Deborah DiMasi never quite envisioned that she would appear before the state Legislature under such circumstances, but there she was this past Wednesday, the wife of former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, supporting a compassionate release law that would help critically ill inmates — inmates like her husband.
“From Sal and the other stories that I have heard from other spouses, I have been exposed to the inhumane and substandard care that exists within our prison system, just outright neglect,” she told members of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.
Massachusetts is one of just five states without a medical placement program, often called a compassionate release program, a mechanism to transfer a terminally ill inmate out of state prison custody and, in many cases, back to their families.
A change in state law would not benefit Salvatore DiMasi, who was convicted in 2011 of federal corruption and is four years into an eight-year sentence. But Deborah, who was by her husband’s side during his high-profile trial, challenged anyone to prove that the medical care at a state prison is any better than at the US Bureau of Prisons.
Instead, Deborah DiMasi likened her husband’s story to the countless examples of neglect she has heard from others: “I hear the story of the inmate with stage 4 liver cancer dying in pain on a prison floor, the inmate with stage-four throat cancer who sought help for six months before succumbing, the inmate who collapsed and was left to die in a prison yard,” she told legislators, according to a transcript of her speech.
In her husband’s case, she said, he was bounced from one prison to another, from Kentucky to Oklahoma, to Brooklyn, to Providence, and to Worcester and back — a “six-week odyssey,” as she put it — after he had already developed a lump in his neck. It was only months after he had been first sent to prison.
Still, she said, he received “virtually no medical care.” He now has stage-four cancer of the tongue, “struggling not only against a horrible disease, but against a stark institutional indifference,” she told legislators.
Deborah DiMasi later said in an interview that she agreed to testify in partnership with Massachusetts Prisoners’ Legal Services, a prisoners’ rights law firm that is lobbying for a compassionate release law that would allow critically ill inmates to be returned to the care of their families.
“She’s humbled by what Sal’s experience was and wants to be helpful,” said Leslie Walker, the group’s executive director, who said DiMasi “was able to convey to legislators and members of the public that incarceration can happen to almost anyone, and what it means to have a loved one in prison you cannot help.”
Statewide, there are more than 30 inmates who have been diagnosed as terminally ill or permanently incapacitated, leaving the state responsible for their medical care. Advocates have sought alternative ways to have inmates released from state prison, for instance by seeking a governor’s commutation or pardon for certain inmates, to no avail.
Meanwhile, the state continues to see an aging inmate population and skyrocketing health care costs. Massachusetts spends $100 million a year on health care for inmates, according to Department of Correction figures. State legislators, former Governor Deval Patrick, and county sheriffs have lobbied for a compassionate release law but with restrictions: for instance, that convicted murderers are excluded. They also proposed mechanisms that would call for an inmate’s return to prison if his or her condition improved.
These bills, however, have failed to win legislative support in recent years, and the bills’ sponsors recognize that their colleagues are reluctant to show “compassion” toward convicted criminals.
State Senator Patricia Jehlen, a Democrat from Somerville and a longtime sponsor of the proposal, said legislators are mixed over who would be eligible and where inmates would be placed if they are released from jails.
“There’s just not consensus as to how it would happen,” she said. “It’s more complex than you would realize than just talking about the principle. We just want to make sure we have a system in place.”
Seth Gitell, a spokesman for House Speaker Robert DeLeo, issued a statement that read: “Medical release legislation is currently being studied by the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. Speaker DeLeo awaits the review of the committee and its members.”
At the legislative hearing Wednesday, DiMasi said she was speaking for the “dying and permanently disabled.”
“In their wheelchairs and walkers, shackled to their beds, in their diminished physical and mental capacities, they are not a danger to society or to anyone,” she told legislators.
DiMasi said later in the interview that “it’s so important for the public to know what is going on, and how they’re treated so inhumanely,” and she said she was most struck at the hearing by the stories of others.
“I was just hearing the other stories, hearing what other people had been through,” she said. “Having gone through this with Sal, and hearing the stories, it’s frightening, and I think people need to see the human side to this. I feel the human side to this has been lost.”