Sick inmates getting early release from prison

Published: May. 21, 2012 at 7:50 PM EDT|Updated: May. 25, 2012 at 8:13 PM EDT
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STATEWIDE, NC (WECT) - It's a controversial program designed to save state prisons millions of dollars a year: releasing inmates who are deemed too sick hurt anyone.  In the past few years, the state prisons have let dozens of inmates out of prison early under the medical release program.

Tax payers spend more than $230 million each year providing medical care to inmates. The latest sentencing guidelines have led to longer mandatory sentences, causing the number of elderly inmates, and the cost of inmate health care, to increase dramatically.

Statistics show that health care costs for inmates over age 50 are four times greater than costs for younger inmates.  Some inmates rack up millions of dollars in medical bills each, after undergoing major procedures like bypass surgery.

To combat the rising cost of inmate health care, the state legislature approved a program in 2008 to release elderly and infirm inmates before their sentences expired.  We asked the Department of Public Safety's Risk Manager for Health Services, Stephanie Leach, to assess the program's effectiveness.

"The program is working very well to date, the division, and the parole commission, we look at criteria to make sure we are accepting individuals who pose little to no risk to public safety," she said. Inmates serving time for felonies like murders and sexual assaults are not eligible for medical release.

Elwood Sneeden was medically released in New Hanover County in 2010.  The 68-year-old's most serious convictions include armed robbery and kidnapping back in 1999.  Because he is on parole, state prison officials say his exact whereabouts are not public record.

47-year-old Ricky Milligan, who had a lengthy criminal record including firearms and assault convictions, was medically released in New Hanover County in 2010.  He died while on parole.

Then there's Leon McKoy.  The 67-year-old is a convicted murderer and rapist, who has also escaped from prison during one of his many stints behind bars. His most recent conviction, however, was for armed robbery, so he was still eligible for medical release.

It's not clear what his ailment was when McKoy was released in September of 2010, but he violated his parole, and is now back in prison at Pender Correctional. McKoy's violation: absconding parole by failing to stay where he said he was going to live when approved for medical release.

Prison officials say at least one inmate who was medically released had their parole revoked for committing a new crime, but that is the exception to the rule.

There is no way to pinpoint exactly how much money this program has saved the state prisons, but officials believe the savings have been substantial.

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