State rarely approves medical parole


by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and Photojournalist DEREK RASOR

Bio | Email | Follow: @AndyP_KVUE

Posted on February 17, 2014 at 7:30 PM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 18 at 8:27 AM

There isn’t much Donald Pugh can do on his own. He can’t walk. He relies on a stomach tube for food and a voice modulator to speak.

"I can’t talk without it," said Pugh in an interview with KVUE at a correctional facility outside of Houston.

He’s deteriorating because he has terminal cancer.

"It’s eating me from the inside out," said Pugh.

In 2008, a jury convicted Pugh for causing an accident that killed Sarah Hoffecker. Court records show he continued to drive, despite doctor’s orders to stay off the road for having seizures. He was in multiple accidents before the fatal crash. Pugh also has a lengthy criminal record.

Four years into a life sentence, doctors discovered he had stage four cancer.

"If I last to the summer, I’ll be lucky," said Pugh.

Pugh is one of a growing number of Texas inmates in hospice care applying for an early release called medically recommended intensive supervision, or medical parole.

In 2008, there were 1,319 requests. It jumped to 1,857 requests by 2012.

The cost to pay for their care is also soaring. Texas taxpayers spent more than $445 million in 2012 for their inmate medical care, which includes hospice. That bill is expected to increase another $36 million by the end of 2014.

About 10 years ago, state lawmakers created medical parole to save taxpayers money by allowing prisoners to go home, so their families or federal programs can pay their health care. Despite the potential cost savings, the KVUE Defenders discovered the state’s pardon and parole board rarely approves medical releases.

In 2012, roughly 4 percent of terminally ill inmates got approval. The state has denied Pugh seven times.

"It offers the possibility of saving the state of Texas tens of millions of dollars," said Brian McGiverin, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

The organization supports releasing more inmates who qualify for medical parole. McGiverin said he suspects the parole board’s low approval rate is based on potential political backlash if parolees commit crimes after they’re released.

"Never mind the fact the legislature has already weighed that risk against the cost of incarcerating someone,” said McGiverin.

Some have returned to prison. According to state records obtained by the Defenders, of the 1,541 inmates released on medical parole, 56 returned to prison for committing crimes. While most were non-violent, five cases involved assault or aggravated robbery.

Philip Trumbly was Sarah Hoffecker's husband.

"In the case of Mr. Pugh, there's a high probability that he's going to commit crimes again. I truly believe that," said Trumbly.

The KVUE Defenders took that concern to Pugh.

"That’s impossible. I will never get behind the wheel again," said Pugh.

"I personally feel he has a lot longer time to live, and he's only served a portion of his sentence, and he needs to full fill his debt to society," said Trumbly.

The KVUE Defenders requested an interview with Rissie Owens, the chair of the Texas Pardon and Parole Board by email and by phone for several weeks, but did not get a response for this story.

The Texas Civil Rights project estimates the state could save $40 million a year by releasing more inmates on medical parole.

Victim advocates say federal taxpayers are still paying for the medical bills through Medicaid and Medicare. They’d also like to see more transparency into releases. Right now, victims and their families are not allowed to know the inmates' medical condition that qualifies them for their releases.