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Massachusetts Uses Medical Parole to Avoid In-Custody Deaths From COVID-19

It was a remarkable change of course for the DOC — Messere had been denied medical parole earlier last May, and five times prior to that since 1995. He died of complications from COVID-19 days later, on December 31.

Apfel says the sudden rush to release his client was the state’s desire to manipulate statistics of COVID deaths in custody, and he refused the offer. He said he had no desire to be “complicit in their efforts to rid themselves of Joe and grant a meaningless parole.” His client hadn’t initiated a new petition since the denial in March.

As a result of Apfel’s refusal, the death was counted in the state DOC’s official COVID-19 tally.

A DOC spokesperson said the agency has modified its reporting to include released inmates who die from COVID, and noted that “The Department of Corrections does not grant or deny medical parole based on any other criteria than those set by statute,” reports CommonWealth magazine.

Apfel responded by stating that in Messere’s case and many others, “DOC only grants medical parole as a means of washing its hands of responsibility for those under its care and supervision, in a transparent effort to reduce the stats.”

The back and forth over Messere’s case came 10 months after the State Supreme Court ordered the DOC to report daily on COVID issues in its prisons. The court’s order in April was meant to grant relief to the most vulnerable prisoners through various means, including the use of medical parole. But a number of cases have come to light where sick inmates were either released just prior to death or offered release, like Messere.

Milton Rice, who was housed at the MCI Norfolk state prison like Messere, was granted medical parole just 24 hours prior to his death last November. But he had applied for medical parole in March, just as the pandemic was starting to explode. Another prisoner at MCI Shirley was released just six hours before his death, while on a ventilator in the hospital, according to his attorney. Neither man’s passing was reported in state DOC statistics as an in-custody death.

A 2018 justice reform bill passed by the state legislature allows for medical parole for terminally ill or permanently incapacitated prisoners. DOC implied that Messere’s eligibility continued to be considered after his rejection in March, saying that, “As a person’s medical condition changes, so may eligibility for medical parole; DOC may reconsider a decision based on new medical information.”

In nearby Connecticut, truth-in-sentencing laws require that violent offenders serve at least 85% of their sentence before being considered for compassionate or medical parole. All others must be over a certain age and have either a terminal or debilitating illness.

“Just because COVID-19 is a risk doesn’t mean you’re eligible for compassionate release or medical release,” a corrections spokesman was quoted as saying.

However, the Connecticut DOC is allowing for faster release of non-violent offenders, and considering medical issues more prominently in its release decisions. In 2020, the overall release rate was about 61%, up from 50% in 2019. “Our overall grant rates have dramatically increased ...because of these other factors we’re putting in play,” said a spokesman. 



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