In an article for “The Marshall Project,” Keri Blakinger and Joseph Neff outline the horrific death of inmate Marie Neba from COVID-19. While the mismanagement of COVID-19 within the prison system is hardly news, Blakinger and Neff emphasize the numerous levels of negligence that led to Neba’s tragic death.
Incarcerated at Carswell FMC, Neba was five years into a seventy-five-year sentence for Medicare fraud. She also suffered from stage 4 cancer. Inmates with severe health conditions can apply for compassionate release – an early end to their sentence attributed to extraordinary conditions. Inmates must first write to their warden and wait 30 days for the slim chance of a recommendation by the warden for release.
Assuming that the warden denies the request – as is the case a vast majority of the time – the inmate can then file for compassionate release with the courts.
Prior to the pandemic, Neba had submitted a request for compassionate release to her warden due to her perilous medical condition. The warden denied her request. With the advent of COVID-19 and the extreme and documented threat it poses to immunocompromised individuals and those with underlying health conditions, Neba submitted another request to which she never received a response.
Compassionate Release Steps
Neba is not alone in this, however. COVID-19 has sparked a great increase in the number of compassionate release requests submitted by inmates, but in many cases, these efforts are fruitless. Since March 10, 940 inmates have requested compassionate release. This is an estimate that is likely undercounted due to the informality of requesting release from the warden. Only 156 of these were granted by wardens.
Even the few cases approved by wardens are not guaranteed release, however. Of 84 approvals reviewed by the central office in D.C., only 11 were granted release. Despite the reluctance of the bureau of prisons to advocate for compassionate release cases, courts have released around 1,600 inmates since the start of the pandemic.
After 30 days, Neba requested compassionate release from the courts, to which the government argued that her condition was not unstable enough to warrant release. This is a common rebuttal by prosecutors.
Turmoil Between Warden and Central Office
Blakinger and Neff cite the recent release of Juan Alberto Fernandez, a prior inmate from FCI Phoenix with diabetes, obesity, and end stage renal failure. While the warden in Fernandez’s case was among the few to recommend release, the central office of the bureau of prisons overturned the warden’s decision, citing Fernandez’s relatively high functionality and performance of basic activities (“bathing; dressing; grooming; feeding; transfers; ambulating; toileting”).
Although the courts eventually released Fernandez, this argument implicates fundamental human rights principles. It brings into question the quality of life standards that we as a society are willing to accept for our prisoners. Is a slow death in prison from fatal disease, isolated from loved ones, and without access to adequate medical care deemed humane, simply because a person can still bathe themselves?
The compassionate release statute allows for release in the case of a debilitating medical condition, but the copious arguments against release, even when an inmate is not a danger to society, threaten this assertion.
Further, it provides weeks and months of squabbling over the severity of an inmate’s condition and the degree to which their health is compromised, all while a real person is exposed to exponential levels of danger.
There is no example of the brutality of these arguments as pointed as the case of Marie Neba. While her case was still in court and arguments were made about the validity of her COVID-19 concerns, she was hospitalized and died, handcuffed to her bed, and forbidden from accessing her children via facetime to say goodbye.