After years of rebuffing calls to release prisoners too frail to be dangerous anymore, Massachusetts lawmakers are poised to make it easier for sick and dying inmates to be freed before their sentences are up.
The main reason for the about-face? Former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, according to advocates who have long lobbied for medical parole measures.
Watching a colleague suffer horribly while serving a long federal prison sentence was a catalyst for including a compassionate release program in the sweeping criminal justice bills that passed the state House and Senate last year, said Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, a former state representative.
“I think a lot of legislation passes because there is a human connection to something,” said Koutoujian, a longtime proponent of early release for terminally ill and incapacitated inmates. “The sense I got was people were ready for the legislation but the travesty of Sal’s experience just highlighted what they already knew. And they were just more ready than they were before.”
Both the Senate and House versions of the legislation call for letting severely ill inmates make a case for early release, even those who are serving a life sentence for murder or were convicted of rape.
Negotiating committees appointed by both chambers are now working to reconcile differences between the two bills and send a compromise measure to Governor Charlie Baker.
Massachusetts is only one of five states without a program for compassionate release, also known as medical parole.
Currently, inmates seeking early release must receive a pardon or commutation from the governor, who rarely grants that relief.
The state Department of Correction said there are 70 inmates who are considered terminally ill or permanently incapacitated.
Under the legislation passed by both houses, medical parole would be available to any inmate, regardless of the crime he or she committed, who is diagnosed by a licensed physician with a terminal illness or a disability that left him or her permanently incapacitated and unable to break any laws or pose a risk to the public.
The Senate version calls for the commissioner of the Department of Correction to grant medical parole, while the House version calls for the creation of a “medical parole board” that would consist of five members appointed by the governor.
“I don’t see a public purpose in keeping people in prison if they are dying or they are totally immobile,” said state Senator Pat Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat who for years has called for such a program. “It’s not making the family of the victim better off. And it’s costing enormous amounts of money that we could use for public safety.”
Housing a single inmate at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Boston, where terminally ill prisoners are taken, cost the state more than $290,000 in fiscal 2015, according to figures calculated by Prisoners’s Legal Services of Massachusetts, which represents the rights of state inmates.
Advocates for releasing terminally ill and incapacitated inmates argue that the costs of treating those on medical parole would shift from the state to the federal government.
For security reasons, even the frailest inmates are shackled when they are transported to a hospital. Family members are often unaware an inmate has been taken to the hospital because they are not allowed to call and speak directly to prisoners.
David Elvin, a community planner in Hadley, recalled how his friend, John F. Currie, died in prison in 2015. Currie, sentenced to life in prison for the 1980 killing of a Milford police sergeant, was dying of liver cancer at Shattuck, and officials gave Elvin and Currie’s wife just 10 minutes each to say goodbye.
“ ‘This is where they send people to die,’ ” Elvin recalled Currie whispering to him. “ ‘After you leave, they will take me up to the eighth floor and I will be dead by morning.’ ”
Elvin said he believes Currie died alone. He was 62.
Both the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association and the Massachusetts District Attorney Association said they generally support the idea of medical parole.
“The language of the law must be precise, however, so that it achieves what the public rightly expects,” said Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey, president of the district attorney association. “That those who are terminally ill can be released, but not those whose claims are dubious or who may be ill but are still fully capable of reoffending.”
Survivors of serious crimes are likely to object to early release, said Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, which represents victims of sexual assault.
“That said, the victims who I have worked with are incredibly compassionate people and it is possible that some of them would be OK with a compassionate release,” she said. “That is precisely why the victim must be given the option of being involved in this decision, because each victim is their own person and will have different expectations and needs to fulfill.”
In both Senate and House versions, victims would be told an inmate is being considered for medical parole and given notice of his release.
The Senate version would allow victims to write statements before a decision was made. In the case of inmates convicted of murder, the victim’s loved ones could request a hearing.
In 2015, DiMasi was four years into an eight-year sentence for political corruption when his wife Deborah went to the State House and called on legislators to enact a compassionate release law.
She spoke of not only her own husband’s painful battle with stage 4 tongue cancer but of the horrors other federal inmates experienced: a man with liver cancer who died on a prison floor and another inmate with throat cancer who collapsed in a prison yard.
A year later later, a federal court judge agreed to release DiMasi under the federal compassionate release program.
“He brought a lot of attention to the horrible experiences that people have in prison,” said James Pingeon, a staff attorney with Prisoners’ Legal Services. “He certainly has been the face of this problem.”