In a ruling hailed by advocates as a victory for prisoners and taxpayers alike, the highest court in Massachusetts on Tuesday ordered the Department of Correction to revamp how it handles medical parole requests in a way that is expected to increase the number of chronic and terminally ill prisoners released to nursing homes and hospices.
The Supreme Judicial Court in a unanimous ruling written by Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, concluded that medical parole regulations the DOC issued last year were hopelessly flawed and must be deleted. In their place, the court laid out new guideposts that the DOC — and county sheriff’s departments — must now use, including the requirement that the DOC create the medical record supporting parole.
The SJC ruled that the intent of a 2018 law was to create an effective compassionate release program in the state’s correctional system that is triggered when an inmate — or someone on their behalf — files a written petition with the prison superintendent for release. Previously, the DOC said it was the prisoner’s responsibility to come up with medical data and the signature of a licensed physician. The agency routinely rejected any petition filed without supporting data.
The SJC said that approach was wrong. The court said the burden will now shift to the DOC, which is in the best position to provide the medical data since medical records for prisoners are already in the custody of the DOC, the doctors who treat them are in contact with the DOC, and the DOC already has staff in its reentry program office who can compile the necessary paperwork.
“The Legislature intended to trigger a collaborative process whereby the health care provider for the institution, reentry staff, and the prisoner . . . work together to prepare a medical parole plan . . . and obtain a written diagnosis by a licensed physician,” Gants wrote. “The Legislature did not intend to place this burden on those so poorly able to bear it. . . . The preparation of a medical parole plan . . . would be a formidable task for even a young and healthy prisoner, given a prisoner’s limited access to the world outside prison.''
A DOC spokesman said the agency was reviewing the ruling and could not immediately comment.
The ruling by the SJC came in the case of Joseph Buckman who was convicted for the murder of his wife in Randolph in 1997. Buckman has metastatic lung cancer along with other ailments that together have led to a dozen hospitalizations in one year, according to court records and Ruth Greenberg, a Swampscott attorney for Buckman who also represents most of an estimated 30 other inmates currently considering seeking medical parole.
A second inmate who had joined the lawsuit, Peter Cruz, died last fall before the case was decided. He had been suffering from late stage renal failure, according to court records.
According to Greenberg and the SJC, the cost of providing medical care for a chronically or terminally ill prisoner at the DOC ward at the state-run Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain can reach $320,037 a year.
From her perspective, once the DOC puts the new instructions from the state’s highest court into effect, medical parole requests could be completed in 66 days, a timetable set out in the 2018 state law.
“It’s a good day for the prisoners of the Commonwealth, it’s a good day for the people of the Commonwealth,'' Greenberg said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “It’s good for the people. It’s a good day for the Legislature. and it’s a good day for the sick and old and sad living at Norfolk.”
According to the SJC, the DOC must also provide prisoners with all the documents used when DOC officials are mulling what action they will recommend to DOC Commissioner Carol A. Mici. Prior to the SJC’s ruling, district attorneys got all of the records but prisoners did not.
“A regulation granting the district attorney access to all supporting documents but denying that same access to the prisoner is fundamentally unfair and cannot be harmonized with the agency’s legislative mandate,” Gants wrote.
Greenberg said that under the state law, people convicted of first-degree murder are among those who can seek medical parole.