States Eye Medical Parole To Cut Costs

fromKPLU

Many states are releasing their sickest inmates in an effort to save money while budgets are tight. In Washington State, the new policy won't necessarily save money, but will shift the medical costs from the Department of Corrections to Medicaid.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Medical parole, that's when sick or dying inmates are let out of prison early. Usually, it's been a gesture of mercy or compassion. Now, cash-strapped states are looking to medical parole as a way to save money.

Austin Jenkins, with the Northwest News Network, reports.

AUSTIN JENKINS: Shaune Trigg(ph) speeds his electric wheelchair through Ahtanum View Correctional Complex in Yakima, Washington. He's heading for E unit, the prison's wing for disabled and dying inmates. This foul-smelling, cinder-black dorm has been Trigg's home for nearly two years, ever since he was convicted of dealing meth and weapons possession. Just inside the door, an inmate they call The Brother stops him. He bows his head on Trigg's shoulder and begins to pray.

THE BROTHER: Dear heavenly Father, I just pray you'd just - just prepare a path for my brother Shaune, Father. I pray that you would just give him reconciliation with his family...

JENKINS: This is 41-year-old Trigg's last day in prison. He's being released early because he's in the advanced stage of multiple sclerosis. Trigg is a beneficiary not of mercy, but of Washington state's budget woes.

Mr. SHAUNE TRIGG (Prisoner): This was totally unexpected. Internally, I feel that, you know, somehow I got a second chance. It's a chance.

JENKINS: Caring for inmates like Trigg cost Washington taxpayers nearly twice as much as it does to lock up healthy inmates - nearly $60,000 a year. Leanne Stelzer(ph) is Trigg's prison counselor. She emphasizes he's not rolling out of prison scot-free. Trigg will have to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet and he'll be assigned to a Community Corrections Officer, or CCO.

Ms. LEANNE STELTZER (Prison Counselor, Washington): He's pretty much still incarcerated. He still has to abide by DOC policies and rules. And he has his CCO checking on him. He still has to jump through the hoops just like if he was here. He can't have contact with anybody that's not approved.

JENKINS: In the past decade, some 60 medically incapacitated offenders have been freed. But this August, a new Washington state law goes into effect that expands eligibility for that program. The idea is to cut prison costs at a time when the state is facing a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall. Washington State isn't alone. States like Maine, North Carolina and Alabama are also turning to medical release to cut costs. Eldon Vail is Washington's Secretary of Corrections.

Mr. ELDON VAIL (Secretary of Corrections, Washington): You have to see this in the context that we find ourselves and that's with budget deficits, and looking under all of the rocks and coming up with the alternate ideas that might save money.

JENKINS: But does it actually save taxpayers money to release sick inmates early? A fiscal analysis in Washington state suggests, in some cases, it could cost more, not less, to care for a sick inmate in the community. That's because they can end up needing high-level care in expensive nursing homes and on taxpayer-funded Medicare or Medicaid. Carol McAdoo, with the National Hospice And Palliative Care Organization, is an expert on the end-of-life issues in prisons. She says there are no comprehensive cost-comparison studies, but she believes medical parole is a no brainier.

Ms. CAROL MCADOO (National Hospice And Palliative Care Organization): Clearly common sense tells you these people are going to be less expensive to care for in a community environment, as opposed to providing the secure environment of an incarcerated population.

JENKINS: Nearly three hours after leaving the prison in Yakima, Washington, inmate Shaune Trigg arrives in the town of Chelan. He's definitely not in prison anymore.

Mr. TRIGG: Wow. You see the reflections of the water? Gorgeous.

JENKINS: Trigg's new home is a hilltop assisted living facility with a spectacular view of Lake Chelan. Washington state taxpayers will help pick up the tab for Trigg's stay here, but the daily bed rate is less than it was costing to lock him up in prison.

For NPR News, I'm Austin Jenkins in Olympia, Washington.

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