May 21, 2018
By Jenifer McKim, New England Center for Investigative Reporting
GARDNER — Beyond the barbed wire of a state prison, down a dirt road marked with “no trespassing” signs, lies a hill dotted with PVC-pipe crosses marking the graves of nearly 90 inmates.
The makeshift crosses in this state-owned cemetery bear no names to indicate who lies underneath.
The dead include men convicted of murder and sexual assault who were buried over the last quarter-century; some had spent decades behind bars. Each had no families or friends willing or able to collect their bodies, and were buried here by staff and fellow inmates under the eye of the state Department of Correction.
Governor Charlie Baker signed legislation in April that will allow some of the state’s sickest inmates to be released if they can prove they are no longer a safety risk. That made Massachusetts one of the last states in the union to offer what is often called “compassionate release.”
But the new law may not serve as a significant release valve to offset the rise in elderly and ailing inmates.
Already, Baker has proposed legislation to prohibit the release of inmates who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder, a category that includes 375 elderly inmates.
Brendan Moss, a spokesman for Baker, said last Monday that the administration wants to make sure that prisoners convicted of first-degree murder “serve sentences that match the heinous crimes they committed and are not eligible for medical parole.” Meanwhile, sex offenders would be released only under “detailed procedures established for those unique cases.”
Also last Monday, state lawmakers held a hearing to consider Baker’s amendments. Several prison advocates urged the state not to change the new law.
Joel Thompson, a staff attorney with Boston-based Prisoners’ Legal Services, said most states’ compassionate release laws are too slow and underutilized. “The Legislature got it right and should leave it the way it is,’’ he said.