Whatever Sal DiMasi Deserves, He Doesn’t Deserve This

Sal DiMasi's medical mistreatment in prison shines light on why medical release is crucial for Massachusetts.

Recently, Debbie DiMasi talked to the Globe about the medical treatment that her husband, Sal DiMasi, is receiving—or, more accurately, not receiving—behind bars. DiMasi, who was sentenced to eight years in federal prison for corruption with charges including conspiracy and extortion, was incarcerated with a heart condition, then he developed a painful form of tongue cancer, and while being shipped from one prison to another, he got sicker. He lost 50 pounds, and according to his wife, was not able to get chemotherapy until months after the cancer was detected. By then, it was Stage 4 and had spread to his lymph nodes.

While his crimes got him convicted, his poor medical treatment raises questions about the accountability of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (which has also been pointed out elsewhere, including in Harvey Silverglate’s letter to the editor in the Globe). This medical mismanagement underscores another problem: the difficulty of obtaining a medical release for the gravely ill behind bars.

In Massachusetts, with its annual price tag of $46,000 per state prisoner and a state prison population of more than 11,500, it’s time to fix the system of keeping those behind bars who are suffering from incurable diseases, debilitating conditions, or terminal illnesses that render them incapable of posing a threat to anyone if released.

Somerville Sen. Pat Jehlen is lead sponsor of a new bill this year that aims to tackle this problem. Titled “An Act reducing health care costs through extraordinary medical placement,” the bill would allow medical releases for state and county prisoners only if they have an “irreversible condition, disease or syndrome that is terminal, debilitating, or incapacitating” and if “the prisoner’s release will not be incompatible with public safety.” Joining Sen. Jehlen as lead co-sponsor from the House is Hampshire County Rep. Ellen Story, and a handful of other legislators have already signed on.

According to the bill, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections will be the decider about who can or cannot be released from state prisons—with consultation, of course, from doctors. In the case of county facilities or jails, where some elderly and sick prisoners also reside, the sheriffs will send the question back to the courts. In either case, petitioners for extraordinary medical release can come from a variety of sources including from the commissioner, the head of the facility, a licensed physician, the prisoner, a member of the prisoner’s family, or the prisoner’s attorney.

This bill is a no-brainer. As I wrote last year, while it is difficult to determine the exact number of prisoners who are sick and dying in Massachusetts prisons, the ACLU estimates that without medical release, by 2030, “… over one-third of all prisoners in the United States will be over 55.” And that’s the age of borderline geriatric for prisoners.

Last year, Sen. Jehlen put forth a similar bill—it didn’t pass—but the subject seems to have garnered more support this year. The financial costs alone with prison overcrowding should persuade reticent legislators that it makes no sense to keep people who are dying and not dangerous behind bars. Considering that it costs more than $68,000 to house a state prisoner who is sick and dying, a medical release bill would be cost effective at a time when every dollar counts.

It’s not just a question of what we want to do with our pocketbooks. Forty states have some sort of medical release provision. According to Modern Healthcare, an online news weekly, Michigan has managed to release 100 elderly and infirm prisoners since 2008. In Massachusetts, if those 100 prisoners were released and lived for one year beyond their release, it would mean a savings of $6.8 million.

But it’s also a question of civic responsibility. If the degree of our civilization can be judged by entering our prisons as Dostoevsky once said, then the way we treat our sick and dying behind bars has to count for something. The Legislature should not let the politics of so-called “tough on crime” derail them from letting the gravely ill out of prison. After all, look what’s happening to one of their own.