As a nurse practitioner, Marian Grant recalled how she cared for a man with serious health issues in the hospital who was incarcerated at the Maryland Correctional Institution - Jessup.
The man, she said, was 74 and suffering from kidney failure. He was unable to walk or care for himself. And he was so confused that he could not answer her questions.
Grant said his medical charts indicated that he’d been back and forth in the last few weeks between the prison infirmary and the hospital. He was shackled to the bed, while a corrections officer sat in the room looking at his cellphone.
“I’ve cared for incarcerated individuals before,” Grant testified on Tuesday in the Maryland House of Delegates Judiciary Committee, “but, for some reason, the injustice of this case really hit me.”
Later, Grant said, she learned that the man and his family members had applied for medical parole, only to be denied. That’s despite the fact he had already served 40 years in prison, she said, and was clearly dying.
He died several weeks later after being readmitted to the hospital.
Grant’s testimony came as lawmakers began considering a bill that would reform compassionate release in Maryland, which encompasses both medical and geriatric parole. The proposed legislation would make several changes including defining and clarifying language in the law; requiring that the parole commission grant a meeting under certain circumstances with a prisoner; and directing that the state, upon request, pay for an in-person, independent medical evaluation that must receive equal consideration.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is set to hold a hearing on Feb. 8 on the legislation.
“This bill is really about modernizing what criteria are used, the terminology and what the process is for release,” said Del. David Moon, vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a Montgomery County Democrat who’s a lead sponsor of the bill.
Under Maryland law, prisoners must be “so chronically debilitated or incapacitated” that they physically can no longer pose a danger to society to qualify for medical parole.
The Code of Maryland Regulations states that individuals must be “terminally ill” or have a health condition for which “continued imprisonment would serve no useful purpose.” That’s along with outlining that their release would not “unduly jeopardize public safety.”
The Maryland Parole Commission is required to consider several factors. One of them includes how a prisoner scores on the Karnofsky Performance Scale Index, which measures functional impairment. Advocates, though, say the tool was designed to assess cancer patients and it does not provide the full picture.
The parole commission approved 149 people for medical parole between 2013-2022 and denied 464 others.
Meanwhile, the law for geriatric parole relates to people who are 60 or older and have served at least 15 years in prison. But to be eligible, judges must have sentenced them under a statute related to subsequent convictions for crimes of violence, which include murder, rape and carjacking.
Because the language is so specific, there are seven people currently incarcerated who might qualify in Maryland.
Twelve people testified in favor of the proposal, bringing up points including the high cost of incarcerating sick and elderly prisoners and their low likelihood of reoffending.
The proposal would remove the requirement for the parole commission to consider how a prisoner scores on the Karnofsky Performance Scale Index.
In her experience, Lila Meadows — an attorney and faculty member at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law — said that’s one of the only pieces of information that the prison health care provider, YesCare, sends to the parole commission.
She said that doesn’t really “paint a substantive picture.” The parole commissioners, she noted, are not physicians. So when the parole commission does not receive other types of information, there’s a tendency to use that score as a cutoff, she said.
Meadows said the score is not useful and problematic in that context.
Willie Hamilton, who was recently released after serving more than 30 years in prison, recounted how he worked to take care of older prisoners, which included washing and feeding them.
He said he’s trying to help a prisoner right now who has several health issues and keeps being sent out for medical care. “He’s not sentenced to life, he’s not sentenced to death,” Hamilton said. “But basically, what they’ve told him is there’s nothing else that they could do for him.”
Rachel Kamins, an appellate and post-conviction attorney who was one of three witnesses to testify on behalf of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, testified that she’s filed many requests for medical parole.
All of them, she said, were denied.
Kamins mentioned two clients who should have received medical parole but “instead died horrible deaths in prison.”
One was 70 with Parkinson’s disease, congestive heart failure and dementia. Another was 62 with stage 4 colon cancer, she said, and could not walk.
“These are human beings,” Kamins said. “We have to do better.”
The chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission, David Blumberg, testified as an informational witness and told the committee that he’s worked with a lead sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Shelly Hettleman, a Democrat who represents Baltimore County.
“As the bill was presented, we will comply with the proposed changes,” Blumberg said. “We supported this proposed legislation last year as well.”
Two people testified in opposition to the bill but expressed a willingness to work with legislators on the language.
First, Lauren Lipscomb, chief of the Conviction Integrity Unit in the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, said she recalled two cases in which people who were released on medical parole went on to commit new crimes, including sexually abusing a minor.
The system for compassionate release needs upgrading, said Steven Kroll, executive director of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association.
But Kroll said there are problems with the legislation. For instance, he expressed concerns about the “fraud factor”: people who are not obese or diabetic, he said, could develop those conditions simply by eating the food in prison.
Kroll said people who have served at least 15 years in prison have committed the worst crimes. He said it was unacceptable that victims and witnesses would have to come back to court every two years if they wanted to oppose geriatric parole.
“Finally, and I say this in all sincerity, this is a bill that does need work,” he said. “And I am willing to work with you.”
Later, Del. Aaron Kaufman, a Democrat who represents Montgomery County, asked whether the two had data about the percentage of people released on medical parole who commit new crimes or those who deliberately induce health conditions to get out of prison.
Kroll said he did not have data but stated he had personal knowledge that he couldn’t share due to medical privacy laws. When people are incarcerated for 15 years, he said, “you’re finding all sorts of ways to get out of jail.”
“Respectfully, sir, that’s very dim view of human beings,” Kaufman said. “But I appreciate your perspective.”