Department Of Correction Rejects First ‘Compassionate Release’ Petition For Dying Inmate

North Central Correctional Institution in Gardner, Massachusetts. Photo: Meredith Nierman, WGBH News

The Massachusetts Department of Correction has denied the medical parole request of a 31-year-old state prison inmate diagnosed with terminal cancer, the first ruling under a law passed in April that allows the early release of dying inmates.

DOC Commissioner Thomas Turco rejected an appeal by Alexander Phillips, an inmate housed at the medium security prison in Norfolk, saying that the ailing prisoner is still a safety risk even though he is not expected to live more than 18 months.

“First, let me express my sympathy concerning Mr. Phillips’ medical diagnosis,” Turco wrote in a June 15 letter to Phillips’ mother and lawyer. Nevertheless, he wrote, “Please be advised that I am denying your petition for Mr. Phillips’ medical parole at this time.”

Phillips had requested medical parole in April, days before Gov. Charlie Baker signed the law that allows the state to release inmates who can prove they are terminally ill or incapacitated and no longer a safety risk. In passing the bill, Massachusetts became one of the last states in the nation to create what is often called “compassionate release” to allow prisoners to die beyond the prison walls and to save taxpayers the costs of caring for sick inmates.

The Department of Correction declined Tuesday to comment on Turco’s ruling. DOC spokesman Jason Dobson said the commissioner has received three applications for medical parole and only made a decision on one.

In an email to this reporter in May, Phillips wrote that he had lost 30 pounds, is constantly in pain and nauseous. “I’m dying by the day and becoming more physically incapacitated,” he wrote. “I do not have a fear of dying. I fear dying in prison with the inadequate medical help where I suffer day in and day out without my family.”

Turco’s letter says that despite his cancer diagnosis, Phillips is not so incapacitated or debilitated to eliminate risks to the public. He said Phillips lives on the third floor of his building, does not use a wheelchair or walker and eats without assistance. Phillips still can make his way to frequent hospital visits without help, Turco wrote. “He is transported under officer escort in full restraints (waist chains and leg irons) in a DOC car or van, walks to the transportation vehicle on his own, and enters and exits the vehicle on his own power.”

Phillips is serving an 18 to 20 year sentence for manslaughter for a 2006 stabbing of a former schoolmate, Anthony Rano, 19, of South Yarmouth. Rano’s mother Audrey said Tuesday that she does not support Phillips’ release petition. “I have no compassion for Alex. He had none for my son,’’ she said. “Alex needs to finish his time.”

Phillips said in his medical parole petition that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic pancreatic and colon cancer in March and was receiving chemotherapy at the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital Correctional Unit, with likely less than six months to live. His mother Ann Burke, a registered nurse, said she would pay for his private insurance and care for him at their Centerville home.

Phillips’ attorney, Ruth Greenberg, called the rejection of his appeal an “abuse of power.” She said Phillips is very sick, with a perfect disciplinary record and living on an almost entirely liquid diet. She said the DOC commissioner was poorly advised by legal staff. “The chance that he is a danger to society is none,” she said.

Prisons across the U.S. are facing challenges of caring for a growing number of aging and ailing inmates. A 2013 report by the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Justice found that the federal compassionate release program was “poorly managed and implemented inconsistently,” likely leading to eligible inmates dying before their requests were decided.

Dozens of Massachusetts state prisoners die behind bars each year, mostly of natural causes, some of them buried in state-run prison cemeteries. And deaths behind bars are expected to increase with the aging population — the number of inmates age 55 and older jumped from 1,196 on Jan. 1, 2010, to 1,582 on Jan. 1, 2018, state data shows.

Phillips now has the option to appeal the decision or submit another one as his condition worsens.

This story was co-published with WGBH News.