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Alabama’s medical parole bill a step in the right direction – if the state uses it

After a year of preventable death caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in Alabama’s prisons, the Legislature is considering HB 581, a bill that would broaden the opportunity for release of more elderly and terminally ill incarcerated people.

While the effort is notable, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) and Bureau of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) doesn’t have the best track record of using the process or granting medical parole as the law currently stands.

Introduced by Rep. Chris England, the bill would expand eligibility for medical parole under Alabama’s Medical Parole Act to any incarcerated person 50 or older, regardless of the offense. Under the current law, eligibility is only reserved for those 60 years and older and excludes anyone convicted of a capital offense. HB 581 would also allow people to be considered for medical parole starting 15 years into their sentence, while currently only those who’ve reached their parole consideration date are eligible.

Under current law, ADOC, not the bureau, initiates the medical parole process.

The BPP is instructed to create a special docket where the board would consider medical parole for geriatric people, those permanently incapacitated or people who are terminally ill. Further, ADOC is instructed to provide the bureau annually with a list of incarcerated people who’ve spent 30 or more days in an infirmary, received frequent medical treatment outside an ADOC facility over the past 12 months and those suffering life-threatening illnesses for consideration.    

Yet, investigations by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) have found that the medical parole process is rarely used to provide compassionate release to elderly and sick people in a prison population that keeps growing older. According to ADOC’s January monthly statistical report, its most recent, 6,157 people, or 24% of the prison population at the time, were documented as age 51 or older.

During 2019, for example, ADOC referred only 19 people for medical parole in 2019, and the bureau granted parole for just four of them, SPLC research found. The numbers weren’t much better for 2020, even with a global pandemic that has killed 64 people in ADOC custody so far, many of them elderly. According to documents from the bureau, ADOC referred 15 people for medical parole last year, and still only five were granted in 2020.

In the SPLC’s continued investigation of ADOC’s elderly population, the organization found that by September 2020, a dozen people age 65 or older had died of COVID-19. However, 12 additional people in that age group died over the same time in circumstances that were still under investigation by ADOC – bringing the death toll to at least 24 in just a few months. 

The expansion of medical parole would provide an opportunity for more elderly and sick people in ADOC custody to avoid being subject to inadequate medical treatment provided by the state’s facilities and senseless deaths behind prison walls. But the passage of HB 581 must be met with improved coordination with ADOC and the bureau to ensure the legislation’s humanitarian goal is fulfilled by truly providing relief to the aging and infirm prison population. 

Kathryn Casteel is an investigative reporter for the SPLC Action Fund.

Photo by AP Images/Dave Martin