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WATCH: A free virtual panel on Pa.’s medical release law for state prisoners

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Pennsylvania’s narrow criteria for “compassionate release” have resulted in only 31 people successfully making use of the program in 13 years.
Pennsylvania’s narrow criteria for “compassionate release” have resulted in only 31 people successfully making use of the program in 13 years.
DAVID SWANSON / Philadelphia Inquirer

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Older people serving life sentences in Pennsylvania’s prisons have two options for release: a commutation or the state’s version of “compassionate release.” Compassionate release offers incarcerated people who are terminally ill or incapacitated a chance to spend their remaining days with access to better medical care or with family and friends, rather than behind bars.

Over 2,000 people serving life in state prisons are over age 55, where poor health care and atypical living conditions age them at a faster rate than those on the outside. But Pennsylvania’s current compassionate release law is so narrowly written that only 31 people have successfully petitioned for release in 13 years.

As a result, thousands of people with severe medical problems remain incarcerated even if they are decades removed from the crime and no longer considered a danger to the public. This arrangement places a burden on people in prison and their families, and can cost taxpayers millions of dollars a year for housing and medical care.

On Wednesday, April 20, Spotlight PA hosted a panel on Pennsylvania’s compassionate release rules, who the law impacts, and the strain it places on people in prison, their families, and taxpayers.

Our panelists included:

  • Danielle Ohl, investigative reporter for Spotlight PA

  • Celeste Trusty, secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons

  • Sharif Street, Democratic state senator, 3rd District

  • Bradford Gamble, successful compassionate release petitioner

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