The fate of seriously ill prisoners: shackled to a hospital bed and rarely let out, even to use a bathroom

Source: Department of Corrections website

Felicia Harvey wanted to help her big brother who was very sick.

Brian Harvey was dying from colon cancer. His younger sister, who goes by the nickname Lisa, wanted to bring her brother home to St. Petersburg, where he could be helped and comforted by those who loved him.

But the problem was Brian Harvey was shackled to a hospital bed in Jacksonville. Harvey was there because he was a state prisoner, serving a 30-year sentence, after being convicted of selling crack cocaine in 1996.

Lisa Harvey received special permission to visit her brother at the hospital. She was appalled by what she found there.

“The inmates are shackled to the bed. They are in rooms with no televisions. They have a window,” Harvey told the Florida Phoenix in an interview. But she noted the prisoners are rarely let out of their beds, even to use a bathroom.

It was that disturbing scene that provided the motivation for Harvey to seek what is known as a “conditional medical release” for her brother.

“I felt like at that moment, if dying is what my brother is doing, I do not want him to die shackled to a bed, with no love around him,” Harvey said.

In a flurry of emails, letters and phone calls, Harvey began the process to get her terminally ill brother released from prison.

“I was crying out for help. And ‘no’ just wasn’t an option,” she said.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat who was a target of some of her calls and emails, became a key ally, helping Harvey navigate the bureaucratic process that led to her brother’s release in September 2018. Harvey had served 23 years of his 30-year sentence at the time of his release.

“It meant a lot to the inmate and it meant a lot to the inmate’s family,” Rouson said.

Brian Harvey returned to his St. Petersburg home and his sister helped him secure a disability qualification, which allowed him to receive medical services under Medicaid. But his cancer was too advanced, and the 48-year-old died in early June 2019.

“He was surrounded by me, my mom, my children and an aunt,” Lisa Harvey said.

But Brian Harvey’s case is rare.

He was one of only 38 prisoners granted a conditional medical release in 2018-19, state records show. It’s a statistical blip in a prison system with 96,000 inmates.

Over a three-year period ending in June 2019, the state Department of Corrections recommended 149 prisoners for a conditional medical release. But the Florida Commission on Offender Review (FCOR) only approved 73 releases, less than half of the cases sent for review, state records show.

Now Rouson and other state lawmakers are supporting an effort that could expand the use of conditional medical releases in the state prison system.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, has a bill (SB 556) that would shift the ultimate decision to release a seriously ill prisoner from the FCOR to the Department of Corrections.

The legislation would also allow prisoners with a “debilitating illness” to be considered for release.

A debilitating illness is defined as “a significant terminal or nonterminal condition, disease, or syndrome that has rendered the inmate so physically or cognitively impaired, debilitated, or incapacitated as to create a reasonable probability that the inmate does not constitute a danger to himself or herself to others.”

Prisoners are already eligible for a conditional medical release if they are terminally ill or if they are “permanently incapacitated.”

Inmates convicted of murder or manslaughter, sex offenses or other violent crimes remain ineligible for the program.

State prison officials estimate some 140 prisoners could qualify for a conditional medical release under the bill’s expanded criteria.

“In the past, FCOR approved on average 40 percent of eligible inmates per calendar year under current conditional medical release (2014 through 2016),” according to a legislative analysis of the bill. “However, with responsibilities shifting to (the Department of Corrections), the percentage approved for release could potentially change.”

The expansion of the medical release program is part of a broader effort led by Brandes, who is seeking to overhaul the criminal justice system, with the aim of keeping more non-violent felons out of prison.

In another related bill (SB 574), Brandes wants Florida to also use a “conditional aging inmate” release program.

The bill would allow the Department of Corrections to consider releasing prisoners who are at least 65 years old and have served at least 10 years of their sentences. It would again exclude prisoners serving sentences for violent crimes. And it would provide a forum for crime victims to participate in the process.

Florida has a rapidly aging prison population. At the end of June 2018, nearly one out of every four prisoners was 60 years or older. There were 10 prisoners over the age of 90, according to a June 2017 survey.

“As you tour prison facilities, as many of us have, it’s always kind of shocking to go into wards and see very, very elderly people walking around on walkers, usually with an assistant there to assist them,” Brandes said, arguing in favor of his conditional aging release legislation. “We think this is another opportunity for the state to provide some grace in some of these situations.”

Robert Weissert, a researcher with Florida TaxWatch, an independent government-reform advocacy group, said his organization supports both the conditional medical and aging release bills.

“National studies show that elderly prisoners are more expensive to incarcerate and have a reduced risk of recidivism,” Weissert said. “Also, health care costs for elderly prisoners, according to some estimates, are five to eight times higher than for younger prisoners.”

Rep. James Grant, the Tampa Republican who chairs the House subcommittee on criminal-justice legislation, said the House is open to considering changes in the conditional medical release program. But he says there are caveats, citing the case of a Michigan prisoner who was deemed incapacitated and released, but later committed two murders.

“We have no interest in letting people out that are capable of committing those kinds of heinous crimes,” Grant told the Florida Phoenix. “At the same time, we’re very interested in making sure that we’re efficient with state resources and maintaining public safety.”

But Grant also disputed “the narrative” that there are thousands of non-violent prisoners who could be considered for release under one of the proposed programs.

“Most of them have committed a violent crime,” Grant said.

As of June 2018, nearly 65 percent of the elderly prisoners — defined as those over the age of 50 — had committed a violent crime, according to state prison records.

Grant said any decision to change the release programs will be guided by the House’s evaluation of those data trends.

“We never want to stop pursuing a more just criminal justice system,’ Grant said.

“We’re not going to let just some narrative, and press conference, and a special interest study, dictate who gets out of prison and who doesn’t get out of prison, because the victim’s family doesn’t care that we just fell for a bad study when somebody ends up dead.”