Class-action discrimination suit filed against Massachusetts parole board

The Massachusetts parole board is facing a class-action lawsuit alleging that the board discriminates against people with mental disabilities. The suit contains new statistics about the number of people incarcerated in Massachusetts with mental health concerns.

The suit, filed by attorneys from three mental health and prisoners' rights groups, alleges that the parole board does not consider the challenges incarcerated people with mental disabilities face in seeking probation, in violation of state and federal civil rights laws.

It says those with mental disabilities face numerous obstacles, including: difficulty navigating the parole process; being ineligible for programs to improve their chances of parole; often receiving punishment as a result of behavior that leads to a disciplinary record and jeopardizes parole opportunities; and not always being provided with timely legal counsel for the parole process.

"The Board’s ongoing failure to consider the interplay between these factors and a person’s mental disability has a direct, discriminatory impact on parole outcomes," the suit reads.

The parole board declined to comment on the pending litigation. In a statement, a spokesperson said the board is "deeply committed to ensuring that its practices and policies are fair, equitable, and just for all incarcerated individuals, including those with disabilities and mental health challenges."

The complaint says that in Massachusetts prisons, 41% of male inmates and 79% of female inmates in 2022 had an open mental health case. Overall, half the people in the custody of the state Department of Correction at the end of last year had an open mental health case, according to public records cited in the filing.

The complaint claims the parole board is ignoring a 2017 state Supreme Judicial Court ruling that said the board cannot deny equal access to parole to incarcerated people with disabilities.

"The Board has essentially ignored the Court’s instructions," the lawsuit alleges. "It has not meaningfully modified outdated procedures and methodology and, instead, has continued to conduct business as usual — effectively denying incarcerated persons with mental disabilities fair consideration for parole."

The suit outlines the cases of three plaintiffs, all men identified only as "John Doe," who have been in prison for decades and denied parole multiple times. In the case of "John Doe 1 or JD 1," the suit said he has been denied parole because he was disciplined for his mental disabilities.

According to the suit, in response to mental health crises, the Department of Correction often punished JD 1 with solitary confinement, restricted access to phone calls or visits, or removed privileges such as television or recreation time.

"The impact of this punitive and non-therapeutic approach is profound, as the Board regards any accumulation of [disciplinary reports] in a negative light," the suit said,  regardless of whether the punished behavior was the result of an underlying mental health condition, exacerbated in prison.

Given the large number of prisoners with mental illness or cognitive disabilities, the suit suggests hundreds of incarcerated people could be helped by a ruling from the court.

The lawsuit asks the court to issue an injunction so the parole board updates its policies, to screen all people incarcerated in prisons and jails for mental disabilities and to collaborate with state agencies and nonprofits on parole release plans.

This story was updated to include a statement from the parole board.

This article was originally published on August 03, 2023.


Deborah Becker 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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