In January, Keskea Hernandez was whisked from her cell at the Federal Detention Center downtown to Larkin hospital in South Miami. The pretty 42-year-old real estate agent had pleaded guilty to mortgage fraud a year earlier. Ever since her incarceration, however, her health had been in free fall. She was weak, vomiting blood, had difficulty walking, and had lost a third of her body weight.
Hernandez begged prosecutors, judges, wardens, and doctors for a "compassionate release" so she could recover at home with her teenage daughter. Instead, her handwritten letters were ignored. She died alone, shackled to a hospital bed, on January 9.
When we wrote about Hernandez's case in February, prison officials didn't even return our calls. But they are paying attention to the issue now, thanks to a new federal report that slams institutions like the FDC for "ad hoc decision making that has likely resulted in eligible inmates not being considered for release and terminally ill inmates dying before their requests were decided."
The issue goes far beyond Hernandez's horrific and senseless death, however. As we pointed out in a follow-up article, Miami's FDC has a track record of denying or ignoring appeals from sick or dying inmates.
Hernandez's pleas for help were ignored because doctors didn't believe she was really ill. Another FDC inmate was set to be transferred to a halfway house to serve the last 12 months of his three-year sentence for fraud. But when he was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer, FDC officials denied him the transfer, arguing that the halfway house wasn't equipped to take care of him.
An 85-page report issued earlier this month by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) takes aim at this arbitrary and seemingly unfair application of "compassionate release."
The report found that the BOP does not have "clear standards" or "formal timelines" governing when compassionate release is granted. In other words, decisions over the life and death of inmates like Hernandez was left up to the whim of prison officials.
The report also found that some sick or dying inmates who had requested release were simply lost in the bureaucratic paper shuffle.
Worst of all, the OIG said that prison officials weren't even required to inform inmates about the compassionate release program.
The report found that of the 208 compassionate release requests made in federal prisons nationwide between 2006 and 2011, 142 were approved and 38 denied, but another 28 inmates died before they received a decision.
The report points out that awarding compassionate release to inmates who genuinely need it would both save money and help with prison overcrowding.
When contacted by Riptide, an OIG spokesman said he couldn't discuss specific cases like that of Hernandez. But the OIG did interview officials within the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami for the report.
The OIG report recommends streamlining the request process and standardizing rules on compassionate release. Had such rules been in place a year ago, Keskea Hernandez could very well be alive today.
"They violated my daughter's human rights," Hernandez's mother, Elsa Peña Nadal, told New Times in February. "Either the people at the prison didn't bother to read her medical information or they simply didn't care."
"They killed my one and only daughter," Peña said. And no report -- no matter how scathing -- can change that.