How meaningful is the state’s new compassionate release law if it doesn’t help a man for whom it seems to have been designed?
That’s the question that must be asked in the case of Alexander Phillips, the first inmate to apply for medical release under the state’s new law, which allows for the early release of terminally ill inmates with less than 18 months to live.
Phillips is serving an 18- to 20-year sentence at MCI Norfolk for manslaughter after pleading guilty to stabbing former friend Anthony Rano during a fight in 2006, when they were both 19. He would be eligible for parole in 2022, but he won’t live that long.
Phillips, 31, has widely metastatic cancer in his colon, liver, pancreas, lungs, and lymph nodes. He has lost 30 pounds since March. His advocates say that walking 25 feet leaves him short of breath and in need of rest, and that he sleeps for much of the day. He’s not expected to last more than a year, his attorney Ruth Greenberg says.
He has also been a model prisoner, participating in every program he could find, tutoring other inmates, and recently receiving a bachelor’s degree from Boston University. Greenberg says he has not been involved in a single fight in 10 years.
If he is released, Phillips’s mother, Ann Burke, an oncology nurse who has worked in hospice, would care for her son in her home, and would buy him private health insurance, so that his care would not be a burden to taxpayers. Norfolk’s superintendent, who knows Phillips and can well assess whether he poses a danger to society, has supported his release.
But, as was first reported by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, Phillips’s application was denied on June 15.
Correction commissioner Thomas Turco III decided that Phillips isn’t incapacitated enough to be freed. Because the inmate can walk to his third-floor cell, shower, and walk to his chemo treatments in waist chains and leg irons, his release “would be incompatible with public safety and the welfare of society,” the commissioner wrote. Turco’s decision cites a 2009 risk assessment that put Phillips’s chances of recidivism at “moderate,” but it does not cite his stellar behavior in the nine years since. It also acknowledges the wishes of the victim’s family.
“We’ve suffered more than I can ever tell you,” Rano’s mother, Audrey, told a judge in March. “And I have a wish that he will stay where he is and suffer his sentence out.”
Her wish is understandable, borne of unimaginable pain. But a justice system governed solely by victims’ wishes for vengeance and retribution is not just, or tenable. This long-overdue medical release law was passed by the Legislature on behalf of the people of Massachusetts. The governor signed it.
“The Department of Correction is ignoring the mandate of the people here,” Greenberg said. She argues that the requirement that Phillips be utterly incapacitated violates the law’s intent.
A statement from the Executive Office of Public Safety said that while the commissioner “is sympathetic to Mr Phillips’s medical condition,” he is following the letter of the law.
If Turco is right, legislators should revisit the medical release law, because Phillips is plenty sick here. But Greenberg and others say the commissioner is wrong.
“His being able to get up and down the stairs to his cell does not equate to his being capable of engaging in a criminal enterprise,” said Leslie Walker of Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts. “We are concerned the Commissioner [will] continue to deny these.”
This is an election year, for an administration that is already risk-averse when it comes to releasing inmates early. Phillips is the first casualty of that mindset. There will probably be others.
The commissioner has suggested that Phillips could reapply for medical release if his condition deteriorates further, though it’s not clear how sick he has to be to qualify.
In any case, Greenberg doubts her client will last long enough for that, particularly given the slowness with which the department ruled on his first request.
“It looks like DOC just wants every [applicant] to die before they [have to] put their stamp on a release,” she said. “If not this guy, then who?”Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham