Fewer than 10% of applicants have been granted medical parole, frustrating some Mass. lawmakers

Fewer than 10% of applicants have been granted medical parole, frustrating some Mass. lawmakers

By Deborah Becker
March 3, 2022

A group of state lawmakers on Monday visited a health care unit inside a state-run prison after receiving multiple complaints of understaffing, unsanitary conditions and inadequate medical treatment.

Several of the lawmakers, along with some prisoner advocates, said issues at the health care unit inside MCI-Norfolk raised questions about the state’s medical parole law. The critics say the Department of Correction is too reluctant to approve the release of seriously ill prisoners as the law intended. The law increasingly has become the subject of legal and legislative battles.

After Monday’s visit to the 16-bed critical stabilization unit (CSU), state Sen. Jamie Eldridge compared the medical wing to a movie.

“It reminded me of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ ” said Eldridge, a Democrat whose district includes Middlesex and Worcester. “It was incredibly outdated and cramped and just not ideal for providing health care to prisoners in their 70s and 80s.”

MCI-Norfolk holds some of the oldest, sickest prisoners in Massachusetts — a state ranked second-highest in the nation for its number of elderly people who are incarcerated.

More than 15% of Massachusetts prisoners are older than 55, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a research and advocacy group focused on criminal justice reform. The average age of a prisoner at Norfolk is 48; the oldest person incarcerated there is 88, according to statistics from the state’s Department of Correction (DOC). About 1,100 men are housed at MCI-Norfolk.

Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts, an advocacy group, said an 82-year-old prisoner held at CSU and seeking medical parole died Tuesday, just days after he was transferred to an outside hospital.

“PLS believes that most, if not all, CSU residents are eligible for medical parole,” the group said in a statement. “Many have sought medical parole, but none have been successful.”

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