When Nelson Cruz Rodriguez was granted medical parole back in January — he didn't find out right away.
Rodriguez was unconscious and intubated while being treated for COVID-19. The 57-year-old Rodriguez eventually started feeling better and moved into his brother's home in Fairhaven, while he continued to receive medical treatment.
But in April, Rodriguez was arrested without warning and sent back to prison.
"It was several parole officers, with backup from local police. It was a show of force. They all had guns," said his attorney, Rebecca Rose. She said he was still so fragile, he had to be helped down the steps and put in waist cuffs instead of shackles.
The reason for the arrest? His health had improved.
"His [parole] officer told him at the time that he had done nothing wrong, but that he was no longer eligible for medical parole," Rose said.
Rodriguez and another man are believed to be the first two cases where Massachusetts has sent medical parolees back to prison because their health improved.
The parole board officially revoked Rodriguez's parole earlier this month, saying that because he has resumed independent activities such as "showering and using the bathroom," he is no longer eligible for parole.
Rodriguez is now held in a medical unit at the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center, the state's maximum security prison for men. Rodriguez is incarcerated on second-degree murder charges and is eligible for regular parole. A hearing is scheduled at the end of June.
John Stote, 61, was arrested the same day as Rodriguez. He was granted medical parole in January — when he was also hospitalized on a ventilator with COVID-19. The night before Stote was scheduled to be discharged from the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, he was taken into custody.
"The documents disclosed to me shows that a parole officer became aware that he was going to be discharged and ran that up the chain of command to a parole supervisor," Stote's attorney Mark Bluver said. "And the parole supervisor said, well, he didn't die. So let's let the board decide."
The parole board this month decided to provisionally revoke Stote's medical parole —meaning he will remain incarcerated at least until the board considers the case further at another hearing next month. Stote is being held at a medical unit at MCI-Shirley. Bluver is asking for an independent medical evaluation and says Stote's health is deteriorating.
"He's completely wheelchair bound," Bluver said. "He has no function of his left hand or wrist. He cannot dress himself. He cannot put toothpaste on a toothbrush. He can't cut his own food. He's back on oxygen."
"... He cannot dress himself. He cannot put toothpaste on a toothbrush. He can't cut his own food. He's back on oxygen."Mark Bluver
The law says medical parole is intended for those who are terminally ill or permanently incapacitated, and do not pose a public safety risk.
A parole board spokesman has said the law is clear that a person can be returned to custody if they have recovered from the condition that made them eligible for medical parole. Bluver argues that Stote may no longer have COVID, but he is still eligible.
"I think what the parole board did is lawless," Bluver said. "The commissioner and the doctor who evaluated him said that even if he recovers — and thank God he has — he is still permanently incapacitated."
Bluver believes the parole board is "bending to political pressure" because family members of the man Stote killed are opposed to his release.
"I'm completely sensitive to this particular victim and to victims in general," Bluver said. "But that has nothing to do with whether or not Mr. Stote is eligible for medical parole."
Stote was convicted in 1997 of killing John Regan of Springfield. Regan's daughter, Maureen Regan Moriarty says she's not opposed to all medical parole, but thinks at 61, Stote should remain in prison.
"He has a whole long period of time ahead of him," Moriarty said. "He has tried to skirt this issue and not take responsibility for 25 years. And I do, I believe that he's back in jail and that's exactly where he should be — to end his days."
'It Really Doesn't Exist Anymore'
The state's medical parole law — sometimes called compassionate release law — has been the subject of debate and several court rulings since it was adopted three years ago. Legislation has been filed to exempt those charged with first-degree murder from seeking medical parole.
Earlier this week the State Supreme judicial Court issued two rulings saying that the Department of Correction needs to act quickly on medical parole petitions and can not limit a prisoners ability to resubmit a medical parole request.
Last year the court invalidated some Department of Correction rules on implementing the law. The state says it has begun revising the medical parole regulations after the previous SJC decisions, but was waiting for this week's rulings before finalizing them.
“EOPSS is now reviewing the decisions and intends to make any further adjustments necessary to ensure compliance with the SJC’s ruling," said Jake Wark, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security in a statement.
Attorney Ruth Greenberg, who has represented some of the prisoners in the SJC cases, says the rulings show that the high court has had to intervene.
"The Department of Correction is doing everything they can to make medical parole not happen," Greenberg said. "It's becoming like commutation. It's a thing which exists in the law, but where the commissioner's exercise of discretion is so rare, so scarce, that it really doesn't exist anymore."
Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts is among those monitoring medical parole cases to determine whether the law is being implemented as intended.
"This law was enacted with a thought that there were many people in the Department of Correction custody who really didn't need to be there, whose health had deteriorated to the point where they no longer posed any threat to public safety," said James Pingeon, litigation director for Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts. "And holding them in a prison was not just inhumane, but also wasteful of taxpayer money, because it costs much more to hold somebody in a prison and give them medical care than it would be if they were in a nursing home or dying at home in a bed."
Forty-seven petitions for medical parole have been approved since the law was passed — about half since the start of the pandemic, state data show. The number of those actually released is not clear.
At least three men who were granted medical parole after contracting COVID later died.
But the state confirmed that those deaths are not included in the Department of Correction's official count of the 21 prisoners who have died from the virus. The state says that's because once they were granted medical parole, they were no longer considered in state custody.
This segment aired on May 21, 2021.