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Massachusetts Supreme Court Orders DOC to Free Terminally Ill Prisoners After DOJ Investigates Mistreatment

On January 28, 2020, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) voided several regulations used by the state Department of Correction (DOC) to justify denying 29 petitions by prisoners for medical parole, also known as “compassionate release.” The ruling came in a case by one of a number of prisoners who alleged prison officials wrongfully rejected their applications for medical parole. 

The SJC ruling followed the start of an investigation by the civil rights unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston that is focused on abuse of elderly and ill prisoners, and abuse of solitary confinement, in the state’s prisons. The ruling came two years after the state legislature provided for the release of terminally ill or permanently incapacitated prisoners.

DOC and Governor Charlie Baker “have embraced a policy of what we call delay, deny until they die,” said Ruth Greenberg, an attorney for a number of plaintiffs, who specializes in post-conviction releases.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruling provides immediate relief to 73-year-old Joseph Buckman, who was convicted of his wife’s 1997 murder and now suffers metastatic lung cancer. Greenberg’s other client in the case, Peter Cruz, died at age 61 of renal disease before the ruling was handed down.

Greenberg, who represents the majority of prisoners denied medical parole, pointed to projections in DOC’s own master plan that by 2020 some 900 state prisoners would face “medical needs so serious as to require long-term care for chronic illness, disability, and the activities of daily life, meaning self-toileting, walking, and feeding.”

She had earlier informed federal investigators in the civil rights probe that DOC had retaliated against two of her clients who requested medical parole. After that, she said, federal investigators “were interested in talking with everybody.”

One of those two – a wheelchair-reliant prisoner in his 50s recovering from liver cancer – had lost his wheelchair-accessible cell and been sent to segregation after he refused to crawl into a new cell. The other prisoner, who had one lung and kidney disease that left him dependent on a walker and absorbent undergarments, was accused by DOC of being involved in a fight.

“The governor should rein in the rogue DOC, enforce the law he signed, and save the state money for better use,” Greenberg said.

The law made Massachusetts one of the last states to allow extremely ill prisoners to apply for some type of compassionate release. Now, under the SJC ruling, DOC will no longer be able to deny an application simply because it is incomplete. Furthermore, the burden of establishing a medical release plan will no longer fall on the prisoner, with the responsibility instead given to DOC staff. The ruling also forces DOC to share copies with prisoners of any documents relevant to a decision on their application for medical release.

Calling it a “clean sweep” for prisoners, attorney Jeffrey Harris – who authored a supporting brief in the case – said that “the burdens that are created in the law really must fall to the DOC and not to people who are sick and dying.”

DOC is reviewing the court ruling, though it insists that it “actively maintains facilities to meet stringent state and federal guidelines,” said spokesman Jason Dobson.

He would not comment on specifics of the U.S. Attorney’s probe but promised that the agency would “continue to fully cooperate with this ongoing investigation.” The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Attorney in Boston also declined to comment.

Another Boston-based attorney, Patricia DeJuneas, represents a 27-year-old prisoner who spent seven months in solitary confinement at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center (SBCC) in Shirley. Following his complaint that a guard sexually assaulted him, DeJuneas said her client’s health quickly deteriorated during his time in solitude and that he begged for release.

“Unfortunately, the (DOC) fails to protect the prisoners in its care and routinely takes the word of correction officers over prisoners, even when all the evidence is to the contrary,” DeJuneas said. “Individual complaints are ignored, or worse, DOC staff retaliates against those prisoners who dare to complain...The DOJ investigation is really the only shot to get out what’s been going on.”

In late 2018, 35-year-old prison guard at SBCC, Joseph Sampson, was charged with assault and battery with serious bodily harm on a person over age 60 when he allegedly punched 86-year-old prisoner Paul Smith three times. Sampson was arraigned in December 2018, posted bail, and placed on paid administrative leave.

Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said that “officers often lack training and lack the experience to deal with that population, and that can lead to a lot of problems.”

Patricia Quintilian, a Northampton lawyer who represents a 56-year-old prisoner with liver cancer, reported an incident where her client was handcuffed so tightly during one of her visits that his hands were swelling.

“I was outraged,” she said. “The unrepresented inmates get treated worse. Whatever the DOJ decides, they’re fighting this huge mammoth thing. [Prison officials] are not going to want to fix things.” See: Buckman v. Commissioner of Correction, 138 N.E.3d 996 (MA 2020). 


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Related legal case

Buckman v. Commissioner of Correction