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Prison is a tough place, and it's meant to be. Still, Congress made an exception nearly 30 years ago to give terminally ill inmates an early way out. It's called compassionate release. A recent investigation found it's not working well these days. Many federal inmates actually die while their requests drift through the system. NPR's Carrie Johnson followed one of them.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Clarence Allen Rice operated a leasing company in Iowa for decades. But when the market went south in 2004, and many of those leases plunged into default, a jury found he turned to fraud. Allen Rice was sentenced to about six years and sent to a Minnesota prison camp in 2011. But in some ways, his wife Christine says, that was only the beginning of his trials.

CHRISTINE RICE: He got sick, very sick. And when they get sick, they don't tell the families. And so I wouldn't know why I hadn't heard from him.

JOHNSON: Weeks passed and Christine found out her husband of four decades had liver cancer. She asked the prison doctor what to expect.

RICE: He said something to the effect of well, if he's alive in three months, he'll be very lucky.

JOHNSON: The doctor said he'd started the paperwork so that Allen Rice could apply for early release. In the meantime, he got transferred to a prison medical facility near the Mayo Clinic, where the family was told he'd have to start the paperwork for compassionate release all over again. Under the prison rules, Rice, not his doctors or his family, was responsible for filling it out.

Michael Horowitz is the inspector general at the Justice Department. Horowitz studied the program and found it was poorly managed and rife with confusion.

MICHAEL HOROWITZ: If you're going to tell inmates that they can only apply if they show they have less than a certain number of months to live, there needs to be some standards in place so that the people processing these papers understand they've got to make these decisions quickly.

JOHNSON: Mary Price is a lawyer at Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She says only about two dozen inmates a year get compassionate release, despite thousands who may be eligible under that program, including more than 100 inmates who are over age 80.

MARY PRICE: It's been neglected for so long and that neglect that can translate into real cruelty at the end of the day. It's not intended cruelty. It's the cruelty that that flows from a program that has been, for the most part, abandoned, and left to run at all different levels essentially on its own.

JOHNSON: Members of Rice's family say they were on their own too. His petition for early release was denied, because they heard, the warden wanted him to serve more time. Then they muddled through appeals as Rice got worse. While his family members struggled to squeeze into limits on visiting hours.

Rice's final decline happened right after Christmas in 2012, when he went from walking short distances to the visiting area to being completely bedridden. His wife Christine spent several days going back and forth to the facility.

RICE: I wanted to be able to share with my children, you know, dad's thoughts to them about what made him proud, what he would encourage, encourage them to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEEPING)

RICE: I had to memorize it all to the best of my ability because, you know, he wasn't writing any letters. He wasn't making any phone calls.

JOHNSON: She drove home after that only to get a call from the prison doctor.

RICE: She called me, and she hadn't been there for several days because of the holiday and the weekend. She said, Well, he's changed dramatically since I saw him last. You should come.

JOHNSON: Christine jumped in her car and drove three hours to the prison. Her husband died that same night, in early January, about three months after his diagnosis.

Daughter Alanna Rice looks back at it this way.

ALANNA RICE: A person really is more than the worst thing they've done in their life. Just because he was convicted, doesn't take away all the love and support that my dad gave me and my siblings, and his church and his community.

JOHNSON: The Federal Bureau of Prisons didn't want to talk on tape for this story. But in response to the critical inspector general report, prison leaders say they'll do a better job of letting inmates know about the program, cut down on how many people need to approve the requests, and start tracking them electronically.

Making all those changes could take two years.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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