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A yellow and black guitar sits in Raymond Caliman's lap. It’s a Gibson, the one he played in the prison choir before his health started failing.
His eyes, now unseeing, do not move to look at the instrument. His mouth, now unable to speak, does not move to make words or music.
The friends and family gathered around him can’t be sure he knows he is in a care facility in Philadelphia rather than a state prison 120 miles away.
But a few seconds pass, and his hand moves. His thumb plucks at the E string for the first time in years. He is home.
Spotlight PA first reported on Caliman’s case in March 2022. After the story published, the Abolitionist Law Center, a public interest firm that specializes in “compassionate release” cases, connected his sister Mary Buffaloe with an attorney from another firm.
As Caliman’s health deteriorated, Buffaloe wrote letters to state officials, made phone calls, and did everything in her power to get her brother out of prison so he could receive better health care. But it was his dire state — his blood cells turning cancerous, his strong voice quieting to a slurred whisper — that ultimately won his freedom.
On Sept. 26, two weeks after Buffaloe petitioned the court for compassionate release, a special kind of parole for the sick and dying, Caliman came home. He spent seven weeks in hospice care in Philadelphia, outside prison, for the first time in four decades, but unable to communicate with the sister who got him there. Caliman died Nov. 16.
Buffaloe anguished over the choice. The decision to petition for compassionate release meant agreeing to end her yearslong fight to get her brother better care. In Pennsylvania, to receive the type of parole Caliman did, the incarcerated individual must stop receiving treatment that could improve their condition.
Buffaloe had to choose to let her brother die.
“Everybody was saying, ‘Thank you, you did such a great job!’ and that made me feel good,” she said, “but it was such a long struggle. My only hope and wish is that it didn’t have to take so long. That he could’ve just came home — I would’ve been happy if he could’ve come home with one year of good health.”
By the time Buffaloe filed Caliman’s petition, said attorney Catherine Trama, his health had deteriorated extensively. He had taken multiple trips to an outside emergency room because the care he needed wasn’t available in the prison.
In the years before his release, Caliman lost his vision, his ability to speak, and his mobility. He now has bed sores that will never heal, Trama said.
“That's what it takes to get someone relief and it is entirely too narrow,” she said. “I'm very happy that he is able to be with his family at this time. But in a situation that's so severe, it's not enough. It shouldn't have to come to this.”
Some Pennsylvania lawmakers agree, and in October, legislation to revamp Pennsylvania’s compassionate release law made it out of a state House committee, a step previous attempts have failed to achieve.
The current compassionate release statute purports to provide sick and aging incarcerated people with a way to spend the end of their life free from prison. In reality, it is so narrowly written that Caliman is one of only 48 people to successfully use it in 14 years.
The law grants release only to those who are sick or older, cannot walk, and have less than a year to live.
Because of the narrow criteria, the state has received very few petitions since the legislature established the process in 2009. And in many cases, petitioners have died before their petitions came before a judge.
The process is obscure even to lawyers such as Trama who regularly defend clients in civil rights and defense cases. Before Caliman’s case, the attorney had never heard of it, much less represented an incarcerated person in a petition. Trama received a “huge lift,” she said, from ALC attorney Rupalee Rashatwar.
“I was terrified the entire time that we were going to be one day too late,” Trama said.
Rashatwar and the firm have driven the uptick in successful petitions in recent years. There were 24 petitions granted between 2009 and 2020, before ALC began its focused practice. Courts have granted release to 24 people in the past three years alone, with ALC representing nearly half of them. The firm now partners with Pennsylvania University law students to help file petitions.
But the small rise in successes still represents a fraction of the aging population receiving costly medical care for chronic and serious health conditions inside state prisons.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections incarcerates 10,300 people over the age of 50 who are considered elderly because lack of access to health care and atypical living conditions age them at a faster rate than those on the outside, according to state officials. These people account for more than a quarter of Pennsylvania’s prison population and there is a financial as well as human cost to keeping them incarcerated.
Their health care is significantly more expensive than that of their younger counterparts, according to the department. Nearly all incarcerated people over the age of 50 are on medication, according to the department, costing $34 million a year. The average annual medication cost per person for those under 50 years old is approximately $1,921, while it is $2,928 for incarcerated people age 50 and older.
The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Stephen Kinsey (D., Philadelphia), seeks to expand the conditions that would qualify someone for release, and decrease both the human and financial cost of keeping older people behind bars.
Under Kinsey’s bill, incarcerated people would be able to apply for medical parole if they are at least 55 years old and have served at least half their minimum sentence or 25 years of a life sentence; or have a terminal, chronic, or debilitating health condition. Applications would then require parole board approval rather than a ruling from a judge.
People who have aged beyond 50 in prison are unlikely to reoffend on the outside, Kinsey told Spotlight PA.
“That’s hard life in there,” he said. “You’re not going to get out and be running like the wild Wild West.”
The legislation would also require the prisons to notify a family member or attorney when an incarcerated person receives a terminal health diagnosis and inform them of eligibility for compassionate release.
The bill passed out of the state House Judiciary Committee with all Democrats and one Republican, Paul Schemel of Franklin County, in support. But should it pass the full chamber, it will still need approval from the state Senate and likely the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, where a similar bill died last term.
State Sen. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne) chairs that committee and did not bring compassionate release legislation up for a vote before the session ended. In a 2022 interview with Spotlight PA, she said she supported changing the law but had concerns about lack of placement options for those without remaining family connections and planned to introduce her own legislation. She never did.
Reached this year, she said: “I am not in a position to speculate about House action and what a prospective bill might look like that passes there. Although it is clear that advocacy is rising in some places, there are community concerns being expressed about capacity to accept these releases. There are practical issues that apparently will need to be addressed before any legislation can move to the governor's desk.”
Baker’s Republican colleagues in the state House voiced concerns about the new bill, chief among them whether the expanded eligibility would burden corrections staff and the parole board.
State Rep. Katie Klunk (R., York) argued the qualifying conditions were too broad and could inundate the parole board with applications from people with manageable medical conditions instead of those with serious health concerns such as cancer or kidney failure.
“Those are the individuals that I believe that we can agree on that we could move a bill forward on that we could target and assist and believe in redemption and have compassion for,” she said, “and I believe that those are the ones that we should be targeting in a bill.”
But for the families of people aging behind bars, the new legislation represents a new opportunity.
Sabrina Whitaker’s father, Vernon Bess, spent most of her life behind bars, going to prison in 1975 for murder when she was just three years old. But her father never lied to her, she said, and they maintained a close relationship throughout her life.
When her father developed cancer, Whitaker tried to petition for his release on her own. Despite his diagnosis, she failed because her father could still walk. Like Buffaloe, Whitaker had to wait until her father came closer to death.
Rashatwar, the ALC attorney, filed for Bess’ release in September 2022 after a spine surgery left him unable to walk. Bess served 47 years in prison for what he’d done; he lived just a few months on the outside.
Before a judge approved his petition, the family of Frank Collins, the man Bess killed, weighed in. A father had been taken from them too, they said in a statement through their attorney.
But they trusted Bess had remorse and that loved ones would want to be by his side in the end. They didn’t object to his release, they said, if his death was imminent.
Bess left prison in September 2022 in a coma. He woke up a free man. He died in February with Whitaker at his side as he took his last breath.
“It was so powerful,” Whitaker said, “to watch people have compassion. My life will never be the same because of those people.”
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