SJC to referee another medical parole dispute 

Advocates say DOC too restrictive on eligibility

SINCE THE LEGISLATURE established medical parole in 2018, prisoners’ rights advocates and Department of Correction officials have been in a near-constant fight about how the law is being implemented. 

Advocates say the Baker administration has repeatedly applied the law too narrowly, making too few people eligible for release on medical grounds. The Supreme Judicial Court, in separate cases in 2020 and 2021, voided several regulations around medical parole, agreeing with advocates that correction officials were making the process too onerous.  

On Friday, the SJC heard two more cases that could lead to even more changes around the medical parole statute. 

Ruth Greenberg, an attorney who has been at the forefront of arguing medical parole cases on prisoners’ behalf, said this is an opportunity for the court to either enforce the 2018 statute or “put the nail in the coffin of medical parole,” by deciding whether the Legislature or the correction commissioner has the final word on who is eligible for early release from prison because of a medical condition. 

The 2018 medical parole statute, instituted as part of a broader criminal justice reform law, says a prisoner can qualify for medical parole if they are “terminally ill” or “permanently incapacitated,” and if the commissioner determines that they can live freely without violating the law and without endangering societal welfare. 

The cases heard Friday relate to two prisoners – James Carver and Martin McCauley – who the commissioner determined do not qualify for release.  

Carver, 58, has multiple medical conditions, including prostate cancer, epilepsy, coronary artery disease, and chronic pain. According to his court brief, “Carver is unable walk and is wheelchair confined, has deafness, incontinence, lives in a handicapped cell housed in facility with 24 hours health staff, and needs assistance with dressing and feeding when he shakes from tremors.”  

McCauley, 65, has a narrowing his spine which causes chronic pain and has neuropathy (weakness, numbness, and pain) that leads to falls. He uses a rolling walker and other accommodations in prison. 

The jail superintendent recommended against Carver’s release, citing his arson and second-degree murder convictions in a 1984 incident, minimal program participation, a disciplinary report, and a finding that he is “mobile” and not permanently incapacitated. In McCauley’s case, the superintendent recommended against medical parole due to his ability to get around and care for his basic needs (with accommodations), his convictions for murder and armed robbery, and an extensive prison disciplinary history. 

In addition to addressing whether correction commissioner Carol Mici abused her discretion in not granting Carver and McCauley medical parole, the SJC indicated in a request for amicus briefs that touch on a particular legal issue, that it will use the cases to consider the appropriateness of the Department of Correction’s definition of a “debilitating condition” that would make someone eligible for medical parole. The department created a definition that limits eligibility to someone with a physical inability to perform activities of daily living, like walking, bathing, or going to the bathroom. 

Jeffrey Harris, an attorney for McCauley, said the problem is that excludes a person with a cognitive disability, for example. “They can do all these things but they’re definitely who the Legislature had in mind when it passed the medical parole statute,” Harris said. 

Tatum Pritchard, an attorney with the Disability Law Center, which filed a brief in the case, said the Legislature made clear that someone who is permanently incapacitated – physically or cognitively – should be eligible for parole, but the DOC inappropriately created a much narrower definition by focusing on activities of daily living. Pritchard said under the DOC’s definition, medical parole is reserved only for individuals who “really have no functional abilities at all.” 

Carver’s attorney, Sharon Sullivan-Puccini, said in court,Permanent incapacitation does not mean total incapacitation.” 

But Stephanie Caffrey, an attorney representing Mici and MCI-Norfolk superintendent Nelson Alves, said the correction officials have discretion to decide whether an illness is so debilitating the person no longer poses a threat to society, and looking at daily living activities is a permissible way to determine that.  

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The court could also address other related issues. The Disability Law Center, Prisoners’ Legal Services, and the Committee for Public Counsel Services argued in their court brief that correction officials need to consider whether someone’s disability led to certain behavior in jail, like being disruptive, and whether that disability could be managed in the community. 

Justices, particularly Associate Justice Scott Kafker, posed numerous questions on what role someone’s underlying offense should play in determining whether the person poses a safety risk for medical parole calculations.