How meaningful is the state’s new compassionate release law if it doesn’t help a man for whom it seems to have been designed?
That’s the question that must be asked in the case of Alexander Phillips, the first inmate to apply for medical release under the state’s new law, which allows for the early release of terminally ill inmates with less than 18 months to live.
Phillips is serving an 18- to 20-year sentence at MCI Norfolk for manslaughter after pleading guilty to stabbing former friend Anthony Rano during a fight in 2006, when they were both 19. He would be eligible for parole in 2022, but he won’t live that long.
Phillips, 31, has widely metastatic cancer in his colon, liver, pancreas, lungs, and lymph nodes. He has lost 30 pounds since March. His advocates say that walking 25 feet leaves him short of breath and in need of rest, and that he sleeps for much of the day. He’s not expected to last more than a year, his attorney Ruth Greenberg says.
He has also been a model prisoner, participating in every program he could find, tutoring other inmates, and recently receiving a bachelor’s degree from Boston University. Greenberg says he has not been involved in a single fight in 10 years.
If he is released, Phillips’s mother, Ann Burke, an oncology nurse who has worked in hospice, would care for her son in her home, and would buy him private health insurance, so that his care would not be a burden to taxpayers. Norfolk’s superintendent, who knows Phillips and can well assess whether he poses a danger to society, has supported his release.
But, as was first reported by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, Phillips’s application was denied on June 15.
Correction commissioner Thomas Turco III decided that Phillips isn’t incapacitated enough to be freed. Because the inmate can walk to his third-floor cell, shower, and walk to his chemo treatments in waist chains and leg irons, his release “would be incompatible with public safety and the welfare of society,” the commissioner wrote.
“His being able to get up and down the stairs to his cell does not equate to his being capable of engaging in a criminal enterprise,” said Leslie Walker of Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts. “We are concerned the Commissioner [will] continue to deny these.”