Prisoners try again for home confinement

MCI-Norfolk inmate dies from medical condition after petitioning

ATTORNEYS FOR ILL and civilly committed prisoners are seeking an emergency court order requiring the head of the state’s prison system to implement a home confinement program amid growing COVID-19 numbers.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in June that the Department of Correction has the authority to implement such a program but did not require the agency to do so.

Prisoners’ Legal Services, which filed the original lawsuit in the spring on behalf of 11 named inmates and others “similarly situated,” filed the emergency motion on Friday. The organization had previously sought a preliminary injunction in June which was denied by the court because it found that prisoners had not yet met a standard to show that preventing releases was a constitutional violation.

The motion filed today said the Department of Correction had failed to comply with a statutory obligation requiring the creation of a committee in each correctional facility to “evaluate the behavior and conduct of inmates within the prison and recommend whether an inmate ‘shall be permitted to participate in any program outside a correctional facility, exclusive of parole.”

Court documents say one of the original plaintiffs, Steven Palladino, died on October 10 from complications related to his medical issues, which included bone marrow cancer, kidney disease, and diabetes.

Palladino was being held at MCI-Norfolk after pleading guilty in 2014 to stealing more than $10 million from investors.  He requested through attorneys to be placed in home confinement with his family after meeting statutory requirements, and other conditions, like being eligible for parole in less than a year, serving time for a non-violent crime, and being willing to submit to GPS monitoring.

According to his attorneys, he had no disciplinary tickets, participated in all DOC recommended programs, and trained two service dogs that have ended up with a veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and a local police department.

Attorneys claim that the DOC did not respond to Palladino’s home confinement requests for nearly two months. According to an email exchange provided to CommonWealth, DOC Commissioner Carol Mici declined the request on October 9, with her office noting that “the DOC does not have a home confinement program at this time.”

“While there is no indication that Mr. Palladino’s death was caused by COVID-19, DOC’s refusal even to consider someone in his situation for home confinement shows its complete disregard of its statutory obligation and the SJC’s ruling,” Prisoners’ Legal Services said in its petition for an emergency order. 

According to an October 22 special report issued by the SJC, which includes a category for home confinement releases, there have been none granted. Thirty-five people have been granted medical parole since April. A DOC spokesman said that the department does not comment on ongoing litigation.

The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in June said inmates are in greater danger in prison because of COVID-19. In his concurring opinion, the late chief justice, Ralph Gants said “there will be time before the fall to accomplish sensible reductions in the size of the prison population, including the release or transfer to home confinement of many elderly and medically vulnerable prisoners, to give prison superintendents the better options to protect the physical and mental health of inmates that come with fewer prisoners.”

Home confinement programs are not an unused or unheard of undertaking. In Hampden and Hampshire counties, sheriff’s have used home confinement programs for their prisoners. 

While the decision said the preliminary injunction passed the objective test of deliberate indifference, the court said it did not pass the subjective test, primarily because of the Department of Correction’s efforts to minimize risks through a variety of means, including increased cleaning and disinfecting, distribution of personal protection equipment, and enhanced testing.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

While recognizing that the pandemic is “unprecedented,” the justices concluded “incarcerated plaintiffs are unlikely to succeed on the merits of their claim for violations of the Eighth Amendment,” and denied the injunction.

The court noted in June in its opinion that the Massachusetts prison system has the highest percentage of elderly prisoners in the country, with half of inmates 60 or older or with underlying medical conditions. The court also noted that 58 percent of the state’s inmates are in two-person cells or dormitory style cells, making it easier to contact COVID-19 from others.