Federal authorities have the power to grant early prison release for “extraordinary and compelling reasons” — what is commonly known as “compassionate release.” Such leniency has mostly been granted to prisoners who are clearly dying — a standard that might exclude the ailing former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi. By various accounts, the 67-year-old DiMasi is weak and fed by a stomach tube as he is treated for a rare form of throat and tongue cancer at a North Carolina prison hospital, but his immediate prognosis is unclear.
For the sake of DiMasi and others who may be similarly afflicted, federal prison authorities should interpret the release statute in a broader way, looking at the totality of the circumstances: the seriousness of the prisoner’s condition; the dangers to the public presented by his or her release; the nature of his or her offense; and the potential benefit in receiving medical care in a private setting where his or her condition can be monitored by relatives and friends.
By those standards, DiMasi might well be a candidate for release, and he deserves consideration. The once-powerful speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives is only in the second year of an eight-year sentence for political corruption, stemming from kickbacks given to DiMasi’s associates in exchange for his support in obtaining government contracts. His long prison sentence was welcomed by many in Massachusetts as an acknowledgment of the seriousness of his breach of faith; and it shouldn’t be foreshortened for anything less than extraordinary circumstances. However, DiMasi’s condition is quite serious, according to his wife and lawyer, and the message sent by releasing him wouldn’t diminish the deterrent effect of his sentence. It would be viewed as an act of compassion — nothing more or less.
Federal authorities have already shown their toughness in dealing with the former speaker. The Bureau of Prisons ignored a recommendation from the judge who presided over his trial that DiMasi be assigned to a federal prison in Ayer, so he could receive treatment for heart ailments and be closer to his wife, who suffers from breast cancer. Instead, he was sent to a federal prison in Kentucky. Then, according to DiMasi’s wife and his lawyer, Thomas R. Kiley, prison authorities ignored DiMasi’s request for medical treatment when he first reported suspicious swelling in his throat and neck. Months later, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer — the most advanced form. His condition has since deteriorated.
Compassionate release is rare throughout the federal prison system, according to a 2012 study by Human Rights Watch and the inmate advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Federal courts have the authority to grant early release, but judges first need a motion from the Bureau of Prisons. The bureau rarely presents prisoners’ cases to the courts, the study concluded.
A spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons didn’t respond to questions seeking more information about DiMasi or details about the compassionate release policy. According to the Human Rights Watch study, the Bureau of Prisons makes motions on behalf of only about two dozen people a year, out of a federal prison population that now exceeds 218,000.
Compassionate release shouldn’t be reserved for only the last few weeks of life; DiMasi deserves a chance to argue for his freedom as a show of compassion.