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Dying for a change: a systematic review of compassionate release policies

Shivani Kaushik (School of Social Work, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA)
Jen Currin-McCulloch (School of Social Work, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA)

International Journal of Prisoner Health

ISSN: 1744-9200

Article publication date: 28 June 2022

Issue publication date: 16 March 2023

241

Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this study was to systematically review literature to investigate trends in compassionate release policies, facility implementation, barriers at both the incarcerated individual and institutional levels, as well as gaps in the literature. The absence of uniform and appropriate policies to address suitable interventions at the end-of-life has aggravated the challenges and issues facing health-care systems within a correctional facility. A response to address and alleviate these barriers is policies related to compassionate release, a complex route that grants eligible inmates the opportunity to die in their community. Despite the existence of compassionate release policies, only 4% of requests to the Federal Bureau of Prisons are granted, with evidence demonstrating similarly low rates among numerous state prison systems, signifying the underuse of these procedures as a vital approach to decarceration.

Design/methodology/approach

A systematic review was completed using preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses guidelines. Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International Abstracts, Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature, Cochrane Library, Education Resources Information Center, Google Scholar, MEDLINE, PsycINFO, PubMed, Social Services Abstracts and Social Work Abstracts were searched from inception to March 2021. Inclusion criteria included: the compassionate release policy (or related policy) is implemented in the USA; reported qualitative and/or quantitative outcomes; and reported original data.

Findings

Twenty studies formed the final data set. Data analysis revealed four main themes: language barriers, complexities of eligibility criteria, over-reliance on prognostication and social stigma. Barriers to inmates’ access to compassionate release policies include unclear or technical language used in policy documents. Eligibility criteria appear to vary across the country, including disease prognoses and the ability to predict terminal declines in health, creating confusion amongst inmates, lawyers and review boards. Stigmas surrounding the rights of incarcerated individuals frequently influence policymakers who experience pressure to maintain a punitive stance to appease constituents, thus discouraging policies and interventions that promote the release of incarcerated individuals.

Research limitations/implications

Further research is vital to strengthen the understanding of compassionate release policies and related barriers associated with accessing various types of early parole. To promote social justice for this marginalized population, end-of-life interventions in corrections need to be consistently evaluated with outcomes that improve care for dying inmates.

Practical implications

Within correctional facilities, correctional health-care workers should play an integral role in influencing prison and medical staff attitudes toward dying inmates by providing an understanding of how to effectively support this vulnerable population. Social workers should participate in research that focuses on effective guidelines for correctional facilities to provide compassionate end-of-life care for inmates.

Social implications

Racial disparities in the US criminal justice system are prevalent and well documented, as individuals of color are arrested far out of proportion to their share of all individuals in the USA. This particular population is thus challenged with poor access to and quality of health care in corrections. Correctional health-care workers can play an integral role in influencing policymakers, as well as prison and medical staff attitudes toward dying inmates by providing an understanding of how to effectively support this vulnerable population.

Originality/value

Currently, there are no published research articles that provide a systematic review of compassionate release policies in the USA.

Keywords

Citation

Kaushik, S. and Currin-McCulloch, J. (2023), "Dying for a change: a systematic review of compassionate release policies", International Journal of Prisoner Health, Vol. 19 No. 1, pp. 47-62. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJPH-11-2021-0110

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2022, Emerald Publishing Limited

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