Prisoner kept beyond term, despite state's vow to change
|Mark Taylor was held in prison beyond|
his release date.
By David Abel | GLOBE STAFF | January 29, 2009
Mark Taylor knew something was wrong.
In the fall of 2006, halfway into a five-year sentence at the Massachusetts Treatment Center, the inmate asked prison officials why he was not accruing time off his term for good behavior. An official in the records division responded in writing, erroneously telling Taylor that he was not eligible because he was a habitual offender.
One afternoon last month prison officials realized the mistake and abruptly told Taylor he was leaving, more than seven months after he should have been released, even though he had nowhere to go. An officer then took Taylor, who has a history of drug problems, to a homeless shelter in Worcester, where he said he spent a long night watching other men smoke crack and shoot heroin.
"I couldn't believe what was happening," said Taylor, now 47, who had been imprisoned for assaulting a friend while they were high on cocaine. "They gave me no warning and no choice. When I asked to make a call, they said it would have to be collect. They just gave me a few trash bags to gather my stuff, but I couldn't take everything. Then I was rushed out."
The error occurred more than 18 months after the Globe reported that the state Department of Correction confined at least 14 inmates beyond their release dates. Department officials subsequently vowed to make sweeping changes to their system for calculating sentences.
Last summer, the department paid a $100,000 settlement to Rommel Jones, a mentally ill inmate who spent more than four years in prison after he should have been released.
Now Taylor is threatening to sue the state for depriving him of his freedom by failing to take into account 217 days he earned for participating in rehabilitation programs, a miscalculation that raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the department's new system.
Correction officials insist their new system worked as designed. They have yet to issue an apology to Taylor, a schizophrenic who is temporarily staying with a cousin while he awaits a bed at a Department of Mental Health facility.
"It was a serious mistake that was made, and it was quite unfortunate, but the system worked," said Commissioner Harold W. Clarke of the Department of Correction, adding that he knows of no other inmates held beyond their release dates, other than those reported two years ago.
"I say the system didn't fail, because it caught the mistake," Clarke said. "It was an official at the facility who made the mistake. She just misunderstood the rules. After she sent the information, the mistake was discovered."
Asked whether the records official had been fired or demoted because of the error, which was discovered Dec. 4, Clarke declined to discuss "personnel issues."
But he said the official has since received new training. "Her supervisor went over appropriate practices," he said. "She now knows that [habitual offenders] are allowed to earn good-time credits."
Neither Taylor nor his lawyer - James R. Pingeon, director of litigation for Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services - was satisfied with the department's explanation.
Pingeon argued that the state made the same mistakes as it did with Rommel Jones, whom he also represented, and that Taylor's case demonstrates the department's promises to fix the system were hollow.
"It's absurd for them to say the new system didn't fail, when it was supposed to ensure that no one is held beyond their proper release date," Pingeon said. "That obviously didn't happen. The system is all of its parts. ... It sounds like the commissioner is trying to make excuses for the incompetence of his staff and trying to avoid addressing a very serious, systemic problem. It's just pathetic."
The department redesigned the system to centralize in one facility the sometimes complex calculation of inmate sentences, rather than having each prison calculate them separately. The complicated formulas include statutory good time, which can reduce a maximum sentence by up to 40 percent for those who committed crimes before July 1, 1994. There is also earned good time, which Taylor should have received, that allows inmates to receive 7.5 days a month off their sentences for taking part in work, programs, or educational activities.
"What I find appalling is that in 2007 the Department of Correction said they were going to change the system, but they keep making the same errors," said Pingeon. "Sure, there was human error, but they were supposed to develop a system that would protect against human error and poorly trained people at the institutions. There's a combination of arrogance and incompetence, and it makes them extremely resistant to reform."
Department officials said that they were doing the best they can and that no system can be foolproof, particularly against human error. They said a new date computation unit has been reviewing sentences of all male inmates in state custody since February and all female inmates since September. But to date, the department has only reviewed the cases of about 3,000 of 11,500 inmates in state custody.
"This review encompasses several elements to include the validation of existing release dates, statutory requirements, verification of jail credits, statutory good time when applicable, and earned good time," Diane Wiffin, a spokeswoman for the Department of Correction, said in an e-mail. "This review covers the inmate's entire incarceration."
Wiffin blamed the slow pace on reviews that can take several hours, varying formulas, the need to train staff, and a new computer system that requires "a lot of tweaking."
"The review is very time consuming, as it entails a great deal more than just the main elements I listed," Wiffin said.
Despite all the changes, the system still relies on prisons to compile sentencing information about inmates and, for all the inmates whose cases have yet to be reviewed, does not verify their discharge dates until 60 days before their scheduled release.
That is why, in Taylor's case, they did not discover the mistake with his release date - originally set for Jan. 14 without any time off for good behavior - until last month.
On the day of his release, Taylor said, he was flustered.
He kept telling prison officials that there must have been a mistake, that he would need time to arrange somewhere to stay. He also wanted to take his possessions - including a 13-inch television set, a Super 3-channel radio, a stack of self-help books, several pairs of sneakers, all his clothing - but he had no way to carry everything on his own.
As he waits for a more permanent home and looks for work, Taylor said he expects to be compensated for the time he lost.
"At the least, I want some kind of apology," he said. "A sorry would be nice, and whatever else goes along with that."
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org