The Public Health Law Watch initiative identifies potential legislative and regulatory changes that have an impact to harm public health but have yet to break into the mainstream conversation, identifies ways to engage on these issues, and provides legal analysis and commentary.

Massachusetts Denies the First "Compassionate Release" Application

Massachusetts Denies the First "Compassionate Release" Application

By Elisabeth J. Ryan

In May, I wrote here about the new "compassionate release" program in Massachusetts that allows "incarcerated individuals diagnosed with a terminal illness - defined as an incurable condition that will likely cause death within 18 months - or those with 'permanent incapacitation' to request medical release before the end of their sentences. Ultimately, the decision is left to the commissioner of corrections or to the appropriate sheriff, who determines whether 'the prisoner will live and remain at liberty without violating the law and that the release will not be incompatible with the welfare of society.'" I also noted that, "How those in power will interpret that clause remains to be seen."  We now know that the first applicant has been denied.

Alexander Phillips is 31 years old and has served 12 years of an 18-20 year sentence for manslaughter after stabbing his former classmate in a fight. He has been a model inmate with a clean disciplinary record and has even earned his college degree from Boston University. He also has metastatic pancreatic and colon cancer that has spread throughout his body and he will likely not live for longer than one year. His mother is an oncology nurse who would care for him at home and would even ensure he had private health insurance. He can only walk about 25 feet at a time and sleeps most of the day.

Yet Massachusetts Department of Corrections commissioner Thomas Turco ruled that his release would be "incompatible with public safety and the welfare of society" because he is not "incapacitated enough." He cited Phillips's ability to walk up stairs, shower on his own, and get in and out of the vehicle taking him to chemotherapy appointments. Perhaps most telling, however, is that the family of the man Phillips killed does not want him released. While that is not supposed to be a dispositive factor, Alexander Phillips represents exactly the type of person that “compassionate release” was intended to apply to. To deny his release strongly indicates that those in power will likely continue to interpret the new law very, very narrowly.

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