MINERSVILLE, Pa. — He hobbled down the dark tiled hallway, leaning heavily on his black wooden cane. His feet shuffled, his hands shook, and finally 85-year-old Benjamin Share nearly collapsed into a chair in the prison visitation room.
Convicted in 2006 for illegally pocketing a quarter of a million in taxpayer money, he struggles with diabetes, tuberculosis, osteoporosis, hypertension and arthritis, which has ravaged his hips and spine. He has undergone kidney dialysis and treatment for cancer on his scalp and scar tissue on his lungs. His prostate is enlarged and his memory is fading. Half of his bottom teeth are gone.
Not scheduled to leave prison until January 2015, the former Navy procurement attorney is among 170 federal prisoners over age 80 — many in failing health or near dying — whose conditions are challenging government officials to strike a new balance between the public interest in punishing criminals and compassion for the sick and aging.
It's not just about mercy. Equally crucial to a federal prison service grappling with a soaring budget is the burden and cost of caring for ailing convicts who, like Share, receive taxpayer-funded healthcare that can make them two or three times more expensive than the average prisoner.
In addition to Share, thousands of others who are gravely ill, suffering from terminal diseases or over age 65 may be eligible for early release under the federal Bureau of Prisons' compassionate release program. But a
It's unclear how many apply because the bureau's Washington headquarters keeps a tally only of those requests that have been approved by wardens at the local level and passed up.
The inspector general's findings prompted Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to create a working group that is looking for ways to speed up the process, both for humanitarian and budgetary reasons. "There may be good reasons why they should serve the rest of their lives in jail," he told Congress. "On the other hand, it may be that there's a basis for them to be released."
The new review has been embraced by advocacy groups including
Costs are being driven up largely by the aging prisoner population and longer sentences. The number of state and federal prisoners over age 55 nearly doubled from 2001 to 2008, according to a report last month by the Pew Charitable Trusts. That has driven up medical costs. In Georgia, for example, medical care for prisoners age 65 and older costs an average of $8,565 a year, compared with $961 for those under 65, according to the Pew report.
In Share's case, taxpayers shell out $68,000 a year for his confinement at the Federal Correctional Institution-Schuylkill, including healthcare, prison officials said. Healthy inmates at the same facility cost half that. If his condition worsens, the bill could rise by hundreds of thousands dollars, officials estimated.
During the six-year period reviewed by the inspector general, nearly 1 in 8 prisoners who applied for release died while awaiting a decision.
Charles McGee was serving 20 years for a 2007 child pornography conviction in Mississippi. He was 67 when he went to prison, and had dealt with pneumonia, diabetes and other complications. A quadriplegic, he could not bathe, dress or relieve himself without help. To summon a prison nurse, he blew through a tube.
He had hoped for early release but died behind bars in April. His warden in North Carolina had deemed him a threat to society.
Some lawmakers oppose expanding the releases. Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the
Bureau of Prisons Director Charles E. Samuels Jr. responded that, under Holder's direction, the bureau was expanding the medical criteria to increase eligibility for release. The bureau also will lower the eligibility age from 70 to 65 and consider releasing healthy inmates who would be the sole caregiver for dependents on the outside. He added, however, that "the sentencing judge ultimately decides whether to reduce an inmate's sentence."
The bureau submitted 39 release requests to judges last year and 52 this year. A spokeswoman was uncertain how many had been granted.
Federal prisons have set up committees to make recommendations on individual cases. Wardens, top Justice Department officials and victims will weigh in too. Key considerations include whether the prisoner has served at least 70% of his time, is no longer a threat and has someone on the outside to care for him.
The committees will face some tough calls.
In Texas, Othniel McKinney Sr. is incarcerated in Fort Worth for a 1990s crack cocaine conspiracy in Wichita Falls. He is 83 and, like Share, has applied for compassionate release, but is unsure what is happening with his application.
In a prison interview, McKinney said he has suffered from prostate cancer and belabored breathing and mostly just lies in bed listening to country blues on his transistor radio. After a fall in the prison cafeteria, he cannot get around without a walker.
"They can't fix me," he said, "and I pray I don't die in here. That's my prayer to God. Don't take me in here."
As for Share, he pleaded guilty in 1985 to defrauding the Navy and received three years' probation. In 2006, he was sentenced to 10 years for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and obstruction of justice. Now, the 14 months remaining in his sentence seem like an eternity for Share, who cannot manage the prison stairs or relate to younger inmates who call him — he thinks affectionately — "Pops."
Raised in the East Bronx, the father of three rises at 6:30 a.m. He washes up, makes his bed, sweeps the cell if he can manage, showers and puts on his green prison uniform.
"I don't go to breakfast because I can't walk. It's 200 yards," he said. He does make it to the cafeteria for lunch, "but I go slowly." He returns to his dorm, slips into a T-shirt and shorts, and either sits on a plastic chair or his bed. He reads and naps, reads and naps.
Each morning, he awakens with the same thought: "I am simply taking up space."