Louisiana may look at changing medical release for sick, dying incarcerated people — again

Lawmaker proposes forming a commission to study prison medical release

By: - May 13, 2021 12:00 pm
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In this file photo from July 2014, a group gets a tour of a dormitory at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is also known as Angola. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)

A lawmaker wants the state to put together a commission to study Louisiana’s policies related to the release of incarcerated people who are sick and dying in prison — just three years after the Legislature voted to tighten the rules on those same releases. The Louisiana House will have to approve the measure before it can go into effect.

Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, is sponsoring House Resolution 51, which would create the new commission on prison medical release. The group would have 21 members made up of prison officials, gubernatorial appointees, legislative appointees, doctors, victim advocates and others. The commission would come up with recommendations for changing the medical release process by the beginning of 2022. 

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the difficulties of getting people who are incarcerated out of prison based on their medical conditions. The Louisiana prison system let out only a handful of people with health risks that made them susceptible to COVID-19 sickness. Advocates for the incarcerated thought many more should have been sent home so they could avoid serious illness and death.

Two doctors who treat incarcerated patients told the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice Wednesday they often can’t figure out why their patients, near death, aren’t entitled to a medical release. Helen Pope, who works at University Medical Center in New Orleans, said she has a hard time figuring out who has the power to release her patients because the process for medical release is “murky” at best.

“We’re told these patients’ files are ‘in the pile’ or ‘being considered,’ but what this means is very unclear to us,” Pope said. “I’ve been successful in medical furlough one time in five years.” 

Pope said she has an incarcerated patient with advanced liver failure who can’t dress himself without help and who still hasn’t been granted a medical release from prison. She doesn’t understand why. 

The Legislature has been all over the place in terms of how it feels about medical releases from prison. In 2017, it loosened rules by creating a new medical furlough program which would allow people who are terminally ill or disabled to get out of prison because of their health status.

The new medical furlough program was supposed to be more flexible than the existing medical parole process, since medical parole — a permanent release from prison for medical reasons — isn’t open to any people convicted of murder under state law. Unlike medical parole, medical furlough could be reversed, in the unlikely event that the person released made a full recovery. 

But just a few months after the Louisiana Pardons and Parole Board started hearing its first applications for medical furlough, Gov. John Bel Edwards and state lawmakers decided to tighten the rules again. People convicted of first-degree murder no longer have access to medical parole or medical furlough, under a new state law passed in 2018.

Prison officials do have a third option for people who are dying. The prison system has a compassionate release program, but it can only be used on a person who is expected to die within 60 days or is completely incapacitated, such as being in a coma, according to state law. Advocates wonder why prison officials don’t use this option more often, though it wouldn’t help people suffering from an illness or disability that could last several months or years.

The Louisiana Department of Corrections said it would like to do more medical releases, but is constrained by the current laws. Caring for sick and dying people in prison costs money. People in prison don’t qualify for Medicaid or Medicare — meaning the state must pay for all of their medical bills.

The issue of what to do with sick and dying people serving life sentences is particularly acute in Louisiana. The state has the nation’s largest population of people who are serving life sentences without parole — over 5,000 people — who are expected to die incarcerated. 

In 2017, Louisiana had six times as many people serving life sentences without parole as Texas, which has five times as many people asf Louisiana. If prisoners serving life sentences without parole in Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee in 2017 were added together, the sum would still fall below the number of people serving life in Louisiana that same year, according to The Sentencing Project.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.

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