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Justice System

From the archives 2022

Broken ‘compassionate release’ rules strand Pa.’s sickest prisoners as costs to taxpayers soar

by Danielle Ohl of Spotlight PA |

There is bipartisan agreement that it’s too hard for people serving life in prison to get out when they are aging and ailing. But two proposals to change that face an uncertain future.
Leise Hook / For Spotlight PA

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Even three decades into a life sentence in Pennsylvania state prisons, Raymond Caliman had always been sharp-minded. He wrote letters to the Department of Corrections in exacting cursive with colored emphasis added where he wanted his legal argument to stand out.

But in 2020, things started to change.

His academic script devolved into a sideways scrawl. He began losing weight and complained of dull constant pain that worsened when he walked. His sister, Mary Buffaloe, noticed his words slurring through the phone.

Tests at an emergency room later found Caliman had been suffering from constipation and a urinary tract infection that went untreated for so long that the toxins his body would normally flush out leached into his bloodstream and affected his brain.

Caliman has been serving a life sentence for first-degree murder since he was 32, when he was convicted for shooting a man during an argument over money. He is now 68 and bedridden, but has no way to leave his prison bed in Luzerne County and seek better medical treatment.

Pennsylvania state prisons house more than 2,000 people like Caliman: over 55 and serving life in prison, where lack of access to health care and atypical living conditions age them at a faster rate than those on the outside.

There are few ways for people getting older behind bars to get out unless their death is imminent. Under state law, there are no parole opportunities for people serving life, even if they’re decades removed from the crime, sick, and determined to no longer be a danger to the public.

One of the only options, Pennsylvania’s version of “compassionate release” for the sick and dying, is so narrowly written only 31 people have successfully petitioned for it in 13 years.

“It’s simply not used,” said Maria Goellner, the Pennsylvania policy director for national advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “Both not applied for often and not granted frequently.”

Providing lifelong housing and medical care to people in prison is expensive, and the full weight of that cost falls on taxpayers.

The Department of Corrections spent $59,598 on average to house a person last fiscal year, according to department data. But the cost to taxpayers can skyrocket to more than $100,000 for an incarcerated person who needs regular medical attention.

The state bears this cost without assistance from federal insurance programs, which are not accessible to people in prison.

In budget hearings over the past month, lawmakers from both parties noted the high cost — both human and financial — of keeping older and sick people in prison. State Sen. Pat Browne (R., Lehigh), chair of the Appropriations Committee, joked that after years of discussions on the topic, his only remaining discomfort was the “categorization of plus-50 being elderly.”

Still, current legislative efforts to fix the law and create a more robust parole system for the aging and ailing have moved slowly, and the path ahead is unclear.

Spotlight PA spoke with 28 people serving life sentences to understand the experience of growing old behind bars. Many discussed remorse for the grave act that put them there, and detailed repeated and unsuccessful attempts at freedom, and a range of serious medical ailments.

In 2017, Pennsylvania began to release “juvenile lifers,” people sentenced to life for crimes they committed as children, after two U.S. Supreme Court decisions found the punishment “cruel and unusual” for anyone who’d ever received it.

As Harold Gordon, who has been in a Pennsylvania prison for 50 years, watched them leave prison as old men, he saw some “hope for the elderly.”

“But I understand the way the system goes if some relief is gained, it won’t be me,” Gordon wrote via a prison email system, “for I’ll be dead by the time laws change if they ever will.”

Letters from Raymond Caliman, who is serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania state prison, show how his handwriting changed from August 2019 to January 2020 as his health declined.
Letters courtesy of Mary Buffaloe
Letters from Raymond Caliman, who is serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania state prison, show how his handwriting changed from August 2019 to January 2020 as his health declined.

‘I could have failed by a two-day delay’

Syzane Arifaj is one of the few attorneys in Pennsylvania who has successfully used the state’s medical transfer provision.

The process, established in 2009, allows older and sick people to transfer from prison to a hospital or long-term care facility if they have less than a year to live, or a hospice facility if they are terminally ill and unable to walk. The narrow criteria mean the process is rarely used, and the few petitions that have been filed are not always successful.

Eight people have died while waiting for a medical transfer hearing since 2016, according to Department of Corrections statistics obtained by Spotlight PA.

Arifaj’s client, Frank Rodriguez, was dying from late-stage cancer when his sister contacted the Lehigh Valley-based defense attorney.

The medical transfer process, which Arifaj had never heard of before exploring options for Rodriguez, took more than a month. Arifaj spent weeks gathering Rodriguez’ medical records and getting a letter from his doctor. And even after a court approved Rodriguez’ release, Arifaj had to file an amended order because the Department of Corrections would not release him without electronic monitoring, a measure not required by law for people transferring from prison to hospice.

Rodriguez finally left state prison in August 2017. He died in his sister’s home less than two days later.

“This is a lot of work. It’s a very arduous process, and ultimately I could have failed,” Arifaj said. “I could have failed by a two-day delay.”

State Sen. Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia) introduced a bill in August that would repeal the state’s current medical release provision and replace it with a law establishing more flexible parole opportunities based on age or illness.

A medical provision would allow anyone with a terminal illness, a chronic and debilitating condition, serious functional or cognitive impairment, or deteriorating health due to age to petition courts for parole.

A separate geriatric provision would apply to anyone age 55 and older who has served the lesser of 25 years or half their sentence, providing a mechanism for those serving life sentences to apply for release.

In both cases, the parole board would have to determine the person wouldn’t pose a danger to the general public.

Another state senator, Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne), chairs the committee where Street’s bill awaits consideration. But Baker is exploring her own policy that would create a pilot program instead of a permanent change to the law.

That idea was born out of a visit Baker made to Laurel Highlands, the state’s prison for people with long-term health needs. She spoke with corrections staff about the challenge of finding adequate care for people who had completed their sentence.

People leaving prison with complicated mental and physical health needs can be extremely difficult to place, Department of Corrections Secretary George Little said during a recent budget hearing. In some cases, care facilities turned down the department dozens of times before corrections staff could find a place that would take someone, he said.

“That conversation was, I think, a very important one for me in that it raised some cautions for us because of the difficulty finding community-based placements for individuals,” Baker said. “So that’s where we are in the discussion about how do you move forward and build community capacity before you create a program that would be doomed to failure if you don’t have anywhere for people to go?”

Both Street and Baker’s proposals would include victims or their families in any release process, a measure supported by the state Office of Victim Advocate.

“I do think currently, with the way compassionate release is set up, it’s arduous,” said Pennie Hockenberry, director of legislation for the state’s Office of Victim Advocate. “I think any time when you’re looking at overall release, it’s good to make sure that the victim’s voice is there as a part of the entire package.”

Over the past five years, Pennsylvania has freed some people serving life sentences.

Starting in 2017, the state responded to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and released 271 people who were sentenced to life before they were 18. When the court made its decision, Pennsylvania prisons held more than 500 of these “juvenile lifers,” according to the Department of Corrections, the most of any jurisdiction in the country.

But many people serving life in Pennsylvania didn’t qualify for release because they were outside the under-18 age limit — some by just a year — when they committed a crime. They remain behind bars, waiting to see if change will happen in their lifetime.

‘I was a lawless person, but killer no’

In emailed messages and written letters to Spotlight PA, more than two dozen people serving life sentences spoke of the pains of aging without access to better health care or to simple remedies, such as a change in diet or new exercise routine, that might improve their quality of life.

The respondents, all over the age of 65, talked about their cases of diabetes, high blood pressure, and recent strokes and heart attacks. Some live in prison infirmaries and require 24-hour medical attention to do basic tasks such as bathing, walking, and using the restroom.

Many of the people who responded to Spotlight PA described repeated unsuccessful attempts to get their sentences pardoned or commuted, the only other method of release available to those serving life who have exhausted their options in court.

Wayne Covington is one of them.

Covington has been in prison for more than half a century, longer than all but 16 people serving life sentences in Pennsylvania. He shot a man he was trying to rob for money to buy heroin. At his 1970 trial, he told the jury he meant only to intimidate the victim with the gun and it fired accidentally.

Covington had a heart attack about 10 years ago. He has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, liver problems, and recently started prediabetic medication. He has applied to have his sentence commuted four times, including recently in 2021, he told Spotlight PA.

The commutation process can take years, and few cases are granted consideration.

The pardons board denied his application 4-1, and the family of Covington’s victim, George Rudnycky, opposed his release.

Compounding Pennsylvania’s large population of people serving life is a rule mandating that sentence for everyone convicted of a crime that results in a death, even if they did not directly commit the murder.

That was the case for Thomas Mathis, now 71, who arrived at Pennsylvania state prison nearly 50 years ago after a jury found him guilty of murder in the course of a burglary.

Mathis and another man hoped to distract a 75-year-old Easton man while a third person searched his home for money, according to news reports from the 1972 trial. But when the homeowner turned from his porch to enter his house, the two followed him inside and began to beat him.

They hadn’t brought weapons, but Mathis’ co-defendant grabbed a knife and stabbed the homeowner, he told Spotlight PA, something he hadn’t anticipated. Under Pennsylvania law, Mathis received a life sentence for his part in the murder.

“Yes, I needed to come to prison. I was a lawless person, but killer no,” Mathis said. “I really, really feel I wish I could take that day back. I do have to live with that. I didn’t kill, but I was part of it and a person lost his life.”

The path to potential release for Mathis and others is uncertain.

Baker, the Luzerne County senator, said she’s working with the corrections and human services departments during the current budget cycle to find funding for the pilot program that would provide people leaving prison with adequate support.

Street’s bill — which would permanently change the law — has one Republican co-sponsor, state Sen. Camera Bartolotta of Beaver County, but hasn’t received a hearing in the Judiciary Committee. Baker, the chair of the committee, said she hasn’t ruled out bringing Street’s bill up for a hearing and acknowledges the two legislators are approaching the problem from different angles.

But parole advocates like Goellner, the policy director at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, oppose any further delay to a permanent release mechanism because “hundreds of families want to take care of their loved ones at home,” she said.

“We know that Pennsylvania’s system is broken from years of data and hundreds of stories, and we know what to do about it,” she said. “Families and taxpayers can’t wait for a pilot program.”

Mary Buffaloe continues to hope that one day her brother Raymond Caliman can come home to receive better medical care. Her letters to various Corrections Department officials — which she provided to Spotlight PA — serve as a diary of her brother’s decline.

Caliman wouldn’t qualify for the state’s current medical transfer program because he’s not imminently dying. But he’s been in and out of emergency rooms for two years as his medical issues have compounded. He’s lost nearly half his body weight in prison.

Buffaloe encourages him to eat, to persevere in case one day he leaves the infirmary, but for now, most of his nutrients come through a feeding tube.

“Raymond went to prison a healthy man,” Buffaloe wrote to a corrections employee in February, “and his health has declined in prison due to a diagnosis of acute metabolic encephalopathy (caused by untreated constipation which was preventable with adequate health care).”

“Life in prison does not mean die in prison from preventable illness.”

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