Compassionate release from prison: a moral imperative| GUEST COMMENTARY

Capital punishment was abolished in Maryland as a failed and immoral policy in 2013 because it was ineffectual in deterring crime, could not be administered without racial bias, and cost three times that of incarcerating someone for life. Today, we face another practice that poses critical questions surrounding human dignity and fiscal responsibility, and exposes a different brand of death sentence. It is the long-term incarceration of chronically ill, elderly and incapacitated individuals.

Incarceration costs Marylanders $46,000 per inmate annually and increases exponentially as prisoners age. We estimate that it costs $36 million a year to care for the 650 prisoners who are age 60 and older. And, just as it does outside the walls, caring for older people with chronic medical conditions costs infinitely more. Within prisons, care is subpar and palliative treatment for those with advanced illness is limited at best.


Compassionate release is a reasonable consideration when perpetual detainment poses no risk to public safety, while at the same time posing a genuine threat to the life of infirm persons. Unfortunately, the ambiguous legislative language of Maryland’s geriatric and medical release policies results in excluding almost everyone because of a lack of clear standards within the Maryland Parole Commission, which means very few people are ever granted parole for those who are considered “eligible.”

Maryland law states an individual must be “chronically debilitated” by a health condition and “physically incapable of presenting a danger to society” to be eligible to apply for medical parole. But criteria used to determine whether individuals are “chronically debilitated” remain too nebulous to qualify even the frailest of human beings.


An example of the need for better guidance is the case of the late Donald L. Brown, who, at age 68, suffered several physical and cognitive ailments that rendered him unable to pose any threat to public safety.

Donald Brown had been incarcerated for 35 years for a string of armed break-ins in the 1980s. His crimes were indisputably serious, but it is essential to understand the context. Mr. Brown had been addicted to heroin since age 15, and he committed a series of house break-ins to steal property to support his drug habit. Mr. Brown would have benefited from drug diversion programs, had they existed in the 1970s or 1980s, and should have gone on to live a productive life post-recovery.

In 2020, Donald Brown was transported from the Western Correctional Institution to an area hospital for emergency surgery after falling from an infirmary bed, fracturing his hip and suffering a brain bleed. Mr. Brown was returned to the prison infirmary after surgery for a brief period of physical rehabilitation but was hospitalized again due to a diabetes-related foot infection. The infection — likely exacerbated by the lack of adequate care in prison — required his lower left leg to be amputated.

Before amputation surgery, Mr. Brown had also suffered a stroke. As a result, he experienced dementia-like symptoms, including memory loss, confusion and disorientation. He could not remember why he was incarcerated and believed he was in a halfway house or in Virginia. His condition rendered him wheelchair bound and reliant on others to complete activities of daily living.

Astoundingly, the Maryland Parole Commission denied Mr. Brown’s May 2020 petition for medical parole. And, although the denial was reversed on June 18, 2020, he was not released until July 2nd. Tragically, Mr. Brown died four days later.

During his four days of freedom, Donald Brown’s mother was unable to see him in person because of COVID restrictions at his nursing home.

Today, with prison COVID cases on the rise and projected to get even worse, those over the age of 60 are at greater risk for complications and/or death. Moreover, recent allegations that the company contracted to vaccinate people in Maryland prisons may have used “spoiled” vaccines underscores systemic health care failures within the correctional system.

A bill we will introduce this legislative session will clarify this process, enabling those who no longer pose any threat to public safety because they are physically incapable to spend their final days beyond the prison walls. At what cost to taxpayers does it make sense to keep people like Donald Brown behind bars? And at what point will moral imperative call us to enable those most infirm to secure the health care and dignity of their final days outside the prison walls?


Shelly Hettleman ( is a Democrat representing Baltimore County’s District 11 in the Maryland State Senate. Vivian Penda is the mother of Donald Brown.