The process for compassionate release is far from compassionate
By: Quinn Ritzdorf, Sarah Hallam, Jiayi Shi and Antoinette Miller
Robert Rowry was on his second parole in 2011 when he was arrested and convicted a third time for selling cocaine. He was sentenced to five years in Algoa Correctional Center, a minimum security prison in Jefferson City, Missouri.
With Rowry’s incarceration, he joined the millions of inmates that are part of the increasing prison population. Matthew Mangino, a criminal defense attorney in Pennsylvania, said the rising prison population started with the war on drugs.
“Legislators got tough on crime, they made sentences longer, they created mandatory minimum sentencing and, you know, some suggest that those sort of sentences was a result of the war on drugs and has caused this expansion of elderly inmates,” Mangino said.
President Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” in 1971 when the state and federal prison population was 198,061, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a federal government agency belonging to the U.S. Department of Justice. That number increased to 1.5 million in 2016, according to the same source.
Rowry became one of the many prisoners who was incarcerated for a non-violent drug offense. After two years at Angola, Rowry began to feel flu-like symptoms. However, he refused to go to the infirmary within the prison, hoping it would pass.
A month later, he started to feel significant pain near his stomach. He decided it was time to go to the infirmary, where he waited all day without ever seeing a doctor. The only treatment he received was from the nurses.
“They have nurses there 24/7 who make the rounds just like they would in a regular hospital to take the vitals and you know give you the medication that you need. But that was all that they did,” Rowry’s wife, Angelika Mueller-Rowry said.
The Department of Corrections contracts with an outside healthcare company to provide healthcare to prisons. In Missouri, Corizon Health provides the doctors, nurses and all the healthcare needs for the inmates inside the walls. In 2016, Missouri DOC paid Corizon Health $147.8 million.
Another month passed as Rowry continued to receive what Mueller-Rowry said was inadequate care from Corizon Health. Soon Rowry started vomiting blood, which prompted Corizon Health to give him an X-ray, though they found nothing. It was not until five days later that they did a MRI and a biopsy, then discovering that he had stage four liver cancer.
“It could have been caught earlier, because at the time you know it [the tumor] was already a size of a baseball and he had metastasis everywhere. That’s how serious it was. You have to catch these things early otherwise it’s too late and that is why I really blame [the prison] for that,” Meuller-Rowry said.
In January 2014, Rowry’s health was deteriorating so rapidly that the prison sent him to a cancer specialist. The specialist told Rowry the cancer was untreatable and that he had six months to live.
After the appointment, Rowry immediately filed for medical parole, a category of compassionate release. According to Missouri Statute, an offender is eligible for compassionate release “whenever any offender is afflicted with a disease which is terminal, or is advanced in age to the extent that the offender is in need of long-term nursing home care, or when confinement will necessarily greatly endanger or shorten the offender's life.”
Once the offender files for compassionate release, the correctional center’s physician will state the facts and the nature of the disease to the chief medical administrator. The administrator then decides whether or not to forward the request to the parole board, who makes the final decision.
According to the Marshall Project, from 2013 to 2017 the Federal Bureau of Prisons received 5,400 applications for compassionate release. Of those, 312 have been approved thus far. During that same period, 266 applicants have died in custody.
Rowry filed for compassionate release, was denied, then died in custody. On December 14, 2013, Rowry was transferred to Tipton Correctional Center in Tipton, Missouri, where the head physician denied his medical parole request, despite the fact that Rowry already had a parole date set for March 28, 2014. The physician said Rowry did not need assistance in his everyday activities, so he did not qualify for compassionate release.
“The doctor then classified ‘Oh he is still able to feed himself, he is still able to do his own hygiene and so he does not qualify for medical protocol,’” Meuller-Rowry said.
Missouri DOC did not respond to request for comment.
However, according to the Revised Statute, Rowry only needed to fit one of the qualifications. He checked the first box––he was an offender with a terminally ill disease.
Two weeks after being denied compassionate release, Rowry was transferred again, this time to St. Mary’s Hospital in Jefferson City. Meuller-Rowry said she was never notified of the move. During Rowry’s last days, his family was not allowed to visit him. On January 18, 2014 Meuller-Rowry got a call from the DOC, notifying her that her husband had passed away.
“His feet were shackled and chained around the hospital bed. One hand was in handcuffs attached to the bed and the right hand was free. This is how he died,” Meuller-Rowry said.
Rowry is not the only offender who has faced difficulties with prison healthcare and applying for compassionate release. Tina Maschi, an associate professor of social service at Fordham University, says the fear of recidivism is the main reason why prisons don’t utilize compassionate release.
“One of the biggest factors I think is fear. They fear crime, being a victim of a crime...just everything about it, it makes people uncomfortable,” Maschi said.
The increasing prison population isn’t slowing down, especially in Missouri, which incarcerates the eighth most people in the country. Compassionate release could be an answer to this problem, however Missouri is hesitant to turn to this solution.