Pubdate: Sat, 30 Jan 2010
Source: New York Times (NY)
Page: A17 of the New York edition
Copyright: 2010 The New York Times Company
Author: Cara Buckley
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


COXSACKIE, N.Y. -- With his swollen legs and a throaty rasp that 
whistles like a kettle through his broken teeth, Eddie Jones is an 
unlikely man to make history.

He is 89 and dying, a former loan shark who, at 69, shot another man 
dead on a Harlem street in what he claimed was self-defense. Now he 
is serving a sentence of 25 years to life in a prison hospital bed in 
this upstate town, riddled with heart disease and probably cancer, 
though his doctors are not certain about the cancer because Mr. Jones 
has refused most every medical test.

Mr. Jones's original parole date was in 2015, but he stands to go 
free in the coming weeks under a new state law that makes chronically 
as well as terminally ill inmates eligible for early release. Inmates 
must be deemed physically or cognitively unable to present a threat to society.

The law, passed with the state budget last April, expanded the 
eligibility list to add those convicted of violent crimes including 
second-degree murder (like Mr. Jones), first-degree manslaughter and 
sex offenses, so long as the ailing inmates have served half their time.

But despite fanfare within the corrections field about the 
humanitarian and financial benefits of compassionate release -- New 
York is one of a dozen states that have expanded, enacted or 
streamlined programs over the past two years -- the policy shift has 
had minimal effect. Experts attribute this to the fear that freed 
inmates, no matter how sick, might commit further crimes, as well as 
to the difficulty of placing dying criminals in nursing homes.

"The problem is, when we start trying to put people out, there are 
others in the community who are sure we're trying to make more crime 
in the community," said Dr. Lester Wright, chief medical officer for 
the New York State Department of Correctional Services. "We're also 
competing for beds. Some people think my patients aren't as valuable 
as other people in society."

The embrace of compassionate release comes as the nation's prison 
population is at a historic high -- 1.6 million people as of 2008, 
according to the Justice Department -- compounded by a surge in aging 
and sick inmates serving longer sentences. In 2008, there were 74,100 
inmates age 55 and older, a 79 percent increase from 1999. New York 
estimates the cost of caring for a gravely ill inmate at $150,809 a year.

Once released, they are usually cared for by family members or placed 
in nursing homes or hospices, their expenses largely covered by 
Medicare or Medicaid.

But while the new state guidelines led to a rise in applications for 
medical parole -- 202 inmates last year, compared with 66 in 2008 -- 
they have hardly led to more releases. Mr. Jones would, in fact, be 
the first freed under the new guidelines (the seven inmates released 
last year were eligible under the old rules).

The National Conference of State Legislatures said 39 states had 
compassionate release programs, but many of them also have minimal impact.

In California, where federal judges ordered the state to cut the 
prison population by 40,000, three people were granted compassionate 
release last year. In Alabama, where prisons are at double their 
capacity, four sick inmates were let out on compassionate release in 
the 2009 fiscal year; 35 other prisoners in Alabama died while their 
applications were being reviewed.

Since New York adopted medical parole in 1992, at the height of the 
AIDS crisis, 364 people have been released.

"Medical parole was designed to consider the humanitarian needs of 
inmates as well as the safety of the community," said Brian Fischer, 
commissioner of the State Department of Correctional Services. 
"Anybody can tell us they want medical parole, but the numbers who 
qualify are going to be a lot smaller than the ones who want it."

Advocates for prisoners argue that fear of recidivism is 
unreasonable, especially for convicts close to death. Corrections 
officials said during the 18 years the program in New York has been 
in effect, three medically paroled inmates have ended up back in 
prison, none for violent crimes.

"Politicians and high-level officials and bureaucrats don't want to 
be accused of being soft on crime, even if the prisoners are 
terminally ill and there's no possible risk to public safety," said 
Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional Association of 
New York, a prison advocacy group.

Indeed, the release last summer in Scotland of a sick Libyan man 
convicted in the bombing of an airplane over Lockerbie created an 
international furor. Last fall, anger over New York's new law erupted 
when Gregory Felder, who was convicted of murdering a Radio Shack 
employee on Long Island in 2004 and is now gravely ill, was 
considered for parole. (He was turned down; and a legislative 
loophole that had made him eligible despite having not yet served 
half his sentence was subsequently closed.)

Other cases have unfolded far from the public glare. Cinderella 
Marrett, 74, who was caught at Kennedy International Airport in 2007 
smuggling cocaine in her girdle -- to offset medical expenses, her 
daughter said -- was released in May 2009. Stricken with cancer, she 
is living in a nursing home in the Bronx.

Since 2005, at least 16 New York inmates have died while waiting for 
the parole board to decide their fate.

Timothy McGowan, a once-burly high school dropout from Deer Park, 
N.Y., spent half of his 50 years behind bars for 11 felony 
convictions, including robbery and second-degree manslaughter. By the 
time he was thrown back in prison for a parole violation in April 
2009, cancer was consuming his lungs, whittling away his body and 
creeping up his brain stem.

In July, when Mr. McGowan could barely walk, his prison doctors 
applied on his behalf for compassionate release; his final wish was 
to have one last cup of tea with his mother in their Long Island 
home. Instead, he died at the Fishkill Correctional Facility on Nov. 
7, two days before the parole board was to hear his case.

Among the prisoners in New York newly eligible but denied release 
last year was Sergio Black, 38, a former Marine who said he had 
fought in the first gulf war.

Mr. Black was convicted in 2005 of raping his former companion, which 
he denied. In 2006, his spinal cord was injured in a prison 
basketball game. Now a quadriplegic in the Walsh Regional Medical 
Unit of the Mohawk Correctional Facility in Rome, N.Y., Mr. Black is 
a "poster boy for medical parole," according to his lawyer, Stephen 
Dratch, because it would be difficult for him to commit another 
physical crime. But the parole board rejected his application, saying 
Mr. Brown "exhibited little or no insight or remorse for the victim."

Mr. Jones, the near-nonagenarian and former loan shark known by his 
hospice aides as the Harlem Knight, was supposed to go before the 
parole board in December, but the hearing was pushed back twice 
because the court had not yet sent a transcript from his sentencing. 
His next scheduled parole date is next month, and he remains 
bedridden in the hospice at the Coxsackie state prison.

A long-lost niece, Marcy Jones, who lives in Washington, has poured 
her heart into pushing corrections officials and the governor's 
office to grant the parole. She is optimistic enough that she has 
bought her uncle a new wardrobe and has set up a battery of medical 
appointments for him.

"Once I get him out, I'm going to advocate for others," Ms. Jones 
said. "There are other Uncle Eddies out there." 
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