely within the next nine months (the current law allows for six months) and if their condition is so debilitating that the release poses no or little risk to public safety.
“These simple and logical changes to North Carolina’s medical release statute will not only reduce the prison system’s medical costs without compromising public safety, but will also allow more individuals the opportunity to return to their loved ones for the remainder of their lives and to die with dignity,” Yvette Garcia Missri, the Wilson Center’s executive director, said in a statement sent to NC Newsline.
North Carolina’s prison population is growing older, as the percentage of imprisoned people who are age 60 and older is increasing as those with long sentences remain behind bars. The state tried to account for the increased health costs of the aging prison population by establishing a long-term palliative care unit at Central Prison, but because of staffing shortages the prison system had only filled three of 77 jobs as of February.
“Using early medical release procedures (as defined in the new provision) and post-release supervision, NCDAC [North Carolina Department of Adult Correction] can safely allow their growing elderly and/or infirmed population to receive healthcare outside the prison walls, reducing medical costs of the prison system and burdens on staff,” Sandra Hardee, executive director of NC-CURE, said in an email. “Many individuals eligible for early medical release have families willing and able to provide home care for their loved ones, improving quality of life in their remaining years.”
Hardee said NC-CURE worked with Disability Rights North Carolina, the Wilson Center, the North Carolina Justice Center and Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform to propose changes to North Carolina’s medical release laws.
“This legislation is a positive step — too many people living in our prisons have chronic disabling conditions,” Susan Pollitt, a supervising attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina who was instrumental in securing Norfleet’s release from prison, said in an email. “Like the rest of the nation, our prison population is also aging fast and people are exhibiting all the limitations that come with age. Expanding the use of compassionate release for people who can be safely cared for by their loved ones is the right thing to do and is cost-effective. We can use the savings to provide rehabilitative programs for the younger people in prison – 95% of whom will be released back to our communities.”
Hardee said roughly 2,500 imprisoned men and women between the ages of 55 and 65 would be eligible for medical release if the law is changed.
Those granted medical release are still under supervision. Officials set conditions and monitor the individuals in the community, allowing officers from the corrections department to drop by their home. Anyone who doesn’t comply can be sent back to prison. State law also allows for people whose health improves while they are on medical release to be sent back to prison, pending the outcome of a revocation hearing.
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