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The Ethical Dilemma Of Compassionate Release From Prison In The Orange Is The New Black Show

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The ethical dilemma I want to discuss is compassionate release from prison and comes from the show Orange is the new black. Orange is the New Black is a show on Netflix that has many plot developments that aim to raise awareness about life in incarceration and the mistreatment inmates face in federal prisons. Episode 7 of season 3 brings up the rarely discussed issue: the increasing number of elderly inmates in the U. S. prison system and the premise of compassionate release.

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All throughout the season, a member of the golden girl’s group named Jimmy Cavanaugh had been showing signs of either dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. She was often shown in a daze staring off into space. When she is lucid enough to talk, she mentions her husband and daughter as if it is the 1960s and has conversations with them even though they are not there. Jimmy even thinks an inmate named piper is an old friend of hers named Roberta. Other inmates are often shown either confused or annoyed by her. The guards grow irritated as well, as she often gets lost and loses track of time, not showing up for counts, bedtime, and often forgetting to shower.

In episode 7 of the season, she jumps off an alter thinking it’s a diving board (she loved swimming in her younger days) and breaks her arm. Soon after we see Jimmy being loaded into a van to be dropped off at a bus stop. According to the guards she was given compassionate release. The inmate Piper is watching this go down from behind bars in the yard and asks another inmate what will happen to her. The inmate replies she won’t make it a week. It’s obvious from her condition that Jimmy would not make it long outside the prison by herself as she is unable to remember even the most basic daily tasks such as eating and showering. The show states that her husband has passed away and her daughter moved to Switzerland after having a falling out with her mother. Since she had no family close by and she was becoming too much to handle, that prison gave her compassionate release that seemed far from compassionate.

I remember watching this episode thinking how could anyone do this to a mentally ill patient? Is this legal? Are people’s grandparents really being released only be left at bus stops to fend for themselves? However, after doing some research on the topic of compassionate release, I found out that Orange is the new black actually botched this issue pretty badly. It turns out the opposite issue is actually true: many inmates who should receive compassionate release do not.

Compassionate release was started in the 1980s to help alleviate prison overcrowding and health care costs and as well help deal with the aging prison population. It is supposed to allow terminally ill patients, patients with debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and inmates with little time to live including those of advanced age to potentially gain release from prison. Compassionate release was supported for both financial and ethical reasons. There’s not a compelling social advantage for keeping for keeping dying or debilitating individuals in prison, especially since there are unlikely to be a threat to society.

However, unlike the example of Jimmy Cavanaugh in Orange is the black, compassionate releases are not executed so quickly. They require written permission by the warden, lengthy amounts of paperwork, progress reports on the inmate’s condition, bureau reviews, and contact with the district US attorney so they can take months to execute. Additionally, release plans are required on the application. With no options in place to expedite the process, many inmates stay in prison much longer than necessary and often die while waiting. Even worse, many inmates are not even aware that compassionate release exists and do not apply for it.

Regardless of whether scenarios such the one Mrs. Jimmy was in actually happen, in the show, Litchfield (the prison in which she was incarcerated) made an unethical decision to release her in the streets. In order to have addressed Jimmy’s situation in a more ethical manner, first Litchfield should have had proper healthcare professionals available to screen and diagnose inmates with mental and debilitating illnesses. Many of the guards and other inmates were aware of her condition and she should have received proper care. With the larger number of aging individuals in prisons, guards and other staff should have more training to deal with inmates dealing with conditions associated with advanced age.

Additionally, Jimmy’s application for compassionate release should have been started months if not years before. Her condition was allowed to advance too far before action was decided to be taken, especially since it was known by the guards. Inmates such as Jimmy may have had the capacity to make decisions about who they want to make decisions for them once they lose capacity (decide their proxy) if they were not allowed to progress so far before starting the process of compassionate release. The prison could have appropriate legal professionals in place for inmates of with terminal illness or advanced age to determine their power of attorney (who could be contacted to ensure they are willing and able to do so) while they still might have capacity. They could also document where the inmate would prefer to be released to should compassionate release be granted in the future. Even if none of the previously mentioned steps were taken, Jimmy should have never been dumped at a bus stop to wander the streets on her own. When it was known that a compassionate release was appropriate her, someone in her life should have been tracked down to help make decisions for her release plans.

In the show, it said her husband was dead and no effort was made to contact her daughter in Switzerland. Even though Jimmy had a falling out with her daughter, her daughter might have wanted to help her mother in this condition or at least been the best person to make the decision for her. If her daughter could not be contacted or did not want a part in the decision, other distant family or friends such as the friend Roberta she mentioned should have been tracked down if possible. If no one in her life could have been tracked down, she should have either been transferred to a full-time care facility or remained in prison-both of which would have been better options than the bus stop. In Jimmy’s case, it may have been in her best interest to remain in prison where she could at least be with the many inmates who came to think of her as family and where she would have full-time supervision.

18 March 2020

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