DEAR ABBY: Not long ago, I wrote to you in desperation. I told you that my father, at 54 years of age, was sent to prison for seven years for attempting to hijack a car while drunk. No weapons were involved. He had never had so much as a traffic ticket before that. I wrote:
"My father has approximately 14 months left to serve, and he has terminal cancer.
"This is the second time the cancer has returned, and this time it has come back with a vengeance. He is suffering horrible pain, for which he is being given only aspirin, and is receiving no treatment at all for the cancer. I have talked to the warden and the medical staff at the prison, to no avail.
"I know my father broke the law. But he is now completely immobile, his weight is down to 105 pounds, and he spends his days wracked with pain. I realize there is no excuse for breaking the law, but I don't think a first-time offender should pay with his life the way my father is.
"I have spent hundreds of dollars on phone calls, faxes and letters, but haven't found anyone who will help. My father doesn't have long to live. I want him near so I can give him the love and care he deserves until his time is up and he has gone on to a better place. What can I do?"
Abby, I was shocked when you phoned me after you received my letter. You suggested I speak to Judy Greenspan, director of the Catholic Charities of the East Bay HIV/AIDS in Prison Project in Oakland, Calif. Your call was the first ray of hope I had received.
With Ms. Greenspan's painstaking effort, my father was finally released from prison. He was so ill by then that he had to be placed immediately in the hospital. I was by his side when he passed away one week later. His last moments were peaceful.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Because of you and Ms. Greenspan, my father didn't have to die alone. His last days were spent in relative comfort, surrounded by loving family. -- C.S. IN TULARE, CALIF.
DEAR C.S.: Please accept my condolences on the loss of your father. Your letters touched my heart. When I received your first letter, I spoke to Judy Greenspan who confirmed that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for terminally ill prisoners to obtain early release from their sentences.
Prison officials are reluctant to support compassionate-release programs even when inmates are so ill they no longer pose a threat to society. Prisons, which are already filled to capacity, now have a large population of prisoners with serious illnesses. They generally receive little medical attention, and the cost of incarcerating them is more than three times that of housing prisoners who are not sick.
Advocates of compassionate release maintain that society gains nothing by keeping dying prisoners locked behind bars, and that releasing them is both compassionate and fiscally responsible.
In California, legislation is pending to streamline the release of terminally ill inmates who no longer pose a threat to society. It is hoped that federal leadership and legislation will follow, so that families will not have to endure this hardship.
For more information about compassionate release, contact Judy Greenspan, director, Catholic Charities of the East Bay HIV/AIDS in Prison Project, 433 Jefferson St., Oakland, Calif. 94607; or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.