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Texas is seeking early release for more and more sick inmates

Posted Thursday, Mar. 01, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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How sick are they?

The reasons for which the state can recommend the medical release of inmates and the rate at which the parole board gave approval:

Medical problem

Approval rate

Terminally ill

40%

Need long-term care

10.5%

Physically disabled

0%

Elderly

12.5%

Mentally ill

0%

Mentally disabled

0%

Source: Legislative Budget Board, based on 2009 data

Out the door

The number of state prison inmates released for medical reasons has risen sharply since 2009 and hit a five-year high last year.

Fiscal year    

Released

2007

81

2008

73

2009

40

2010

69

2011

85

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ROSHARON -- He's had a heart attack and two strokes, and he walks with a cane because of arthritis.

Dan Austin Quinn is not the same person who stalked his estranged wife for months before confronting her in the parking lot of a Haltom City drugstore in 1985.

He's not the same man, he says, who shot Carolyn Quinn three times in the head and then felt "relief."

"The hate has gone out of my heart," Quinn said during a recent interview at the Terrell prison unit in Rosharon, south of Houston. "I'm no threat to nobody. I've made peace with God."

Today, the 72-year-old Quinn is hoping for a different kind of relief from the state.

Sentenced to 99 years in the shooting death of his wife, Quinn has been recommended by the state for early release from prison because of his medical problems.

He's among a growing number of sick inmates for whom the state is seeking early medical release, known as medically recommended intensive supervision.

The state says sick and elderly inmates are costly and can be better served by "free world" medical services, particularly when federal Medicaid or Medicare could help foot the bill.

Some prosecutors and victims' rights advocates, however, contend that the state is trying to balance its budget on the backs of crime victims.

"The state government through the Board of Pardons and Paroles appears to be playing a shell game or hot potato by shifting the cost of inmate care to the county and the federal government," said Kim Ogg, a former Harris County prosecutor in Houston and an advocate for crime victims.

"It sounds like an austerity measure taken by the state at the expense of crime victims."

Sent home to die

Sick inmates are being sent home to their families, hospitals or nursing homes at record levels in Texas.

The parole board approved 85 medical releases in fiscal 2011 -- the most in five years and more than double the 40 approved in 2009, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Most sick inmates are sent home to die, records show. Of the nearly 1,300 inmates released for medical reasons from 1991 to 2009, 65 percent are dead, while about 7.4 percent returned to state prison or absconded, according to the Legislative Budget Board in Austin.

"We don't know what their crimes are; we just submit them based on their medical criteria," said Dr. Owen Murray, vice president for offender health services for the University of Texas Medical Branch, which oversees prison medical care.

Murray said the aging population and long sentences being handed out by Texas juries mean that the prison population is getting older and sicker.

"It's becoming an issue for the state and the [criminal justice] department," Murray said. "We have a shrinking number of available beds, so where do we put these patients?"

The prison system has about 300 beds statewide for sick and mentally ill inmates, with the most serious treated at the UTMB hospital in Galveston.

There are also two prison hospital facilities, in Texas City and Huntsville.

"We have been very vigilant about doing everything we can to look after these patients," Murray said. "The parole board is in a difficult spot. [In addition to costs] they really have to look out for public safety. I don't envy their job, trying to balance those two things."

Parole board Chairwoman Rissie Owens told the Star-Telegram that cost is not considered when officials decide whether to release sick inmates.

"The medical care cost is not included in the information sent to the board," she said. "The [Board of Pardons and Paroles] makes a determination based on the inmate's medical condition and medical evaluation and if he will be a threat to public safety.

"Along with the nature of the inmate's crimes and ability to carry out future criminal activity, the board looks at things like the prisoner's degree of mobility, assistance needed for daily living, cognitive condition and expected life expectancy," she said.

The board denies far more requests than it approves -- typically rejecting about 2 in 3.

If requests are approved, the inmates are released as if on parole, and the "intensive supervision" requirements vary case by case, officials said.

Tarrant County inmates

Quinn is one of more than a half-dozen inmates sentenced in Tarrant County whose medical release the state has sought in the past few months.

He is the only one of the group convicted of murder, but the list also includes thieves and drug dealers.

The state has refused to disclose the inmates' medical problems, even to the district attorney's office, saying federal privacy laws prohibit the release of medical information.

Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon says he won't agree to the early release of Tarrant inmates unless he knows what's wrong with them, and he has sent letters opposing their release to the parole board.

"Do they have a sore throat or a hangnail, or are they dying of cancer?" Shannon asked. "I'm not going to release someone for intensive medical treatment if I don't know why they're being treated.

"I'm not going to overturn a jury verdict or plea of guilty without any information at all. ... I don't know what they need that cannot be provided inside the prison."

The parole board considers letters of opposition from prosecutors and victims or their families, as well as letters written on the inmates' behalf.

Shannon said the number of state requests for medical release has escalated sharply in the past few months.

"It could be budget-driven, but I don't know," Shannon said. "With the increased age of our population in general, you're going to see this more and more."

The parole board has denied the state's initial request for medical release for Quinn and the others. One inmate, Robert Munoz Romo, who was sentenced to two years in prison for theft, died before the board could act on the state's request.

But a rejection doesn't mean that the requests end. Officials say the state routinely re-evaluates those cases every few months and could recommend medical release again.

Quinn, meanwhile, is also eligible for regular parole, and is awaiting a decision.

He said he wants to go home to his wife, Thelma, whom he married by proxy while in prison. She lives in Pearland, about a half-hour from the prison, and is being treated for cancer.

She's also Quinn's ex-sister-in-law, having been married to his brother, who died in 1989.

"I have no intent of ever going back to Fort Worth," Quinn said. "Back when all this happened, I didn't care about nothing. I wanted to die myself. All that has changed. I want to live, to get out and help Thelma."

Stalking and murder

Quinn's two grown daughters have not seen their dad since the murder trial. They haven't been to visit him in prison, and they haven't written.

They couldn't be reached for comment recently, but in 2001 they told the Star-Telegram that their mother believed that she would be killed for trying to leave him. Quinn says he doesn't blame them for cutting him out of their lives.

"I love them very much," he said. "I never meant them no harm. ... But if somebody had killed my mother, I'd want to do the same thing."

The relationship began to deteriorate in 1983, when Carolyn Quinn took a job with the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America, her family has said. Carolyn enjoyed her work and was learning computer skills. Dan Quinn didn't like it -- he didn't want his wife to work at all.

The tensions escalated in October 1984. During an argument over the checkbook, he pulled a knife and held it to her throat. He left the house and told his wife and daughter that they should be there when he returned. Instead, they left.

Quinn threatened and stalked Carolyn for months, despite a restraining order, and in January 1985, she filed for divorce.

He began following her repeatedly whenever she left home, he wrote threats in blood on her windshield, and he left threatening notes on her car and doorstep.

He also threatened to kill her relatives if they helped her, they have told the Star-Telegram.

He said he followed her to a drugstore on East Belknap Street in the hope of talking to her but changed his mind when he realized she wouldn't talk.

He shot her three times in the head and fled in his car, which was parked nearby.

He was arrested the next day in Conroe trying to get cash at Western Union.

He didn't put up a fight, police said.

"I think about it every day," he said recently. "I cherish the memories of the good times. ... I didn't want to lose her. I could see that she wasn't going to come back. She didn't need the ol' redhead anymore. Satan was pulling my strings."

Is he sorry for the shooting?

"Sorry? There are a lot of words I could use. Remorseful. Ashamed. Stupid," he said. "I should have left them alone."

Thelma, 79, said she's not afraid of Quinn. She said they married in 1990 after her first husband, David Quinn, died of heart trouble.

She says she's known Dan Quinn since he was 9 and has always had a soft spot for him. She said God told her to communicate with him after his brother died.

"He couldn't hurt nobody if he wanted to," she said recently. "He's absolutely no threat. ... He's very polite. He's a loving person."

She added, "He says he's coming home to take care of me, but I'll probably be taking care of him."

Treat or release?

The debate over whether to treat sick inmates in prisons or release them has exploded nationwide.

In Texas, the average cost to house an inmate in state prison is $18,082 a year, according to budget board estimates based on 2009 data.

An inmate who needs healthcare costs an additional $3,842 per year.

In its budget request for fiscal 2012-13, the Criminal Justice Department noted that an average of 837 inmates are under medical care in state prisons and that the costs are expected to be higher in 2013.

The department also asked for more than $17 million to renovate a prison hospital in Marlin and the hospital in Galveston, but that funding did not survive the legislative process.

Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said medical release is not for everyone.

"Parole is a privilege, not a right," he said in a statement.

"An inmate's medical condition should be part of the overall risk assessment concerning whether the inmate currently poses a danger to public safety. ... However, there are some inmates who should simply not be released no matter what their medical condition."

Shannon says taxpayers will foot the bill either way.

"It may well be that they could save money by putting them into a Medicaid facility ... where a huge percentage of that Medicaid money is federal," he said.

"But it's still taxpayer dollars."

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Dianna Hunt, 817-390-7084, Twitter: @DiannaHunt

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