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Profiles: Six Cases of Compassionate Release Denial

Securing compassionate release from federal prison is not an easy task. While the law, policy and regulations that allow for a reduction in sentence for extraordinary and compelling reasons are all in place, and have been for some time, very few federal prisoners are granted compassionate release. Most applications for compassionate release are denied.

While not pleasant, looking at actual compassionate release denials can be sobering. Seeing people in federal prison die because the Bureau either Compassionate Release Denialfailed to act or acted incorrectly helps to show what it is that compassionate release is really about. It helps to show the human cost and the underlying reason for such programs.

Below are several cases profiled in the news media that show just how broken the Bureau's compassionate release program truly is.

Anthony Bell

Anthony Bell received a 16-year sentence for distributing cocaine. In October 2014, after serving all but one of those years, Bell applied for compassionate release. He was suffering from lupus and liver failure, and doctors gave him six months to live.

Six months later, the Bureau of Prisons denied his application, concluding that Bell had more than 18 months to live. Bell died two days later. Bell's sister, Denise Littleford, told The New York Times that the Bureau dragged its feet.

"I begged them to please get him home," said Littleford. "And while the blood was still warm in his body, instead of sending him home in a body bag."

Irwin Schiff

Irwin Schiff was convicted of tax fraud. With the help of his son, Schiff tried for two years to obtain compassionate release. He was denied, and his son Andrew said goodbye to the dying 87-year-old man at a federal medical facility. Schiff was unconscious and on a respirator, but still handcuffed to his hospital bed.

"There's no humanity in here," Andrew Schiff told The Times.

Wayne "Akbar" Pray

Pray had served nearly 30 years of a life sentence for his part in a large New Jersey cocaine operation when he applied for compassionate release in 2013. His Warden, the former and current mayors of Newark, NJ, the local NAACP and several former Newark law enforcement members supported his application.

The Bureau denied the 69-year-old man's application citing the severity of his offense and his conduct in prison. The Times noted that Pray's last violation in prison was 20 years ago, for failing to follow sanitary regulations.

Benjamin Share

Share, a non-violent, white-collar prisoner, was 85-year-old when he suffered a heart attack. The Bureau denied his application for compassionate release, only to change its mind a few months later. The agency had determined that Share had less than six months to live. That delay cost Share and his family. He died within days of his release from custody.

Michael Mahoney

Michael Mahoney was sentenced in 1994 to 15 years in federal prison for violating the Armed Career Criminal Act. His career criminal designation resulted from several small drug sales to an undercover agent in the 1970s. Judge James D. Todd did not want to sentence Mahoney to 15 years, but due to a mandatory minimum, had no choice.

Ten years later, Mahoney was dying of lymphoma at the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky. He applied for compassionate release, and his Warden agreed that he should be approved for a reduction in sentence. Despite the U.S. Attorney's lack of opposition, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons denied Mahoney's petition, citing the "totality of the circumstances" and Mahoney's "multiple felony convictions."

When Judge Todd heard of the Director's decision, he did something he had not done in his 20 years on the bench -- he wrote the Director directly to tell him that Mahoney's case had troubled him since 1994, and to suggest that "a motion for [compassionate release] is the only way to mitigate in a very small way the harshness which [the Armed Career Criminal Act] has caused in this unusual and unfortunate case."

The BOP never responded to the Judge's letter, and Mahoney died in prison.

Unnamed Inmate in a Vegetative State

In a 2013 report blasting the Bureau of Prisons for its poor management of the compassionate release program, the Department of Justice's Office of Inspector General highlighted one particularly egregious case. In 2006, a prisoner who had a massive stroke and was in a near-vegetative state applied for compassionate release (through someone else). Despite his condition not being terminal, the prisoner had to be fed through a tube, turned every two hours, administered toileting, and bathed two to three times a week. He had no hope of recovery.

The Director approved the request, but because the prisoner's condition was not terminal, the Office of the Deputy Attorney General (ODAG) weighed in. The ODAG responded, "Please be advised that ODAG does not concur with the proposed release of [the prisoner] at this time." Due to the ODAG opinion, compassionate release was denied, and the prisoner remained incarcerated, paralyzed on the right side, unable to speak, and in need of total assistance with his activities of daily living.

Tipping the Compassionate Release Tide

As can be seen by these denials of compassionate release, which are the tip of the iceberg, the Bureau of Prisons goes very far out of its way to deny compassionate release applications. That's why you need an experienced attorney by your side when you pursue compassionate release. Contact us to learn how we at the Law Offices of Brandon Sample can help you put your best foot forward when seeking a compassionate release.

Understanding that compassionate release denials are typical, it is important to retain competent counsel to assist you in securing a compassionate release. Call us at 802-444-4537 to discuss your options.

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