Bereavement leave canceled for inmates State says it can't afford escorts for prisoners.

March 11, 1991|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff

State corrections officials refused to let Maureen Hagler leave prison for a few hours to attend her mother's funeral. The state, they said, simply could not afford to guard her.

Hagler's mother, Maude Solomon, died in Prince George's County Nov. 25, only eight days after the state had canceled its longtime policy of allowing inmates to leave prison to attend funerals of immediate family members.

"Of all the things to take from us because of a tight budget, that was the hardest to accept," said Hagler, 31, who is serving a five-year sentence for forging checks. "A person, before taking this away, should stop and say, 'What if it was me?' It would have to be a person who was cold-hearted."

The policy change effectively canceled bereavement leave for at least 90 percent of the 17,400 inmates in state prisons, according to prison spokesman Gregory M. Shipley.

"While we would certainly like to afford the inmates that opportunity, it's something that had to be done," Shipley said.

Richard A. Lanham, the acting commissioner of corrections, said in a memo dated Nov. 17 that only the least dangerous inmates would be allowed to leave prison for funerals of family members.

Any inmates who would require an escort for a funeral leave -- that is, any inmate with a security status higher than pre-release -- would no longer be eligible for the leaves.

"They felt it was an obvious way to hold back on costs at this point," Shipley said.

Inmates with a security status higher than pre-release had to be escorted by two armed guards, Shipley said. Although the state cannot calculate the precise cost of the funeral leaves, Shipley said, a typical guard assigned as an escort would cost the state about $13 an hour. He noted that the state would take inmates anywhere in the state for a funeral, with some trips taking the good part of a day.

In the three months leading up to the cancellation of compassionate leaves, the state provided escorts to inmates for 124 funerals, about 41 a month, Shipley said.

"Nobody is happy with it," said Frances E. Kessler, an attorney with the Legal Aid Bureau, which provides legal representation to state inmates. But, Kessler acknowledged, inmates have no constitutional right to attend a funeral.

Kessler said the state should allow inmates or their relatives to reimburse the prison system for the cost of escorting inmates to funerals. Hagler said prison officials turned down her brother's offer to collect money from friends to repay the state the cost of her leave.

In lieu of compassionate leave, the Division of Correction will allow inmates a phone call and an extra visit from family members after the death of a close relative, according to Lanham's memo.

Jon Galley, the warden of the Roxbury Correctional Institution near Hagerstown, said the state's wardens reluctantly agreed to the cut in leaves.

Galley said he has received only a few complaints since the funeral leaves were canceled, a small number, he said, "considering the emotion of the issue."

Prison officials have bent the rules governing funeral leave at least once. In August 1989, the division allowed Jeffrey A. Levitt, the former co-owner of the failed Old Court Savings and Loan, to leave prison unescorted to attend the funeral of his wife, Karol.

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