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Comatose Prisoners Expose the Limits of Mercy

In Texas and California the hard line against crime has crashed against the bottom line of deficient state budgets. Short money and long sentences have politicians from both states purporting to search frantically for fiscal solutions.

Texas legislators have proposed a variety of bills that would potentially release prisoners. One bill suggests the release of non-violent illegal immigrants who are approved for parole and earmarked for deportation. Another bill would shorten the length of treatment programs prior to release. But attracting the most attention is the possibility of ridding their prisons of severely infirm and handicapped prisoners.

Texas House Corrections Committee Chairman Ray Allen, R-Grand Prairie says, "For all intents and purposes, we are at capacity. We're looking at ways to, in the short term, meet our capacity needs without having any kind of dramatic negative impact on the system or without increasing any threat to the public." He goes on to point out that Texas prisons are currently caging nearly a dozen prisoners who are "in a persistent vegitative state." The annual cost for housing these prisoners is roughly $400,000.

Alluding to the fact that Texas has nursing home facilities designed exclusively for paroled prisoners, Allen says, "I'm not sure why we can't parole a guy in a coma and put him in a hospital."

California legislators are asking the same questions about Steven Martinez who holds the dubious honor of being christened the state's most expensive prisoner. Martinez received a 165 year sentence in 1998 for rape and assault. In a 2001 incident he was stabbed in the neck and paralyzed from the neck down. Now all he can do is blink, speak, swallow and turn his head. He has to be spoon fed three times a day, turned on his bed every two hours to prevent bed sores, washed, wiped and ministered to in a variety of other ways. His hospital room alone, in the high security prison, costs $730 a day. Surgery to treat a bedsore once cost the state $620,139. Half of that went to two guards, paid to watch Martinez 24 hours a day. Prison officials do not explain why a quadriplegic needs two guards. Estimated cost to keep Martinez, 34, for another thirty years easily exceeds $8 million.

California has about 120 prisoners who, like Martinez, require extensive or intensive care for disabilities ranging from Alzheimers to old age. California's "compassionate release" parole law is an oxymoron. Prisoners diagnosed with less than six months to live may apply for compassionate release but are not likely to receive either compassion or release. Thirty-nine prisoners qualified for and requested compassionate parole in 2002. Twelve were released to die outside of prison walls.

Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University and an authority on prison geriatrics and healthcare. Of California's compassionate release program Turley says, "You may not have to be standing at the pearly gates to qualify, but you have to be able to see them from where you are."

Martinez applied for compassionate release in 2001. His request was supported by the warden. No doubt the state would have benefited greatly by sloughing this financial burden. But "correction" outweighs cash in California or Texas too for that matter.

Ron DeLord, president of the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas, said, "We are here to remind our elected leaders to keep the bad guys in jail... these people were sent to prison and that's where they need to stay."

Michael Pickett, chief of California's prison medical system recognizes the sentiment. "I can tell you that there are a whole lot of people out there who will say, `We don't give a damn what their medical problems are. They ought not be on the street."

Steve Martinez' victim certainly feels that way, "I'm already nervous all the time," she says. "Always watching my back. If he was out that would be all the worse." But as Senate leader John Burton D-San Francisco points out: "What are these guys going to do? Run over you with their wheelchairs?"

Burton's tongue-in-cheek observation conveys a legitimate concern. At what point does incarceration become a disservice to society? Burton goes on to say, "There has to be a better way to deal with them, a way that saves money without threatening public safety."

In the case of comatose prisoners a philosophical question goes unanswered, and unasked for that matter. If the supreme court has held that it violates the constitution to execute the insane because they cannot appreciate or comprehend the nature of their crime or punishment; does the same rationale apply to comatose people whose bodies are imprisoned by the state but whose minds no longer comprehend the fact of imprisonment? In the case of quadriplegics like Martinez, if prison is the deprivation of liberty, is not his own useless body his own prison at this point?

The unspoken truth is that revenge run amok eventually costs more than just dollars. It diminishes the dignity of everyone involved. It is telling that the only public discussion on these issues is in financial terms, while the philosophical underpinnings of a system of mass imprisonment that sees fit to imprison the comatose and quadriplegic goes unquestioned.

Sources: Express News Austin Bureau, The Seattle Times

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