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Class Action Lawsuit Alleges Mental Health Discrimination by Mass. Parole Board

By Tom Marino | August 4, 2023
Last Updated: September 30, 2023
Massachusetts Parole Board hearing room

BOSTON – A new lawsuit claims the Massachusetts Parole Board consistently denies equal access to parole to incarcerated people with disabilities. The Parole Board allegedly systematically deprives individuals with mental health disabilities of the opportunity to effectively present their case for parole.

Three plaintiffs, all identified as John Doe, are named as plaintiffs. The complaint also seeks to establish class-action status on behalf of incarcerated individuals in Massachusetts “with mental health conditions, cognitive challenges, and other mental disabilities.”

The complaint, filed in June in Suffolk County Superior Court, claims that parole in Massachusetts is “significantly diminished or denied entirely,” due to the Parole Board’s “ongoing failure to provide the accommodations necessary to ensure meaningful access to the parole process and fair consideration for parole by the Board.”

Title Two of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “and parallel state provisions prohibit the Defendant from engaging in practices that effectively deny equal access to parole to incarcerated people with disabilities,” according to the complaint.

It also claims the Parole Board defies a 2017 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decision in Crowell vs. Massachusetts Parole Board. According to the Harvard Law Review, the SJC ruled in Crowell that “that the ADA requires that the Parole Board (the Board) reasonably modify its policies to accommodate incarcerated persons with disabilities.”

The complaint says the Parole Board maintains its discriminatory policies and practices in at least 12 ways the Parole Board fails to comply with or is inadequate in its responsibilities under ADA and Crowell, which include:

  • Failed to establishing procedures to screen for mental disabilities;
  • Failed to identify and making available reasonable accommodations;
  • Assigning counsel in a timely manner, or at all;
  • Unfairly penalizing parole candidates for conduct, appearance, and/or presentation caused by their disability during parole hearings;
  • Failed to provide assistance in developing a release plan and identifying post-release programming before a parole hearing;
  • Failed to ensure professional evaluation of mental conditions;
  • Failed to consider how mental disabilities can affect a candidate’s conduct, disciplinary history, and/or ability to access prison programming, work, or educational opportunities during incarceration;
  • Failed to consider how a candidate’s disability could affect behavior during parole hearings (which can last three hours) and on parole;
  • Failed to coordinate with the Department of Corrections to ensure access to rehabilitative and educational programs the Board may determine are needed;
  • Failed to coordinate with Departments of Mental Health, Public Health, and Developmental Services to ensure candidates qualified for parole with specific services do not remain incarcerated because services are not available or available but not offered (due to the Board’s failure to coordinate); and
  • Failed to consider the availability of “risk reduction programs designed to reduce recidivism” that could allow the parole candidate with mental disabilities to safely reenter the community, as the SJC required in Crowell.

The three plaintiffs in the case are

  • A 58-year-old man incarcerated for 38 years who has been eligible for parole since 2004;
  • A 42-year-old man incarcerated for 22 year and eligible for parole since 2016; and
  • A 65-year-old man incarcerated for 43 years an eligible for parole since 2004.

This is the second time since December 2021 the Parole Board has been accused of violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On December 17, 2021, the U.S. Attorney’s office for the District of Massachusetts announced a settlement with the Massachusetts Parole Board. The Department of Justice alleged that the Parole Board discriminated against parolees and prospective parolees with Opioid Abuse Disorder by requiring they take the prescription drug Vivitrol, the brand name for Naltrexone manufactured by Alkermes, instead of requiring they comply with their health care provider’s recommended treatment. The Parole Board was not required to take responsibility or admit wrongdoing in the settlement, but was required to write and implement a new policy under monitoring by the Department of Justice.

 

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