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DOC Revises Medical Parole Reporting After 2 Prisoner Deaths

A portion of the death certificate of Milton Rice, a 76-year-old prisoner at MCI-Norfolk, who died on Nov. 25 of COVID-19 and related complications. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A portion of the death certificate of Milton Rice, a 76-year-old prisoner at MCI-Norfolk, who died on Nov. 25 of COVID-19 and related complications. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

After two prisoners died of COVID-19 related illnesses last month within a day of being granted medical parole, the Massachusetts Department of Correction says it will change how it reports when COVID-positive prisoners are granted medical parole.

The DOC maintains that it is properly reporting prisoner COVID-19 deaths, but defense attorneys for the two men say medical parole was granted so the deaths would not be counted as prison COVID-related deaths.

The change in the DOC reporting process follows a WBUR story last week indicating that the DOC had denied medical parole for the two prisoners until they were hospitalized and critically ill with COVID-19. The state medical examiner was never notified of the men's deaths, which is required when a prisoner dies, but the DOC says the men were no longer considered to be in state custody.

"Former inmates who have completed their sentences, or who have been released on parole or granted medical parole, are no longer in DOC’s jurisdictional custody," the DOC said in a statement."Medical facilities are bound by the same medical privacy laws and have no obligation to report to DOC the death of a former inmate."

The DOC says it will now include the number of COVID positive prisoners released on medical parole to the Special Master of the state Supreme Judicial Court, who was appointed by the SJC in April to compile weekly reports on the spread of the virus in all Massachusetts correctional facilities.

The report currently lists only the number of prisoners' medical parole requests that have been approved, which at press time is 40. Medical parole does not mean immediate release, as the DOC and the parole board must also sign off on a prisoner's living arrangements after medical parole is granted.

The DOC says as of last Friday, the reports will include the new information about medical parolees who have contracted the disease and it says the parole board is working on "how to best report outcomes."

Defense attorneys and prisoners' advocates say the change in reporting will help, but they hope even more will be done to make sure there is timely reporting about the spread of the virus in prisons, and in county jails.

"This is an important change in reporting as it is crucial to know what the impact is on all of us of the virus outbreaks in prisons and jails," said Elizabeth Matos, Executive Director of Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts. "We hope the sheriffs will make similar changes in how they report positives for those being released, particularly since the majority of the population is pre-trial."

The state medical parole law allows for the release of those prisoners who are terminally ill or permanently incapacitated.

The most recent Special Master Report said eight prisoners had died of COVID-19. An MCI-Norfolk prisoner who died Friday also tested positive, likely marking the ninth coronavirus-related death in Massachusetts.

This article was originally published on December 06, 2020.

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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