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Texas Ramps Up Medical Paroles

Recently, Texas has increased the use of medically-recommended parole. The parole board approved over twice as many medical releases in Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 than it did in FY 2009. Even so, the 85 Texas prisoners approved to be released for medical reasons in FY 2011 were but a drop in the bucket among the over 150,000 Texas state prisoners.

Although the medical releases may be insignificant in terms of reducing the Texas prison population, they can have a much greater effect on the amount of money spent for Texas prisoners' health care. They can also relieve the strain on the limited number of hospital beds available, about 300 statewide, for a Texas prison population that is growing older and sicker on average each year.

"It's becoming an issue for the state and the [criminal justice) department," said Dr. Owen Murray, vice president for prisoner health care at the University of Texas Medical Branch, which provides the health care services for over two-thirds of Texas prisoners. "We have been very vigilant about doing everything we can to look after these patients. The parole board is in a difficult spot. [In addition to costs] they really have to look out for public safety. I don't envy their job, trying to balance those two things."

But the parole board denies taking costs into account when deciding whether to grant medical parole.

"The medical care cost is not included in the information sent to the board," said Rissie Owens, chairwoman of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP). "The [BPP] makes a determination based on the inmate's medical condition and medical evaluation and if he will be a threat to public safety.

"Along with the nature of the inmate's crimes and ability to carry out future criminal activity, the board looks at things like the prisoners’ degree of mobility, assistance needed for daily living, cognitive condition and expected life expectancy."

Even with the recently increased rates, the BPP denies about two-thirds of the applications for medical parole.

Most medical parolees are merely sent home to die. About 1,300 prisoners were released on medical parole between FY 1991 and FY 2009. 65% of them have died and 7.4% have absconded or been returned to prison.

The nature of the crime is not considered by the doctors who recommend medical parole.

"We don't know what their crimes are; we just submit them based on their medical criteria," Murray said.

Consideration of the nature of the offense does takes place when the BPP reviews the application for medical parole. At that point, the district attorney for the jurisdiction that sentenced the prisoner is allowed to give input. But, due to federal medical privacy laws, the district attorney is not told the nature of the medical problem. This has led some, such as Tarrant County District Joe Shannon, to oppose all medical paroles.

"Do they have a sore throat or a hangnail, or are they dying of cancer?" asked Shannon. "I'm not going to release someone for intensive medical treatment if I don't know why they are being treated."

Of course, a serious, debilitating and usually life-threatening medical condition is a requirement to even apply for medical parole and prisoners aren't released on medical parole to get better medical treatment, but rather because their medical condition makes it unlikely that they could be a threat to public safety.

Source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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