Compassionate Release: Should Inmates Be Allowed to Die With Family?

April 23, 2013

When the imprisoned suffer from a terminal illness, sometimes prison officials show them kindness and out of compassion, let the person out to die free. How better for a society to treat someone who’s been castigated than to show them mercy during the end of life?

At this merciful time, families of the dying prisoner ask the public to stop looking backward, to stop thinking about the evilness done. Is it too difficult to let such a selfish pleasure called “freedom” creep into a dying man’s realm? Does society really need to drain the last calendar day of punishment out of each criminal in order to drive home the point, “Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time?” There comes a time when keeping these dying men and women under lock and key has lost its “safety and security” rationale and the surest time is when dying is inevitable.

In our harshly punishing society, to show mercy toward someone guilty of inflicting pain and suffering upon the innocent would be a miracle in itself. That being the case, I implore the public to answer this question: does mercy factor into justice? Me, I have no authority. I am completely powerless. I am a subjugated person who has no right to say how mercy ought to be practiced, if the dying should be given one last taste of freedom. Nevertheless, to receive such a merciful gesture, to breathe free air while you’re dying, cannot be put into words.

I knew this to be true as I sat with Donald Jenkins, 65, now in his second month of a “you’ve got six months to live” notice from University of California, San Francisco doctors. I sat with Donald to discuss his impending death. He is entering his second decade of a three strikes sentence. He almost sounded bitter as he told me a compassionate release is unlikely and explained that most of his family lives on the east coast. He added that he doesn’t know exactly how “compassionate release” actually works–he’s never known someone to get a compassionate release, and in the one case he’s heard about, the man died before all the paperwork went through.

As we sat on his bunk, he asked me to feel under his right arm. He told me the cancer began about two years ago as a lump inside his right bicep. There was a long thin scar marking the surgical incision to remove the tumor. But the surgery didn’t work; the tumor quickly moved into his right lung. That meant another operation. The doctors said they removed all of the cancer-plagued lung that they could and administered all possible radiation. However, the rare, spindle cell sarcoma had not been stopped. It is only a matter of time, they told him.

Donald rambled on about what will happen to his body after he’s dead. “Maybe, UCSF can use my body for research,” he said. “I don’t want my family to pay for the trip home, since they won’t let me out.” I looked him in the eye, wanting to say something comforting, so I asked if I could contact Sacramento on his behalf and see if the process regarding compassionate release can be more clearly explained to him. I had to try something on Donald’s behalf.

When he gets too sick to get around on the mainline, he will be shipped to Vacaville to die, still incarcerated. I lamented. It would be nice to die with family at your side, instead of in this place absent of love, devoid of caring, in the abnormality of prison. It is the most horrible way to die—estranged from family, by those who are in control of your life and death.

It would truly be an act of compassion to permit this man to die in the arms of his family.

Juan Haines is an inmate at San Quentin State Prison. He is Managing Editor of the San Quentin News and works as a jailhouse attorney. See Boston Woodard’s article regarding aging in prison and compassionate releases in the April edition of San Quentin News.

Photo by danielfoster437, via Flickr.