Ex-Massachusetts House Speaker Sal DiMasi decries ‘cruel and inhumane’ treatment of cancer patients in prison

"Somebody died every other day. They were dropping in the hallways. They were dying in their beds."

Sal DiMasi arrives at Logan Airport on Nov. 22, 2016.
Sal DiMasi arrives at Logan airport on Nov. 22, 2016. –Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe

Former Massachusetts House Speaker Sal DiMasi, released from prison after serving five years of an eight-year sentence on federal corruption charges, is speaking out against how cancer patients like himself are treated while behind bars.

The Democrat has lambasted the Federal Bureau of Prisons about the quality of care for prisoners fighting the disease, most recently telling a WBUR reporter — during a segment that aired Monday — that he witnessed “cruel and inhumane treatment.”

“It was a fight for my life,” said DiMasi, 73, who was released in 2016 after being granted a “compassionate” release so he could receive medical attention. “It was the scariest fight I’ve ever been in.”

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DiMasi, convicted of federal corruption charges in 2011, was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer only weeks after arriving for his sentence in November of that year. He is now in remission for both throat and prostate cancer and said he received treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Speaking to WBUR’s Deborah Becker alongside his wife, Debbie, DiMasi said both he and his wife constantly asked prison staff about his cancer treatment with questions that went unanswered and phone calls unreturned.

He got pneumonia three times while receiving chemotherapy, he said.

“At just at that point in time, I thought this was the end for me because in the unit I was in there was about 200 cancer patients and somebody died every other day,” DiMasi said. “They were dropping in the hallways. They were dying in their beds. It was just disgusting the way they were ignored. I didn’t understand where I was. I didn’t understand what country I was in. I didn’t understand how you could be so cruel.”

DiMasi, who resigned in 2009, was convicted of using his office to direct $17.5 million in state contracts to a Burlington software company in exchange for $65,000 in payments.

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He was granted compassionate release two years ago — a rarity in the prison system — after his lawyers and family argued that his throat cancer required him to have constant supervision while he was eating and drinking due to a heightened risk of choking.

DiMasi said he’s tried to put his conviction behind him. In an interview on WGBH earlier this month, he said he would rather not talk about it when asked whether he thought he broke the law.

In response to the notion that his connections and powerful stature in the state could have played a role in his release, DiMasi told Becker what he received was “deserving under the rules, the regulation, and under the laws.”

“The problem is that when you try to get the (Bureau of Prisons) or the Justice Department to process for other people — which I did, I helped them write their requests — it’s disgusting the way they refused them on such flimsy things and they try to obfuscate the whole process,” he said. “When I got compassionate release, you’d think some of the other ones would say, ‘Well, I didn’t get it because you were… ‘ Many of them said, ‘I’m glad you did, because you have a voice. Don’t forget us.'”

In a statement, the Federal Bureau of Prisons told WBUR the department “provides medical services to all inmates in a manner consistent with accepted community standards for a correctional environment,” Becker wrote.

DiMasi’s recent headlines and tough words on the prison system come after he made a return visit to the State House earlier this month, where he was met with a round of applause from lawmakers.

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DiMasi admitted in the WBUR interview that he was “anxious a little going back.” He also said he does not think his legacy has yet been sealed.

“My saying was that, you know, ‘You could try and taint the good-deed doer, but you can’t taint the good deed, and the good deeds will always survive.’ And that will be my legacy,” said DiMasi, who played a key role in establishing the Massachusetts health care law. “But my legacy’s not over. I think I can help these people that are suffering in prison, and we can have more compassionate release, that we can have more compassion in the system. So I can still be productive I think.”

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