WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When Lynn Atkinson knew her cancer-ridden brother had six months to live, she asked the Connecticut prison where he was serving a sentence for robbery if he could come home early to die.
A prison official, with little explanation, told her not to even bother trying.
That kind of reply to requests for compassionate release of prisoners is common, according to a report from the non-profit advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).
The report found that terminally ill inmates in state and local prisons often cannot take advantage of compassionate release programs due to confusing, opaque and strict rules.
"While compassionate release is nearly universal, it is underused," the group said in its report, blaming "poor design." Prisoners often "die waiting for decisions that come too late," it said.
Compassionate release permits early release of prisoners under circumstances unforeseen when they were sentenced, usually for medical or humanitarian reasons. The programs can save taxpayers money as sick inmates require expensive care.
Programs vary by state, but all U.S. states except Iowa allow compassionate release. Lawmakers across the country from both parties have called for expanding and improving such programs.
But local governments have struggled with how to implement them and deciding who should be eligible.
The federal government has its own program administered by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The Justice Department's inspector general in 2013 found that program was "poorly managed."
FAMM said some states make it too hard to qualify or difficult to navigate. In addition, some states fail to provide guidance on how to apply and do not release statistics on how often applications are approved, the group said.
For example, George Dobrick's father developed cancer while serving a 39-month sentence in Pennsylvania for drunk driving. He lost 65 pounds and could barely walk.
"When I saw my father, I almost fainted. It looked like he was in a concentration camp," Dobrick told Reuters.
He said the toughest part was finding application information. "For weeks and weeks - I'm talking hours and hours a day - we looked for some way to get him out," Dobrick said.
His father was finally transferred to a veterans' hospital, where he died seven months later.
Atkinson relied on lawyers to navigate the process to help her brother. "The hardest part about getting him out was no cooperation from the ... prison," she said.
He was released in May 2014 and died two weeks later.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Bill Berkrot)