Alexander Phillips was the first inmate to be released from prison in Massachusetts under the state’s “compassionate release” law. Diagnosed with terminal cancer and imprisoned for homicide, Phillips’ initial application to the Department of Corrections was rejected, but after a second attempt with the help of lawyer Ruth Greenberg, Phillips was released in November 2018. He died 24 days later.
Though Massachusetts is looked at nationally as a bellwether state for progressive legislation, it was one of the last states to pass a compassionate release bill, which was part of last summer’s omnibus criminal justice reform package. Greenberg, who is the head of the Boston University School of Law’s compassionate release pop up clinic, said that while many politicians paid lip service to the law’s passage, in practice it has not aided as many people as she believes it should.
“We’re often thought of as a progressive state, but we’re really not,” Greenberg said during an interview with Boston Public Radio on Tuesday. “[The Department of Corrections] sits at the right hand of the governor. It’s the fourth largest budget [in the state], and we’re not seeing the will to release prisoners who are qualified for release, and under our statute are entitled to release.”
On paper, the law is explicit: Any inmate who can prove that they are suffering from a terminal illness and presents no risk of harm to society is eligible. The problem, Greenberg says, is that the Department of Corrections is purposefully frustrating the original intent of the statute to keep more inmates in prison.
In Phillips’ case, his request for release was initially denied by current Secretary of Public Safety Thomas A. Turco III, who was the head of the DOC at the time. In a letter penned June 15, Turco acknowledged that Phillips received a legitimate medical diagnosis that said he would most likely not live longer than 18 months, but still deemed him too dangerous to leave prison.
“While a clinician employed by the Department of Corrections (DOC) health care provider has determined that Mr. Phillips’ life expectancy is not expected to exceed 18 months, I have determined that if released, he would not be able to live and remain at liberty without violating the law,” Turco said in the statement.
Greenberg said that rejections such as Phillips’ first one are not uncommon, and what has made it more difficult is how opaque the entire process is. She also noted that despite Gov. Charlie Baker’s signing of the legislation, the governor is not an advocate of the program. During the bill’s debate, Baker and his staff voiced their discomfort with allowing those convicted of first-degree murder or sex offenders being eligible for release. Following the passage of the bill, he immediately followed up with a proposed bill that would prohibit inmates serving life sentences from being eligible.
Witnessing the aftermath of the bill, Greenberg said that if the Baker administration can’t win in the legislature, their tactics have appeared to be that of “delay, deny until they die,” she said.
With humanitarian goals aside, Greenberg also pointed out that keeping terminally ill inmates in prison is costly.
Greenberg’s hope, however, is that the Baker administration and the DOC eventually end their tactic of delaying applications, and work with her clinic to help the state be true to the letter of the law.
“I reach out,” Greenberg said. “I ask [the Department of Corrections to] take a meeting. Let’s collaborate. This was intended to be a collaborative statue where the Department of Corrections works with me ... to let these people go home to die.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Ruth Greenberg believes the Department of Corrections is not properly following the intent of the compassionate release law.