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$100,000 Settlement in Illegal Imprisonment Caused by Massachusetts’ Failure to Implement Court Order

by David M. Reutter

A former Massachusetts prisoner has received $100,000 to settle a claim of wrongful and illegal confinement. PLN previously reported on this incident, which stems from the failure of the Massachusetts Department of Correction (MDOC) and Parole Board to implement a court ruling that required time served on parole for consecutive sentences to be applied to each sentence. [See: PLN, Feb. 2008, p.14].

The plaintiff, Rommel Jones, was deprived of 1,513 days – more than four years – of sentence credit under the decision in Crooker v. Chairman of the Mass. Parole Bd., 38 Mass.App.Ct. 915 (Mass. App. Ct. 1995). As a result, his release date was extended beyond the May 31, 2002 expiration of his sentence. It was not until a newspaper article highlighted the problem that MDOC officials took action to provide Jones with his Crooker credits.

Under the erroneous sentence calculation, Jones was not scheduled for release until July 22, 2006. The news article resulted in a quick recalculation, and Jones received a certificate of discharge on June 26, 2006. It was later learned that at least 13 other prisoners had been held beyond their release dates.

The calculation errors were well known to MDOC officials, who refused or failed to cure systematic problems related to Crooker issues in sentence calculation. Rather than having a centralized authority to calculate release dates, MDOC relied upon staff at each prison to make the calculations. This practice was allowed despite MDOC officials being aware that errors in sentence calculation were common.

Although a court order mandated the award of credits for consecutive sentences while offenders were on parole, MDOC failed to explain the requirements of that order in its Date Computation Manual, failed to program its computers to recognize or flag Crooker issues, failed to train its sentence computation staff despite knowing they were making errors, and generally allowed the matter to fester while prisoners were held past their release dates.

For Jones, this resulted in serious consequences. He already had mental health problems, which deteriorated to the point that he “was placed on mental health watch, put in four point restraints, and was committed to Bridgewater State Hospital.” He was also unable to spend time with his mother during the last year of her life, and MDOC refused to allow him to attend her memorial service. Further, he lost contact with his young daughter while he was illegally incarcerated.

In addition to the $100,000 settlement, which was the state’s maximum liability for negligence claims, Jones received a written apology from the MDOC. The matter was settled on May 28, 2008. “The main thing wasn’t the money,” said Jones. “The main thing was to get the date computation system changed so they could work out a program so people get out when they’re supposed to get out.”

Jones was represented by James Pingeon of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services. See: Jones v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Suffolk County Superior Court (MA), Case No. 07-5083-C.

Additional source: Boston Globe

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Related legal case

Jones v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts