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 The parole board, though, rescinded its decision to grant Dacier parole, worried about where he could go.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 U.S. attorney’s office, according to interviews and documents obtained by the WGBH News Center for Investigative Reporting. The U.S. 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 said. “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 Gov. 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-Gov. 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 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.
The Mental Illness Challenge
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 said.
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.” The parole board notified Crowell last week that he has been approved 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’ 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 said. “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 said, “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.