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Massachusetts Medical Parole Cases and COVID-19 Prisoner Deaths

“I don’t see any other way to interpret what happened,” said Lauren Petit, an attorney with Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts (PLSMA).

MADOC paroled at least two prisoners hospitalized with COVID-19 a day—or less—before they died from the disease in November 2020, defense attorneys charged, meaning they were excluded from the state’s COVID-19 prisoner mortality statistics.

One of those who died—an elderly prisoner at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI) in Shirley, who remains anonymous at his surviving family’s request—had attorney Ruth Greenberg petition for his medical parole earlier in the pandemic, based upon the likelihood he would die were he to contract COVID-19 because of his age. MADOC denied the request because the wording of Massachusetts law allows medical parole to be granted only if the prisoner seeking it is “terminally ill or permanently incapacitated.”

Greenberg explained that this means, for prisoners, “you can’t get medical parole just because you might catch COVID-19.” In fact, she added, prisoners are “not eligible for medical parole unless they actually have” the disease.

“The statute was not written with infectious diseases in mind,” she concluded.

The last recorded COVID-19 death at MCI-Shirley occurred in May 2020. The application Greenberg filed in behalf of her client was denied on November 12, 2020. Then it was suddenly granted eight days later, on November 20—hours before the prisoner died from the disease, Greenberg said, apparently “so his death would not be counted as a COVID-19 inmate death.”

Seventy-six-year-old Milton Rice, a prisoner at MCI-Norfolk, applied for medical parole in March 2020, reasoning that “with my underlying health conditions and compromised immune system issues, should I contract the COVID-19 virus it would more than likely be fatal for me.”

Like Greenberg’s client, Rice contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized in November 2020.

MADOC granted Rice a medical parole on November 24. He died the very next day on November 25, 2020.

Petit, the PLSMA attorney worked on Rice’s request. She said it “was denied and only granted once the person was on life support.”

At the time of his death, MADOC had reported eight deaths to the disease, all concentrated in two of the agency’s 16 facilities, which collectively house about 6,500 prisoners. That’s 1,600 fewer prisoners than MADOC held in April 2020. The agency conducted over 4,400 releases between then and November 2020, though that number includes scheduled releases. MADOC also said in November 2020 that it had granted 40 medical paroles since the pandemic began in March 2020, about three times the number in a typical year.

But attorneys insist MADOC is accepting medical parole petitions, then waiting until after the petitioner catches the disease before granting it.

“I think that the reason for granting [Rice’s] medical parole, as far as I can tell, would be to avoid having to report another COVID death of a prisoner within the Department of Correction,” Petit said, because “his circumstances hadn’t changed at all” since his application was initially denied.

November and December 2020 saw COVID-19 outbreaks at many MADOC prisons: North Central Correctional Institution, Lemuel Shattuck Hospital Correctional Unit, MCI-Concord, MCI Shirley and MCI-Norfolk, as well as nearby Pondville Correctional Center, also in Norfolk.

As of March 2021, a year after the pandemic began, some 3,000 MADOC prisoners were fighting a COVID-19 infection, according to the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We’re getting close to half of the [prisoner] population having been affected,” noted Michael Horrell, who also works with PLSMA. “It’s just dramatically above the spread that we’ve seen in the wider community.”

Nationally, about 31.1 million infections had been reported by April 9, 2021, according to a database maintained by the New York Times, a number that represents almost 9.5 percent of the 328.3 million residents of the U.S.

Prisoners were included in the first phase of Massachusetts’ COVID-19 vaccination effort that began in mid-January 2020. By March 2020, MADOC said it had administered almost 14,000 doses.

With luck, officials hope that will keep the Corona Reaper from wielding its deadly scythe to keep mercilessly gathering prisoner after prisoner.  


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