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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's go now to a decision lawmakers made back in 1984. It dealt with the federal prison system. Congress gave authority the power to let people out of prison early in extraordinary circumstances - for example, if inmates were gravely ill or dying. But a new report says the Bureau of Prisons blocks all but a few inmates from actually taking advantage of the program. NPR's Carrie Johnson has that story.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The federal prisons house more than 200,000 inmates, but on average they release only about two dozen people a year under the program known as compassionate release. By contrast, the state of Texas, no slouch when it comes to tough punishment, let out about 100 people on medical parole last year. Jamie Fellner helped write the new study for Human Rights Watch.

JAMIE FELLNER: Why are so few people getting out? You have a prison system that is grotesquely overcrowded. You have prisoners who pose no meaningful threat to public safety, and yet they're being denied release.

JOHNSON: Fellner says she's convinced the culture of the federal prisons and the Justice Department acts as an iron curtain for all but the sickest inmates - people with less than a year to live, who can't even walk, let alone commit another crime.

FELLNER: They're in the business of keeping people in prison, not to try to facilitate them getting out, however reasonable or compelling their request might be.

JOHNSON: Michael Mahoney made one of those requests. He was convicted of selling drugs to an undercover officer, went to prison, got out and went on to build a new life for himself. But he bought a gun for protection, not understanding he couldn't have one as a convicted felon. And when he reported the weapon stolen, Mahoney was sent back to prison for 15 years. Behind bars he started getting sick - hepatitis C, then non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, tumors everywhere.

DIXIE TAYLOR: He just wanted to come home and eat barbecue and, you know, die at home and be in his own bed.

JOHNSON: Dixie Taylor was his older sister. She says people at the prison hospital in Kentucky supported his bid for release. So did the warden. But when Mahoney's petition got to headquarters in Washington it was denied.

TAYLOR: When he was in the hospital in Lexington and we went to see him, he was handcuffed to the bed. His legs were handcuffed to the bed and he had two guards 24/7 with him.

JOHNSON: Dixie Taylor says her family had arranged for hospice care for Michael, and the judge who sentenced her brother even reached out to the prison system to help. But authorities didn't respond, and Michael died a few days later, at age 49.

MARY PRICE: We don't sentence people to die alone in prison when we've given them a five-year sentence.

JOHNSON: Mary Price works at the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She's tried to help Michael Mahoney and many other inmates win compassionate release. Price says Congress gave judges the authority to make calls about which prisoners can be released for extraordinary and compelling reasons. But under the rules, the Bureau of Prisons has to petition the court first. And the bureau usually says no without ever involving the court. Joe Bogan is a retired warden in the federal prison system. He says he supports the idea of giving more inmates a chance at compassionate release. But they're not easy calls, Bogan says.

JOE BOGAN: You have to treat inmates equally. You have to have an egalitarian, if you will, philosophy, so that you try to make the same decision in similarly situated cases.

JOHNSON: Prison officials didn't want to talk on tape, but they sent NPR a statement saying they make each decision on a case by case basis, keeping public safety in mind. We haven't heard the last about compassionate release. The Justice Department's inspector general is reviewing the program too. And he says it could help save money and cut down on prison overcrowding. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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