by Jenifer B. McKim
Nearly 10 years ago, Wilfred Dacier was told he would be a free man. But for Dacier, now 63, his view continued to be a little corner of the town of Gardner that changed only with the seasons. The positive vote he received from the Massachusetts Parole Board in 2010 did not result in his release from the North Central Correctional Institution. That’s nominally because Dacier has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, and the parole board made his release conditional upon him moving to a secure facility run by the state Department of Mental Health, which repeatedly declined to give him housing. But Dacier’s incarceration for nearly a decade after being granted parole offers us Exhibit A of why many say the Massachusetts Parole Board is ripe for reform.
Consider the reason why mental health officials did not take Dacier: After examining him, they found in 2011 that his condition did not warrant being housed in a secure facility. That would seem to be good news for Dacier and for Massachusetts taxpayers, who pay for our prisons. The parole board, though, rescinded its decision to grant Dacier parole, worried about where he could go. Board members then refused to relent for years, despite a 2015 report from a psychologist, appointed by the board, that found Dacier could gradually transition to the community without the support of the Department of Mental Health. Frustrated, Dacier took his case to the Suffolk County Superior Court, where a judge in September 2019 found the board had penalized him because of his mental illness — finally prompting change.
That Dacier remained in prison at all after being granted parole, let alone for most of a decade, is “crazy,” says Joel Thompson, a managing attorney at the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project at Harvard Law School, who represents Dacier. “In 2010 you paroled him, and the only thing he has messed up since then is failing to get DMH to take him. Why aren’t we just hashing out a release plan together?”
Dacier’s situation is not unusual, say prisoners’ rights advocates, citing both the parole board’s treatment of mentally ill prisoners and long delays in making decisions and releasing people to the community. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 2017 ruled in favor of another inmate claiming he was being discriminated against because of his disability. Similar allegations are under investigation by the US attorney’s office, according to interviews and documents obtained by the WGBH News Center for Investigative Reporting. The US attorney’s office says it can neither confirm nor deny whether an investigation is taking place. But James Pingeon, an attorney with Boston-based Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, says disability law attorneys have received questions from federal investigators about the inquiry — an effort he supports — as recently as this spring.
“There has been a longstanding problem with the treatment of persons with mental illness by the parole board,” Pingeon says. “It’s not acceptable to hold someone in prison because you don’t want to provide them with the necessary support and services in the community.”
Massachusetts was the first state in the country to create a parole system, back in 1837. The aim was to give prisoners who seemed unlikely to cause additional harm a chance to finish their sentences while rebuilding a life outside of prison. The current structure, which has been amended over time, provides parolees a strict set of conditions to live by in the community, with supervision overseen by the board. The board also has the power to reduce sentences, or pardon a prisoner entirely.
Today, the seven-member board, appointed by the governor for five-year terms, oversees a nearly $24 million budget and 200 employees, tracking about 1,400 parolees. Each board member earns $130,000 a year; the board chair takes in $153,000. Six of the seven current board members were appointed or reappointed by Governor Charlie Baker.
The job is high-stakes: The board often must decide whether to release people who have committed violent crimes, some of them sentenced to life in prison. If board members release someone who commits a new crime, consequences can be severe. In 2008, the board paroled Dominic Cinelli, who went on to kill a Woburn police officer in a shoot-out in December 2010 (Cinelli also died). A report found the board had made mistakes in releasing and supervising Cinelli, and then-Governor Deval Patrick forced the resignation of five board members. (In 2018, 64 parolees — less than 5 percent of those living in the community — were returned to prison after being arrested for new crimes, according to state records.)
Parole board officials declined to talk in person for this story. State spokesman Jake Wark released a statement saying the board “conducts thoughtful, individualized reviews for each candidate, and when the facts and evidence support release to the community, the board strives to place parolees in settings that are appropriate to their needs and compatible with public safety.”
Joe Russo, executive committee member of the American Probation and Parole Association and program manager at the University of Denver’s National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center, says parole boards nationally struggle with managing risk with a troubled clientele and significant pressure from politicians and the public. “When things go wrong, it ends careers, it ends good programs,” he says. “It typically has wide, sweeping effects.”
Patricia Garin, an attorney who has long worked in front of the parole board, said that before 2011, decisions for prisoners serving life sentences were almost always issued within 60 days of the hearing. After 2011, prisoners’ advocates say the parole board became slow to act. The length of time between hearings and decisions for inmates with life sentences rose from an average of three months in 2015 to more than nine months in 2018, according to a WGBH News Center for Investigative Reporting analysis of state records. And even when Massachusetts prisoners were approved for parole, they remained incarcerated for an average of 200 additional days before finally being released, according to a 2018 report by The Council of State Governments Justice Center.
But when COVID-19 started spreading through the state’s prisons, advocates increased their pressure on Baker and the parole board to expedite the release of parolees. The board says it is listening: In late March, Gloriann Moroney, who became chair in 2019, said at a public hearing that there were some 300 people who had been approved for parole but were still behind bars. She attributed much of the delay to a two-week process finalizing housing plans and notifying victims. While the board could not say in June how many of the 300 had been released, officials did say that they were speeding up the process and working with advocates to help find homes for parolees with substance abuse issues. This has resulted in letting out some 800 parolees since late March, with 229 still waiting.
Advocates say many prisoners waiting to get out are those with mental illnesses. About 23 percent of the state’s prison population of more than 7,000 people are designated as having “serious mental illness,” court records show. Former parole board member Lucy Soto-Abbe says she has concerns about the system’s ability to care for such prisoners. Soto-Abbe spent eight years as a member of the board, after serving as a victim advocate in the Hampden County district attorney’s office. She worried about some mentally ill prisoners, like Dacier, who were stuck behind bars. She said the board was challenged because it couldn’t force the Department of Mental Health to take them. “I felt bad for a lot of these clients because some of them don’t belong in jail,” she says.
‘The length of time between hearings and decisions for inmates with life sentences rose from an average of three months in 2015 to more than nine months in 2018. ’
Robert Kinscherff, a psychologist and lawyer who was hired by the parole board to evaluate Dacier and at least a handful of other inmates in 2015, says the state may be discriminating against mentally ill prisoners, in violation of federal law. He says he doesn’t know how many others with psychiatric disabilities are still incarcerated, but believes there’s a systemic problem. “The disability is the problem,” he says, “because if they didn’t have the disability, they would have been paroled.”
Massachusetts courts have also have weighed in, several times. There was the Superior Court determination in 2019 that Dacier was being penalized for “simply having a mental illness.” Another prisoner, Richard Crowell, took his concerns that he was being refused parole because of a disabling brain injury to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court — and won.
Crowell was initially sent to prison as a teenager after serving as the getaway driver in a 1962 fatal armed robbery. He was first released on parole in 1975 and was brought back several times for violating his parole, court records show. In 1987, he sustained a brain injury that his lawyers say causes him to lack impulse control — issues they say contributed to subsequent parole violations. In 2003, Crowell went back to prison and hasn’t been let out since. During a 2012 hearing, one board member noted Crowell had a chronic, lifelong condition that “might get worse,” according to court documents. The board denied his release request, noting he didn’t have an adequate release plan to ensure he would remain compliant. But the state’s top court, in its 2017 ruling in Crowell’s favor, said the parole board has a “responsibility to determine whether reasonable modifications” could be made to achieve release.
Crowell, now in his late 70s, went before the board again in October 2018. His lawyer, John Fitzpatrick, a supervising attorney at the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project, said in early June that “Richard remains in prison, largely, if not solely, because he is brain damaged and the state can’t figure out what else to do with him.” (At press time, Crowell received approval for release.)
There’s also Curtis Earltop — convicted in 1971 of the murder of a woman in Boston — who received a positive parole vote in 2016 on condition that the diagnosed schizophrenic be released to a secure state facility. But nothing happened until this spring, after the prison system was overtaken by the spread of COVID-19 and he was finally released. Earltop’s attorney, Jeffrey Harris, says his 69-year-old client’s case was complicated, but wonders why it took nearly four years to secure a transfer out of prison, despite Harris’s repeated objections.
Earltop, reached by phone in June at the Farren Care Center in Turners Falls, says he is happy to be out of the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, free from the constant supervision of guards and able to enjoy a smoke. “I was approved to be released in 2016 and they kept me all this time,” he says. “I feel good now.”
Wilfred Dacier went to prison for a brutal murder he committed in 1995 when he was 38, stabbing his younger sister Susan 14 times amid a dispute over his inability to hold a job and contribute financially. Afterward, Dacier called his sister-in-law in New Hampshire and told her he had done “a real bad thing.” Then he called 911. He was sitting on the front steps of his family’s home in Lowell, with blood on his hands, when police arrived. At Bridgewater State Hospital prior to his sentencing, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, according to court records, which has symptoms including mania, hallucinations, and depression.
About five years after first approving Dacier for release, the parole board hired Kinscherff to examine him and figure out a solution. Kinscherff submitted a six-page report on Dacier in 2015, noting that the then-58-year-old had been abusing cocaine in the period leading up to his sister’s murder, but that his mental health had stabilized with counseling and medication including Prozac and Risperdal. He also said Dacier could be released through a transitional program from a minimum security prison to the community, with “ongoing access to psychiatric services.” But in 2017, the parole board again rejected Dacier’s release, saying he had “unresolved anger issues.” The board recommended he appeal the Department of Mental Health’s decision not to take him.
Dacier did appeal, but was again rejected for placement. Department of Mental Health officials declined to comment on Dacier’s case, but did say that being placed in a secure facility requires that a patient “has a mental illness and presents a danger to himself or others” —suggesting Dacier does not present such a risk. Dacier took his case to Suffolk County Superior Court, claiming the parole board’s decision was arbitrary and discriminated against him because of his disability. Last September, Superior Court Justice Rosemary Connolly agreed, finding the board cited “anger issues” to justify keeping him in prison after its earlier positive vote. She found the board was not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act and sent Dacier’s case back to the parole board for review.
That Dacier remained in prison five years after his report dismays Kinscherff, who says, “I can’t find any rational basis for maintaining him in prison.‘’
Dacier finally got his review in January. He sat in front of the parole board, hands shackled, flanked by two volunteer student lawyers from Harvard. Charlene Bonner, a psychologist who has been on the parole board since 2011, led the questioning. She said she would like to see him safely released but wanted him to know the challenges board members face. “We see people who have failed and have done some really bad things,” she told Dacier. “And some of those people, it was because they stopped taking their medication, they relapsed on substances.”
A prosecutor from the Middlesex district attorney’s office opposed Dacier’s parole, citing the murder and his mental illness. Dacier’s sister-in-law Karen, the person he called after the murder, wasn’t able to make the January hearing. But in a phone interview, she said Dacier has succeeded in prison because of the structure. “I would be horrified and terrified” if he were released, she said.
During the hearing, Dacier told the board’s members about his work in therapy and his remorse for killing his sister. “We can never, never, never minimize my crime,” he said. “Never.”
He said he reads the Bible and attends religious services, and exercises as much as he can. He concluded by asking the board to consider not just what he did 25 years ago, but who he is now. “I never want to feel that kind of anger again,” he said.
At the end of the roughly 2½ hour hearing, Dacier stood up and was escorted out of the hearing room and back to prison to wait.
The parole board’s glacial process for prisoners such as Dacier is visible because people serving life sentences have public, recorded parole hearings. They are also allowed legal representation. It is difficult to tell how the process works for the rest of the prison population because all the other parole hearings are held in private, with only certain prisoners allowed an attorney.
When prisoners do receive parole, it’s not a lasting get-out-of-jail-free card. Instead, advocates say it’s closer to a revolving door. Just under a quarter of state prisoners on parole in Massachusetts are reincarcerated within the first year, not because they committed a new crime, but because they violated a condition of their parole, according to a 2018 report.
Indeed, so-called technical violations were the reason cited for revoking parole in nearly 90 percent of cases in Massachusetts in 2018, according to the most recent state statistics available.
Parolees returned to prison have been cited for failing to pay supervision fees — parolees must pay the state $80 a month to cover costs — or for smoking marijuana, failing to find work, drinking a glass of wine, and protesting outside a prison, state records show.
In June, a Massachusetts appeals court judge detailed the case of a parolee returned to prison in 2019 for using a smartphone — although phone usage had nothing to do with his original crime. He’s awaiting a new hearing in front of the board this summer. A Randolph man was returned to prison for nearly two years for making a phone call to someone with a criminal record and drinking a glass of wine.
Each year, thousands of Massachusetts prisoners waive or postpone their right to a parole hearing. Jorge Renaud, an ex-convict who is now a prison reform advocate, says many prisoners would rather spend their sentences in jail than pay the state $80 a month to be supervised by an armed parole officer with wide discretion about their lifestyle. In 2016, a federally funded study found nearly half of parole-eligible people in Massachusetts either waive or postpone their hearings, partly because they don’t want to be subjected to parole conditions. “They know that if you get out on parole in Massachusetts, there’s a good chance you are going to come back,” Renaud says.
Parole board members also declined to discuss the topic of revocations, though officials said these usually occur after multiple violations and increased supervision. Wark, the state spokesman, in a statement said that “the board sets reasonable conditions that promote successful reentry, to the benefit of the parolee and the community.”
But prisoners’ advocates say the Massachusetts parole system suffers from a “trail ‘em, nail ‘em, and jail ‘em” culture, focusing on snaring individuals for minor missteps. “They didn’t commit a new offense. Most of them didn’t even do anything serious,” said attorney Patricia Garin at a panel discussion on the parole system’s problems that was held at the Massachusetts State House in January. The briefing cited revocations, long delays, and lack of accommodations for people with disabilities among its problems. Garin runs a law clinic at Northeastern University that helps prisoners and parolees in front of the board. “It’s counter to what parole is supposed to be about. Massachusetts over-supervises people,” she says.
Nationally, public policy specialists and some states are reexamining conditions of supervision for parole and probation, concerned that too many people are being unnecessarily funneled back to prison. Across the country, 4.5 million people are living under community supervision, twice the population of people incarcerated in federal and state prisons and local jails, according to a 2018 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project. That project’s director, Jake Horowitz, says the system’s failures hurt taxpayers as well as parolees, because supervising someone on the outside costs a fraction of keeping them in prison.
“When supervision fails, it goes from relatively cheap to really expensive in a hurry,” Horowitz says. “If we can get that supervision right, we can have fewer people on it, we can have more successful completion of it, and we’ll have fewer people returning to incarceration.”
The Massachusetts parole system has largely escaped efforts at reform despite longtime concerns about problems. Nearly two decades ago, the Boston Bar Association submitted a report recommending that the state diversify the professional backgrounds of parole board members, which is dominated by law enforcement specialists. It still is, although legislation has been filed to diversify it, ideally adding people with backgrounds in substance abuse counseling and psychology. Meanwhile, the parole board has essentially abdicated its role as a corrective body for overly harsh sentences. Through June, it has not held a hearing on a sentence commutation since 2015, state officials confirmed in response to a public records request. This is despite the dozens of prisoners who have requested such re-consideration.
Katy Naples-Mitchell, a legal fellow with the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School, says problems with the parole board, and oversight from the governor, are “antithetical to public health, community safety, good governance, and second chances.” She says this is particularly troubling for people of color who disproportionately populate the system.
“The failure to hold commutation hearings for hundreds of pending petitions is a dereliction of duty,” she says, “and one of many ways in which the parole board actively perpetuates structural racism.”
Despite ongoing issues, the parole system was largely left out of the 2018 omnibus criminal justice bill, which prompted a coalition of prisoners’ advocates, associations, and attorneys to send a letter to Baker urging reform that year. Disparate groups, including the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health and the Muslim Justice League, cited “dismal parole rates,” “extraordinary long” wait times for decisions, and “onerous and demeaning” treatment of parolees by supervising officers.
In 2019, the Massachusetts Parole Board received an “F” grade from the Prison Policy Initiative, a Northampton-based nonprofit. While many states received failing grades, Renaud, who authored the study, says, Massachusetts “is one of the worst” systems in the country in certain areas, including the number of parolees returned for technical violations. Renaud was on parole in Texas when he went to work for the Prison Policy Initiative. He was transferred to the Massachusetts parole system, which he found far more restrictive. Unlike in Texas, he was required to wear a GPS monitor — some 40 percent of parolees in Massachusetts are required to wear them — and was prohibited from associating with people with criminal records, essentially preventing him from doing his job. Renaud, who now works in Texas for the nonprofit LatinoJustice PRLDEF, wrote a blog about the experience, titled “Why did they shackle me? Because they could.”
Consider the case of Kent Tyler, who was returned to prison for nearly two years for making a phone call and drinking a glass of wine.
Tyler had been released from state prison under community supervision in 2014, and was living with his wife, Holly, in their Randolph home. He was working as a warehouse supervisor and gave a 2 a.m. wake-up call to an employee. But that employee also had a criminal record, and the parole board forbids most contact between parolees and former prisoners. When Tyler got a call soon after from his parole officer, instructing him to come to his office, he felt like his life was imploding. He knew what that kind of call meant — a direct ride back to prison. So he drank a glass of wine to calm his nerves. But drinking alcohol also violates parole.
As he feared, Tyler was reincarcerated. Nearly 18 months later, in late January, Tyler sat in front of the parole board in a Natick hearing room, dressed in a dark turtleneck and blue-and-white sweater, his hands shackled, next to a student attorney. He apologized to the friends and family of Donald Anderson, a Boston store owner who was killed in a 1975 robbery, as he and another man wrestled with Anderson over a gun. “His death happened because of my actions,” Tyler said, according to a video of the proceedings. Tyler also apologized to the parole board and his family for letting them down again. (Tyler declined to comment for this story through his attorneys.)
Tyler’s wife, Holly, told the board that her husband is loved and missed in the community and by his family. His absence also is costing them — his salary helped pay the bills. “He’s needed home,” she says. “That’s all I could say, he’s truly needed home.”
Tyler had been here before. He was first paroled in 1990 and was jailed again three times for parole violations, state records show. He told the board that since his last revocation in 2013, he’d participated in counseling and was confident he would succeed on the outside. Back at home, he believed things were going well — he had a good job and the support of his wife, adult children, and his ailing mother. He didn’t worry about the phone call to an employee, also a parolee, because it was job related, he told the board.
“I thought because of the rule, if it is concerning work or a meeting, that was OK,” Tyler said, referring to an exception in parole rules permitting parolees to have “incidental” contact with other people with criminal records for reasons such as employment. “I didn’t know I was out of bounds.”
“It’s not part of your job description, is it, to call people and be their alarm clock?” asked Karen McCarthy, a former Springfield prosecutor who is now a parole board member. She questioned whether Tyler had a broader relationship with the other parolee, whom he had known in prison.
Another board member said if he had been honest about the call, before the glass of wine, he likely wouldn’t have been brought back.
Board member Charlene Bonner, a psychologist first appointed in 2011, said his current mistakes don’t seem so bad, but in the context of past violations are more problematic. “I think it’s sad that you have been back for 18 months for this,” she said, referring to the phone call and the glass of wine. “I think that you would benefit from getting some help on how to resolve conflicts, instead of reacting to this fear that authority is going to be unfair to you.”
Stories of parolees returned to prison for what appear to be minor technical violations are plentiful.
Bruce Wilborn was paroled in 2009, after suing the parole board over claims it discriminated against him for being homosexual. He was sent back to prison 10 months later, for maintaining a romantic relationship with someone in prison, state records show. Wilborn was cited for working with the prisoner’s father to get the prisoner a computer, so Wilborn could communicate with him privately. But parole board members suspected him of trying to help the inmate escape. Wilborn is still in prison, even though he told the parole board in 2018 that he would no longer prioritize “romantic relationships” over his well-being.
Gregory Diatchenko’s parole violations included attending a 2018 protest outside a state prison (parolees cannot “visit” prisons). He also drank, smoked marijuana — twice — and lied to his parole officer about his romantic relationships, because he was afraid state involvement could damage his connections, state records show.
Diatchenko was originally imprisoned for committing a murder when he was a juvenile, a case that became the basis for the state’s Supreme Judicial Court declaring mandatory life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional in 2013. He was released on parole in 2015, before he was put back behind bars in 2018, mostly due to protesting and drinking. Last year, Diatchenko went back in front of the parole board in a hearing packed with supporters. He apologized for his mistakes, saying he hadn’t understood that protesting outside a prison counted as visiting. He also said he would continue a 12-step program for alcohol addiction, according to state records. In May 2020, the parole board voted to keep the 56-year-old behind bars for at least two more years, at the medium security prison in Shirley, one of the local prisons with the largest outbreaks of COVID-19.
Some parolees have been returned for alleged crimes even when found innocent in a court of law. That’s what happened to Donald Perry, who was charged with receiving stolen property while on parole in 2011, and found not guilty. But the parole board refused to accept the verdict, claiming Perry had lied at the trial, and revoked his parole. Perry has maintained his innocence. Two years later, the board decided to release him, citing overwhelming community support, including a petition signed by 142,000 people.
Perry, now 66, was later released from parole entirely by a Superior Court judge, who cited his exemplary work for the community. Since then, he has been lobbying for reforms, including pushing the state to terminate parole for people who have been on supervision for decades without incident. The state has released only two people from long-term supervision since 2015, according to parole records. They include one former parolee who spent nearly 22 years on parole and another who lived under state watch for nearly 40 years. In the same period, the board has rejected 23 other requests. Parole is often traumatizing, Perry says. “Being on parole in Massachusetts is like being in a fun house,” he says. “You never know where the trapdoor or the smoke and mirrors are.”
An increasing number of studies question whether putting parolees back in jail for minor violations is effective. Of note is the practice of making it a violation to have contact with other parolees. But people who have spent a long time behind bars may have no other social structure, says Kelly Mitchell, executive director of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice in Minneapolis. “Conditions like that can actually sever the social supports that people need to be successful.” An effective parole board would try to work with parolees to overcome problems, she says. A failed drug test could prompt treatment rather than a return to prison, for instance.
The parole board declined to comment on whether it might consider revising its conditions for release. For the moment, COVID-19 may be the most effective change agent the Massachusetts Parole Board has encountered. As the virus swept through state prisons and jails this spring, the parole board expedited decisions for certain cases.
One of these was likely Kent Tyler’s. In May, five months after his hearing, the board ruled in Tyler’s favor and he was released within two weeks, state records show. But he was given stringent new conditions requiring him to attend a 12-step program three times a week, stay away from the parolee he called on the phone, and wear a GPS monitor if required by his parole officer. The next month, the board granted Gregory Diatchenko’s appeal, provided he go to a long-term treatment program for alcoholism.
And in early June, surprising even his attorney, the parole board told Dacier he was finally free to leave prison; he would be heading to a private nonprofit mental health care facility in Turners Falls.
“It’s real progress,” says Thompson, his attorney. “It’s well deserved.” Now he hopes this change, years coming, has broader implications for the way the parole board will act going forward. “It changes a lot as to Wilfred Dacier,” he says, “but remains to be seen about other candidates.”
Jenifer McKim is a senior investigative reporter with the WGBH News Center for Investigative Reporting. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Former Globe reporter Maria Cramer contributed to this report, in addition to journalism students from Boston University and Center interns including Keminni Amanor, Ashley Belanger, Sophia Brown, Anoushka Dalmia, Caitlin Faulds, Angela Fu, Mikayla Heiss, Eleanor Ho, Sirun Li, Elias Miller, Lena Novins-Montague, Samantha Purcell, Anna Stjernquist, Katharine Swindells, and Matteo Venieri.