Federal inmates suffering from unconstitutional medical neglect could face better policies under changes being proposed by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The panel released a list of proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines, among them a change that would broaden compassionate release, a policy that allows prisoners who are terminally ill or severely debilitated the mercy of spending their remaining days at home, according to Reason. The amendment would expand the qualifying circumstances for compassionate release to include incarcerated people "suffering from a medical condition that requires longterm or specialized medical care, without which the defendant is at risk of serious deterioration in health or death, that is not being provided in a timely or adequate manner." Despite the Eighth Amendment's guarantee of basic hygiene and health care for inmates, prisons, and jails regularly subject people to atrocious and humiliating neglect. "Federal prisons have been unable or unwilling to get people the medical care they need," says Kevin Ring of FAMM, a criminal justice advocacy group. "The stories we hear on a regular basis are heartbreaking and infuriating. The commission's proposal tells [the Bureau of Prisons] and the courts to do better."
The First Step Act of 2018 significantly expanded the availability of compassionate release by allowing judges to consider petitions. Previously, only the prison bureau had the authority to grant or deny petitions, and it was notorious for stonewalling them. Justice Department records obtained by FAMM show that at least 81 federal inmates died while waiting for the government to review their applications between 2014 and 2017. Even under the First Step Act, judges could grant compassionate release only for "extraordinary and compelling" reasons, which were narrowly defined and did not include medical neglect. As a result, inmates who were suffering from well-documented neglect could only file an Eighth Amendment lawsuit. There is a high bar to proving an Eighth Amendment violation: Inmates must show "deliberate indifference" from prison officials to their condition. Prisons use this to their advantage by generating paper trails and appointments that do little to treat inmates but satisfy incurious judges. The lawsuits can drag on for years. The expanded definition of extraordinary circumstances would give inmates another avenue for relief and would make it harder for judges to look away.