Prison Release Program For Sick And Elderly Prisoners Is Rarely Used, The History of Hoaxes

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We’ll take a look at why a prison program that allows the release of elderly and sick inmates that could save the state millions of dollars a year is barely utilized. We also talk to the author of a book that dives into the history of famous hoaxes.

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  • Report: Early Release Program For Ill Or Elderly Inmates Rarely Used

    The same shootout with police that put Paul Echols in prison left him a quadriplegic and legally blind.

    That was in 1994. Over 23 years, Echols applied for parole — and was denied — six times.

    His father had even made arrangements for Echols to live in a group home outside Madison.

    At first glance, Echols might be a perfect candidate for Wisconsin’s compassionate release program, which allows elderly or severely ill prisoners, who are determined to no longer be a risk to public safety, to be released before their sentence is up.

    But Echols wasn’t eligible. That’s because he was sentenced before Wisconsin’s 1999 “truth in sentencing” law, which eliminated early release for most Wisconsin prisoners.

    Echols died in prison last year.

    Reporter Gina Barton looked into the state’s compassionate release program in an investigative piece for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

    She found that, although the program has the potential to save the state millions per year, it’s rarely used. And hundreds of the state’s elderly prisoners aren’t even allowed to apply.

    “There have been several studies done about this that put the cost of taking care of an elderly prisoner at between two and nine times the cost of taking care of a younger prisoner,” Barton said. “So the average annual cost of housing someone in prison in Wisconsin is $35,000. And if you do the nine times that, it’s $300,000 and change.”

    As Barton reported, five people in Wisconsin applied for compassionate release in 2015. Just two were granted release.

    Wisconsin’s compassionate release program was put in place just two years after the state passed truth in sentencing, which as Barton writes is “one of the toughest in the nation.”

    Because the truth in sentencing bill was found to have significantly increased sentences, the state opened compassionate release, only to those already under the jurisdiction of truth in sentencing.

    Echols and other inmates like him, sentenced before 1999, still have the option of release on parole due to health conditions.

    “The (state) Department of Corrections tells me the parole chairman can grant parole for people like this at any time, if they choose to,” Barton said. “But I was unable to find very many instances when they did.”

    Criminal justice experts told Barton that ideology may be part of the reason compassionate release is so rare both in Wisconsin and the rest of the country.

    “Tough on crime policies, and people who espouse those types of policies, don’t want to let criminals out early, for any reason,” she said. “So somebody like Paul Echols, I can certainly see how people in law enforcement would not want someone who shot at the police to get out of prison early, no matter what kind of condition they’re in.”

    In Echols’s case, the DOC denied parole on the basis that he was still a “risk to society,” Barton said.

    As she wrote in her article, Echols spent most of his last days in prison flat on his back, looking out the window and listening to audiobooks.

    “If his headphones slipped out of place,” she wrote, “Echols could not adjust them on his own.”

    Barton said compassionate release is beginning to become part of the national conversation around prison reform. In Wisconsin, several state legislators have asked for a public hearing on rule changes at the DOC around the issue, she said.

  • Early Release Progams For Severely Ill Or Elderly Inmates Is Rarely Used

    Including Wisconsin, 47 states offer early release programs, often referred to as compassionate release, to inmates over the age of 60 or those severely ill. Of course there are a lot of eligibility requirements, so many that few inmates actually qualify. As of 2015, over 1,200 inmates in Wisconsin prisons are over the age of 60. Last year, six inmates in the state were freed under the program. We talk to the investigative reporter at the Journal Sentinel for more information.

  • 'Flat-Earthers' And The Persistence Of Hoaxes

    Last summer, a group of tabloids — including the New York Post and Britain’s The Sun — published a seemingly unbelievable story.

    A couple of 30-somethings, the stories claimed, had not consumed any food or water for the past 10 years. Instead, they were “Breatharians,” they said, living solely off of air and sunlight.

    Tabloids are well-known for their sensational, often false stories. A quick fact check and modern medical science disproved the story, but it spread across the internet anyway.

    The hoax, as it turns out, wasn’t new at all. Breatharianism has roots as a much older myth: the claim that you can live off the “breath of God.”

    Ian Tattersall, curator emeritus in the Division of Anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, traces the modern iteration of the myth to German Catholic nun Therese Neumann in the 1920s, who claimed to abstain from food and water.

    But it also experienced a resurgence in the 1980s, until then-Breatharian leader Wiley Brooks was reportedly spotted grabbing takeout from a 7-11 convenience store.

    How can a hoax — so easily disproved by modern medical science — keep reappearing over the span of nearly a century?

    As Tattersall puts it, humans are geared to respond to the unbelievable.

    “What we respond to is the novel. We love new stories,” he said. “And of course, a hoax can be an old hoax, but it can be a new thing for every generation.”

    Tattersall is co-author of a new book, “Hoax: A History of Deception: 5,000 Years of Fakes, Forgeries, and Fallacies,” which takes a look at some of the most famous.

    In some cases, believing hoaxes can be fatal. In 1999, a woman who starved to death in a remote part of Scotland had reportedly written in her diary about Breatharianism, according to the BBC.

    Tattersall says many hoaxes are easily disproved. But that doesn’t mean people won’t find a way to believe them.

    For example, since the early 1800s, so-called “flat earth societies” have organized around the belief that the earth is not a globe. Today, those societies organize on the internet. And a recent survey found that just two-thirds of American millennials believe the earth is round.

    That’s despite the fact that the ancient Greeks discovered the earth was round back in 500 B.C., a fact proven many times over since then.

    Scientists have even observed Earth’s spherical shape from space.

    “If it’s possible to think something, someone out there is thinking it,” Tattersall said. “And there’s a lot of people in the world, and therefore a lot of potential believers of very strange things.”

  • Hoaxes Have A Long And Fascinating History

    Hoaxes have been around almost as long as humans have. A new book looks at some of the most common types of these stories, and why some people believe them.

Episode Credits

  • Rob Ferrett Host
  • Natalie Guyette Producer
  • Judith Siers-Poisson Producer
  • Gina Barton Guest
  • Ian Tattersall Guest