Prison is a tough place, but Congress made an exception nearly 30 years ago, giving terminally ill inmates and prisoners with extraordinary family circumstances an early way out. It's called compassionate release.
But a recent investigation found that many federal inmates actually die while their requests drift through the system.
One of them was Clarence Allen Rice.
Rice operated a leasing company in Iowa for decades. But when the market went south in 2004 and many of those leases plunged into default, a jury found that he turned to fraud. Rice was sentenced to just under six years and sent to a Minnesota prison camp in 2011. But in some ways, that was only the beginning of his trials, says his wife, Christine.
"He got sick — very sick," she says. "And when they get sick, they don't tell the families. And so I wouldn't know why I hadn't heard from him."
Weeks passed, and Christine found out her husband of four decades had bile duct cancer. She asked the prison doctor what to expect. His response? "He said something to the effect of, 'Well, if he's alive in three months, he'll be very lucky,' " she recalls.
The doctor said he had started the paperwork so that Rice could apply for early release. In the meantime, Rice got transferred to a prison medical facility near the Mayo Clinic, where the family was told he would have to restart the paperwork for compassionate release. Under the prison rules, Rice — not his doctors or his family — was responsible for filling it out.
Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department's inspector general, studied the compassionate release program, and found it is poorly managed and rife with confusion.
"If you're going to tell inmates that they can only apply if they show that they have less than a certain number of months to live, there needs to be some standards in place so that the people processing these papers understand they've got to make the decisions quickly," he says.
Mary Price, a lawyer at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which advocates for inmates and their relatives, says only about two dozen inmates a year get compassionate release, though thousands may be eligible under that program — including more than 100 inmates who are over age 80.
"It's been neglected for so long, and that neglect can translate into real cruelty at the end of the day," Price says. "It's not intended cruelty — it's the cruelty that flows from a program that has been for the most part abandoned and left to run at all different levels, essentially on its own."
Members of Rice's family say they were on their own, too. His petition for early release was denied — because, they heard, the warden wanted him to serve more time. Then they muddled through appeals as Rice got worse, while his family members struggled to squeeze into tight limits on visiting hours. There was no allowance made for inmates who were terminally ill, they say.
Rice's final decline happened right after Christmas 2012, when he went from walking short distances to the visiting area to being completely bedridden. His wife, Christine, spent several days going back and forth to the facility.
"I wanted to be able to share with my children, you know, Dad's thoughts to them about what made him proud, what he would encourage, encourage them to do," she says. "I had to memorize it all to the best of my ability because, you know, he wasn't writing any letters. He wasn't making any phone calls."
She drove home, only to get a call later from the prison doctor.
"She called me, and she hadn't been there for several days because of the holiday and the weekend," she recalls. "She said, 'Well, he's changed dramatically since I saw him last. You should come.' "
Christine jumped in her car and drove about three hours to the prison. Her son and her sister-in-law followed close behind. But Christine says officials wouldn't make an allowance for her sister-in-law to come in during the visit, so she sat outside in the parking lot. Rice died that same night, in early January, about three months after his diagnosis.
"You want to spend more time with someone on their death bed," Christine says. "But we had just the opposite — more limiting," in part because the medical facility where Rice had been moved was higher security than the prison camp where he resided before he got sick.
Daughter Alanna Rice looks back at it this way: "A person really is more than just the worst thing they've done in their life," she says. "Just because he was convicted doesn't take away all the love and the support that my dad gave me, and my siblings, and his church and his community."
Alanna Rice says it's too late to change things for her father, but maybe not for others in the system.
"If talking about it and making people aware of it can help conditions for families and prisoners in the future, I think my dad would really like that," she adds.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons didn't want to talk on tape for this story. But in a statement to NPR, and in response to the critical inspector general report, prison leaders say they will do a better job of letting inmates know about the program, cut down on how many people need to approve the requests, and start tracking them electronically.
Making all those changes could take two years.
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