Eleven months ago when Glenn Christie arrived in prison, he could walk. Now, he’s in a wheelchair.
On April 29, 2019, Christie was sentenced to one to two years in prison for violating his probation. He’s currently incarcerated in the Massachusetts Treatment Center, and will complete the minimum term of his sentence in about a month, according to his lawyer, David Rangaviz.
But with the exponential spread of COVID-19, Rangaviz says Christie, who suffers from several medical conditions, must be released immediately. As of March 17, 218 people in Massachusetts have been diagnosed with COVID-19, up from three almost two weeks ago.
Christie suffers from kidney disease and thyroid conditions, as well as worsening spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spinal column. He is awaiting a body scan to see if his thyroid cancer has returned, as well as surgery to address his spinal stenosis so he can walk again, according to court filings.
Yesterday, Rangaviz, a staff attorney with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, filed an emergency petition with the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County, requesting a hearing on the motion and Christie’s release, at minimum temporarily.
“A serious threat of contracting a severe, life-threatening illness was not part of the sentence that was imposed by this Court,” wrote Rangaviz to the court. “COVID-19 poses a deadly threat to Mr. Christie’s life, and every day of delay the threat of transmission increases.”
This morning, his requests for a hearing and release were denied in a four sentence judgement. Rangaviz refiled in the Superior Court, and is awaiting a decision.
“The Massachusetts Probation Service (MPS) has not made any determination with regard to this specific case and, as a policy, MPS does not take a public position on matters pending before the courts,” Sarah Joss, general counsel for the Massachusetts Probation Service, told The Appeal in an email. “Determinations regarding release are made by the courts.”
Nationwide, close to 150,000 people were sent to state prison in 2017 as a result of technical probation or parole violations, such as missing a meeting with a probation officer, according to a report published last year by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
In Christie’s case, he was accused of three violations: missing a meeting with his probation officer, being temporarily suspended from his sex offender treatment program, and failing to comply with GPS monitoring. At the time, Christie was serving probation for statutory rape, and indecent assault and battery on a minor under 14 years of age. He had been released in 2018, after serving six years in prison.
While he did miss a meeting with his probation officer, it was because he had been hospitalized two days earlier after becoming unconscious. After his release, he was still ill, according to Rangaviz’s court filings. On the morning of his meeting, he called to report that he could not attend. The Appeal reviewed documentation of his hospitalization and calls.
He was suspended from a mandated treatment program for less than a month because he missed meetings and could not pay the fees, according to Rangaviz; by the time he came to court for the alleged violations, he had returned to treatment. Finally, on March 16, 2019, the strap on Christie’s GPS monitor broke. The electronic monitoring service told him to get it fixed in court, which he did, according to his attorney.
In Massachusetts, schools are closed, gatherings of over 25 people are banned, and dining in a restaurant or bar is prohibited. Governments from around the world have taken similar, and sometimes more severe, steps in an effort to slow the virus’s spread. But those in prisons have largely been left to live in precisely the conditions that can lead to an outbreak: thousands of people in close quarters, with limited, if any, access to hygiene products.
Attorneys, formerly incarcerated people, and activists have demanded the release of vulnerable people and those charged or convicted of minor offenses. On March 12, Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts sent a letter to the Department of Correction, Governor Charles Baker, the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office, and the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security urging the department of correction commissioner to “approve as many eligible people as possible for release on medical parole or temporary furlough for those who are particularly vulnerable such as pregnant people.”
Similar efforts are occurring in Indiana, California, and New York.
“Our clients’ rights to due process includes the right to health and personal safety,” said Lorraine McEvilley, director of the Parole Revocation Defense Unit at The Legal Aid Society in New York, in a statement. “We demand the immediate release of all New Yorkers held on parole violations at Rikers Island and that DOCCS [Department of Corrections and Community Supervision] suspend all hearings at once to install video conferencing technology. Until this is done, people’s lives will continue to be at risk.”
A memo issued yesterday and posted to the state correctional officers’ union website compounded concerns about prisoners’ safety. It said that a moratorium had been imposed on staff discipline and staff serving suspensions. “Any situations that are of an egregious nature and require immediate action will be handled on a case by case basis,” wrote Michael Grant, deputy commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Correction.
“Advocates in our line of work know all too well that abuses by correctional staff are not uncommon, so too is the lack of serious disciplinary oversight,” Meredith Shih, clinical instructor at Harvard Law’s Criminal Justice Institute, wrote in an email to The Appeal. “We all fear that incarcerated people will suffer most in this crisis, because they are often the most neglected in society already.”
The Massachusetts Department of Correction rescinded the “unauthorized” memo Wednesday. “I would like to convey explicitly to all personnel that the Department of Correction’s disciplinary policy has not changed and that standard operating procedure will continue,” Commissioner of Correction Carol Mici wrote.
This story has been updated to reflect that the memo suspending staff discipline was rescinded.