Barbara Howard: Jenifer McKim is with WGBH News Partner the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Jenifer wrote the Boston Globe article on aging and dying in Massachusetts prisons that corresponds with her colleague Chris Burrell's radio series. Thanks for coming in, Jenifer.
Howard: So the governor, is he wrong? What about the families of the victims?
McKim: Well, I absolutely can't tell you whether he's wrong or he's right. But I think there's definitely a group of people who would feel that a life sentence is exactly that, and this is what should happen to people when they commit crimes.
Howard: What's the argument to be made for releasing any of these people?
McKim: The argument is some of these people don't even remember the crimes that they committed. They're lying in beds unable to move, in no possible way a safety risk to anybody. So the question is, are our tax dollars best spent keeping people like this behind bars?
Howard: How much does it cost?
McKim: It can be very expensive. We don't have definitive numbers statewide, but for example, we have one man who is in the county system who is a pre-trial detainee that Essex County has spent more than $2 million dollars over four years simply transporting him and guarding him at hospitals in the state.
Howard: What's wrong with him?
McKim: He was shot during a botched escape. He's bedridden. He can barely eat. He's very, very sick. They say that he's too sick to even have any more surgeries.
Howard: Is he too sick to commit a crime?
McKim: That's what some people would argue.
Howard: And are they arguing that successfully?
McKim: At this point, he's still in this bizarre legal limbo where they haven't even convicted him of a crime. So basically they're waiting to see if he's even healthy enough to stand trial.
Howard: In your reporting, you showed that among all inmates in the Massachusetts prison system, those aged 55 and over now make up 17 percent of the overall population. That compares with 11 percent nationally in federal and state prison. So why do we have so many more?
McKim: Well, it's really interesting, because if you look at the population of inmates in Massachusetts since 2012, it's actually gone down, but the older inmates are increasing because of tough sentencing that happened in the 80s and 90s. So you have a lot of lifers who are really never going to get out unless they were released on something like medical parole.
Howard: Well, until last month, Massachusetts was just one of five states, you wrote, without a law allowing for medical parole or compassionate release. The parole is an option only for prisoners who can prove that they're incapacitated physically, cognitively, or that they're terminally ill. You've talked about being physically compromised, making it very difficult to commit a crime.
Did you see people in the prison who were psychologically impaired to the point where they couldn't commit a crime?
McKim: There are men in prison who cannot remember even what they did years ago, and so the question is, really, does it make sense to keep a person like that in prison? Are we still punishing them at this point if they can't even remember what they did.
Howard: So say they win their case and they're released. Where do they go?
McKim: Well, that's part of the thing. You have to prove you do have a place to go, and that's really hard especially for inmates who have had decades inside the prison walls. If you want to petition for medical parole, you have to say where you would go who would take you in, and that's a huge question.
Around the country, very few people are released. They also can take a really long time, and a lot of people end up dying before they've even been approved.
Howard: Now that the story has run, what kind of reaction are you getting?
McKim: Well since the story ran, there has been some questions about, "Well, I understand the compassionate part of it, but I'm not sure that there's any savings when you're releasing people, because don't they have to be also put somewhere and taken care of with tax dollars?”
But you really need to remember how expensive it is to take care of someone when they're in prison. And when you're sick, you have to go to the hospital, you have to have two guards taking you there. The prisoners explain about being shackled to the bed. But the costs are really exorbitant, and that's part of the process which I think as a taxpayer, even if you are less compassionate, is something to think about.
Howard: OK, thank you so much, Jenifer.
McKim: Thank you very much.
Howard: That's Jennifer McKim. She and Chris Burrell are with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.