NEW YORK—At age 88, John Rigas could be a poster child for inmates who might seek early release from prison because of the hazards of advanced aging.
The former cable television mogul, convicted of fraud after his company collapsed into bankruptcy in 2002, already has fought cancer and had triple-bypass heart surgery. But he and others like him had little hope that an application for compassionate release would get a serious look before a recent report by the Department of Justice’s inspector general called the program for early release of some terminally ill inmates and others “poorly managed.”
The report has energized experts in the field, attorneys and inmates in a prison population that, like the rest of the United States, is expected to grow increasingly gray in the next few decades.
Attorney Lawrence G. McMichael said Rigas and other inmates are considering whether to request compassionate release.
“He’s aware of it, and we’re thinking about it,” said McMichael, who represents Rigas in several legal matters. “You don’t see too many John’s age walking around.”
Brie Williams, associate professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco Division of Geriatrics, called the report “a fantastic first step” toward addressing problems related to the aging prison population.
“If you standardize procedures, it’s very laudable,” she said. “It seems that the bureau of prisons is responding and agreeing and trying to implement those suggestions.”
Williams, who co-wrote a 2011 report, “Balancing Punishment and Compassion for Seriously Ill Prisoners,” said she hopes the government convenes experts to create uniform, evidence-based eligibility guidelines and to make sure inmates are cared for properly from when they are diagnosed with serious and life-threatening illnesses until they are deemed eligible for compassionate release.
The inspector general report concluded the program could save the Federal Bureau of Prisons money and relieve overcrowding concerns but was implemented so inconsistently that eligible inmates were unlikely to be considered for release and others who are terminally ill die before their requests are decided. According to the report, the director of federal prisons from 2006 through 2011 approved 142 releases and denied 36 out of 206 requests. In 28 cases, the inmates died before decisions were made.
The report was released just days after supporters of imprisoned former civil rights lawyer Lynne Stewart said they had been notified that prison officials had agreed to recommend she be released to continue her fight against advanced-stage cancer. A judge would still have to agree to release the 73-year-old, who is halfway through a 10-year sentence for letting a blind Egyptian sheik serving life for terrorism offenses communicate with followers.
If Stewart, who has said prison life is “worse than I could have imagined,” is let out, her case might reflect a shift in the rules followed by the prisons bureau. The inspector general found some prisons required that an inmate have less than six months to live before being eligible for release while others required less than a year to live. The bureau has decided prisoners with less than 18 months to live are eligible, bureau spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said.
Before this year, only about two dozen federal inmates annually were released by the program, which takes into consideration factors that were not evident when an inmate was sentenced. According to the latest published federal statistics, about 26,000 inmates, or 1.7 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million inmates, in state and federal facilities in 2011 were 65 or older.
The inspector general said the compassionate release program was designed by Congress to permit non-medical circumstances to be considered as a grounds for release, but the bureau routinely rejects those requests and had not approved a nonmedical request during the six-year period of its review.
Williams, in her report, noted the soaring growth in correctional costs, one reason Congress made the compassionate release program part of federal law in 1984. The report said U.S. state and federal prison populations nearly tripled between 1982 and 2006, while the number of prisoners age 55 and older more than quadrupled. It said the cost of incarceration for roughly 80,000 prisoners older than 55 years is more than three times that for younger prisoners, primarily because of health care costs.
“Older prisoners are at the root of a correctional health crisis,” Williams said. “As we incarcerate more people for longer amounts of time, we drive up health-related costs in the prison system.”
Her report noted that the average annual costs for health care, protective transportation and guards for 21 seriously ill prisoners in California state prisons exceeded $1.97 million per prisoner, while the median annual cost of nursing home care was $73,000 per person.
Williams said the health crisis in prisons was serious in part because prisoners seem to age faster than the general population, perhaps because of hard living in or out of prison. She noted that someone losing hearing might face confrontations with other inmates or rule violation charges from the prison.
“Many prisoners appear to have chronic illnesses and disabilities we would expect when they are about a decade older,” she said. “Prisons are totally unprepared to address the unique problems of this population.”
McMichael said Rigas was a “textbook example of the insanity of this system,” which insists on lengthy punishment for crimes that involve no physical harm. He said Congress could consider a blanket policy to make age a dominant factor in obtaining compassionate release and should create an avenue for lawyers to apply directly to a judge for a sentence reduction.
Rigas, a spry one-time movie theater projectionist who McMichael said weighs 90 pounds soaking wet, has served half of a 12-year prison sentence for his 2004 bank and securities fraud convictions stemming from his leadership at the now-defunct Adelphia Communications Corp. in Williamsport, Pa.
“It costs the government a fortune to have him there,” McMichael said. “He’s not a threat to anybody. He’s not going to hurt anybody.”
McMichael said he saw an ambulance outside the prison when he recently visited Rigas.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, maybe it’s John,'” he recalled. “As my grandfather used to say when he was 95, there’s a certain age where you’re subject to death without notice.”