The wife of former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi said he was diagnosed this week with prostate cancer, his second cancer diagnosis in the four years since he began serving a federal prison sentence for corruption.
Deborah DiMasi said the cancer was confirmed with a biopsy earlier this month and revealed to her husband this week — nine months after a urologist first recommended that a biopsy be performed.
The delay in the biopsy, Deborah DiMasi said Friday, points to the family's contention that the US Bureau of Prisons has failed to respond to DiMasi's medical needs, possibly making his health worse. He was first diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2012, though his family says that a lump on his neck had gone unchecked for months as he was moved from one prison to another.
"He's at their mercy," his wife said Friday, before she planned to head to Butner, N.C., to meet with DiMasi at the medical prison where he has been held since 2012. "These people aren't held accountable."
DiMasi, 70, is serving an eight-year sentence. He has petitioned the Bureau of Prisons to be released to the care of his family under a medical placement program, known as a compassionate release program, based on his age and deteriorating health. One of the lawyers involved in the petition said they may seek the support of US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, whose office prosecuted DiMasi.
A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Friday, though the agency has maintained in previous inquiries that it provides the necessary care for all inmates.
A spokeswoman for Ortiz said she had not been asked to support DiMasi's petition and did not know the specifics of his case and could not comment.
Though the Bureau of Prisons has established guidelines for the release of inmates suffering from severe and terminal illnesses, the agency rarely grants such requests. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report found that the agency asks the courts to consider the release of sick prisoners only about three dozen times a year, out of a total federal prison population of more than 218,000. In 2013, the Bureau of Prisons reformed its guidelines to expand the number of people who would qualify, to include elderly people who are severely ill and have served at least half their sentence.
When Deborah DiMasi spoke to her husband Thursday, she said, he was as
"I told him, 'I'm so sorry, and I'm so sorry for what everyone there is going through,' " said Deborah DiMasi, who works for Samaritans, a suicide prevention group in Boston, and who has advocated for better care for prisoners after her husband's first diagnosis.
It was unclear to the DiMasi family Friday whether the prostate cancer was a second primary cancer that developed on its own, as Bureau of Prisons doctors have suggested, or whether the tongue cancer had metastasized.
DiMasi is now slated to go before a so-called tumor board, which will decide on his follow-up care, his wife said.
"Sal is such a kind, gentle, happy human being, but if you're someone who has gone through this same situation, at one point — I know I would — you reach your boiling point," she said.
Salvatore DiMasi began serving his term in November 2011 following his conviction in federal court earlier that year. A jury found that he and several cohorts carried out a scheme that funneled $65,000 in kickbacks to DiMasi in exchange for directing $17.5 million in state contracts to a Burlington software company, Cognos. An appeals court later upheld the conviction.
Weeks after his sentence began, a large lump developed on DiMasi's throat. His family has asserted he never received proper care and instead was bounced from one prison to another across the United States. He was brought back to Massachusetts to testify before a federal grand jury investigating corruption within the state probation department, and then was returned to Kentucky to be held in solitary confinement.
DiMasi was brought to doctors at the University of Kentucky in the spring of 2012, who diagnosed him with Stage 4 tongue cancer. He was then taken to the medical prison at Butner, where his condition worsened. He grew frail and thin. He had a feeding tube at times and still suffers choking episodes.
"They happen very quickly," his wife said.
By the fall of 2014, DiMasi had undergone medical screenings, and his family was of the belief that his health had improved, and he could be relocated from the medical prison. But then his family was told he was being held for cancer monitoring. DiMasi saw a urologist after blood tests in the fall of 2014 showed he had elevated counts on a prostate screening test.
The rapid deterioration of DiMasi's health was a shock to the family of the Democrat from Boston's North End, once one of the most powerful figures in the state who was celebrated for his legislative initiatives. He fought gambling in the state, helped defeat a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have outlawed same-sex marriage, and helped former governor Mitt Romney pass health care legislation in 2006 that became a model for the nation.
Since her husband was diagnosed with cancer, Deborah DiMasi has embarked on a public campaign to raise awareness of the plight of inmates suffering from what she called a lack of medical care.
"They don't have a voice," said Deborah DiMasi, who spoke at a state legislative hearing in October expressing support for a compassionate release program in Massachusetts, one of only five states without such a program. A change in state law would not help her husband, but people in conditions like his.
"It's devastating to hear about their stories," Deborah DiMasi said. "There are families behind these people."
She has worked with a team of lawyers to petition the Bureau of Prisons for DiMasi's release. One of them, retired US District Judge Nancy Gertner, said this week that the lawyers would amend the petition to include the latest diagnosis.
"Whatever one thinks about this case, no human deserves to go through what he is going through in prison," Gertner said.