A federal prisoner’s gruesome and shameful mistreatment — and why it was all too typical

Frederick Bardell was a convicted felon, but he deserved much better treatment than he got from the Biden administration’s Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in his dying days. On Oct. 4, Federal District Judge Roy Dalton issued a scathing indictment of federal prison officials who had treated Bardell with what the judge called “callous disregard” before his death last year at age 54.

The judge noted that Bardell, after being diagnosed with metastatic colon cancerhad tried to obtain compassionate release from prison so that he could get the life-saving, specialized medical care that he needed.

The BOP initially resisted his request for compassionate release, claiming, as Judge Dalton wrote, that his condition was “not critical” and that he could “receive adequate care in custody.” It relented more than a year laterbut by that time Bardell was so sick that he only had days to live.

Then, in a further display of heartlessness, the BOP insisted that his family pay the cost of flying him from Texas, where he was incarcerated. to their home in Jacksonville, Florida. Although he was gravely ill, Bardell was dropped off on the sidewalk outside the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and left to fend for himself.

The compassionate release Bardell sought is supposed to be available for elderly and sick prisoners who can show a compelling reason why they should not have to serve their full prison terms. It can also be requested by inmates who demonstrate that they have an urgent need to care for a child.

But according to the prison reform advocacy group FAMMthe BOP recognizes few situations as “compelling enough to warrant releasing the prisoner.” In 2018, the New York Times reported “that prison officials reject many prisoners’ applications on the grounds that they pose a risk to public safety or that their crime was too serious to justify early release.”

In the preceding five years, the Times said, “the Bureau of Prisons approved 6 percent of the 5,400 applications received, while 266 inmates who requested compassionate release died in custody. The bureau’s denials, a review of dozens of cases shows, often override the opinions of those closest to the prisoners, like their doctors and wardens.”

The reluctance of the BOP to grant compassionate release is only one symptom of the more pervasive dehumanization of prisoners in America.

As a candidate for president, Joe Biden promised to change that. He offered an ambitious criminal justice reform agendasaying among other things that this country needed to “rethink… how we treat those in jail” so that they are dealt with humanely.

Frederick Bardell’s case shows how far American prisons fall short of achieving that goal.

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Bardell does not make for an especially sympathetic protagonist. In 2012, after his retirement from the Coast Guard, he was convicted of possessing what the Orlando Sentinel characterized as “a massive collection of child pornography he amassed over two decades.” The paper said that his “computer had 16,500 images and 415 movies of child pornography involving prepubescent children.”

Facing 12 years in prison and 20 years of supervision when he completed his prison term, Bardell pled guilty.

He was sentenced to serve 151 months in a minimum-security federal prison in Seagoville, Texas. That prison houses 1,751 inmates in its detention center and satellite camp and has long been severely overcrowded. It runs a Sex Offender Management Program, and 40% of its inmates are sex offenders.

The Seagoville facility made headlines in July 2020 because at that time it had a larger number of COVID-19 infections than any other federal prison in the country.

It was four months after that when Bardell filed his first, unsuccessful request for compassionate release.

More than a year later, in February 2021, he tried again. This time his request was supported by a medical oncologist who said that his “medical condition was emergent and likely critical.”

After reviewing evidence of Bardell’s deteriorating medical condition, Judge Dalton ordered the BOP to “release him from custody AFTER having an approved release plan.” But BOP officials ignored the judge and released Bardell without such a plan.

The result was disastrous. Bardell went straight from the Jacksonville airport to a hospital, where he died nine days later.

While his offenses were undoubtedly disturbing, as Reason Magazine’s C.J. Ciaramella puts ithe had not been “sentenced to death by medical neglect.”

Judge Dalton responded to the BOP’s failure to comply with his order, and its evident contribution to Bardell’s suffering death, by holding the bureau in civil contempt for being “indifferent to the human dignity of an inmate in its care.”

Indifference to the dignity of those we incarcerate has a long history in this country.

It can be traced back to the mid-19th century when, as one court saida prisoner “has as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights…. He is for the time being the slave of the State. He is,” the court continued, “civilly dead [civilly dead].”

In the 19th century, prisoners were described as “slave[s] of the State” and “civilly dead.” Even now, medical neglect in U.S. prisons and jails remains “an ongoing constitutional disaster.”

Recent court decisions have disavowed that view and affirmed the right of prisoners to receive adequate medical care and be treated with dignity. Yet as the Bardell case makes clear, the U.S. has not yet translated that commitment into real change that improves treatment of the people we incarcerate. As Ciaramella observesmedical neglect in U.S. prisons and jails remains “an ongoing constitutional disaster.”

On Oct. 14, Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz announced an investigation into “the circumstances surrounding the release from prison and subsequent death of Frederick Marvin Bardell.” This step is certainly warranted, but making the changes necessary to ensure that prisoners are treated humanely requires much more than investigating a single tragic case.

In May, the president issued an executive order promising “to ensure that conditions of confinement are safe and humane, and that those who are incarcerated… have access to quality health care.” He ordered Attorney General Merrick Garland to review conditions of confinement in federal prisons and report back within 240 days.

Biden’s promise came too late to spare Bardell from what Judge Dalton rightly called his shameful mistreatment by this administration’s Bureau of Prisons. Ending such shameful behavior will require significant changes in that hidebound and recalcitrant agency.

It will also require a sustained effort to root out prison cultures that allow inmates to be treated like slaves of the state. To accomplish this, the president and the Justice Department must be willing to hold officials at all levels of the federal correctional system accountable when they fail to respect the rights and dignity of those in their custody and care.

None of this will happen without the kind of determined and persistent leadership that Biden and Garland have yet to provide on the issue of prison reform.

There will be little political payoff for improving the treatment of federal prisoners. But maybe the horror of what happened to Bardell will prompt the administration to make prison reform a priority and move it to the top of its agenda.

With barely two years until the next presidential election, the time for action is now.

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