Focus on Compassionate Release: Larry Spencer
When ‘Tough on Crime’ is a rallying cry of a justice system, it seems as if compassion would naturally be precluded. Even as compassionate release has become an applicable cost-saving measure in prison reform, it is rarely used due to the Department of Corrections appearing to be weak on prisoners. As a self-proclaimed white elephant, Larry Spencer is well aware of how rare compassionate releases from Wisconsin Prisons are. After serving 15 years of a 40-year sentence, Spencer was discharged from the Oshkosh Correctional Facility in February on compassionate leave for a heart condition. He sat down with MOSES this month to talk about his experience, release, and plans for the future.
Spencer’s path to the DOC was somewhat storied. The Madison native experienced a peppered history of petty, non-violent crime throughout early to mid-adulthood. Some years were better than others. Yet in 2001, a non-violent drug charge landed him a 40-year sentence. He was initially sent to Green Bay Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison. There, he became interested in law, advocating for other inmates as a jailhouse lawyer, as well as advocating for his own non-medical compassionate release. As he waded through years of appeals, his health was starting to fail. In 2015, he met social worker Peggy Swan who took a look at his case and told Spencer, according to him, “You do not belong here!”
Swan advocated for his freedom and a year later, at age 65, Spencer was released, but not without a fight. The Department of Correction insisted on sending him to hospice care farm outside of Milwaukee. Spencer refused. He was legally free to move as he pleased and demanded to go back to Madison. The compromise? The Red Roof Inn near the prison, without food, financial assistance or civilian clothing. With help from First Congregational and MOSES vice president, Talib Akbar, Spencer found his way to Madison. When he returned, he bounced around from different living arrangements, ultimately taking residence at Trinity Senior Living, on the east side of Madison.
Now, his main concern is staying as healthy as long as he can. One revelation he has made is his love off fresh fruits and vegetables. Larry Spencer loves tomatoes; he credits them with the longevity that he has enjoyed thus far. He also credits his focus on living on his resilience through tough times. Spencer overcame childhood cancer with the same outlook and expects similar results. He hopes to get, “another summer out of this old heart,” spending his days seeing old childhood friends and enjoying his life.
Larry Spencer’s compassionate release shouldn’t solely be regarded as an avenue for dying with dignity, it is all about living with dignity. For the greater prison population, this avenue to dismissal should not be an anomaly. Introduced in a budget act in 2001, compassionate release in Wisconsin is a relatively fresh (and somewhat unknown) option for prisoners. It’s also rather obscure because it’s rarely granted. Under a compassionate release update in 2009 (that was repealed in 2011), compassionate release was expanded to include more inmates. In close to a two-year period, eight out of the fifty-five that applied were granted release; more than half died less than a year after. Even if looking from a purely economic standpoint, how is releasing 14% of applicants going to change Wisconsin’s dire tax situation? Rather than taking a ‘tough on crime’ approach that is proven ineffective and expensive, can Wisconsin be cost-effective with a ‘compassionate on giving people human dignity’ strategy?
Written by Laura Peterson