Michael Cox had a flare-up of gout after he caught COVID-19 in prison for the second time. The inflammation and pain confined him to a wheelchair and forced him to rely on certified nursing aides to move around, shower and use the bathroom.

Depending on CNAs came hard to him. Being strong was an important coping skill he’d developed as a little boy living in an abusive home. He’d told himself growing up that he’d never be a victim. Now he needed someone to step up for him.

Cox had been a CNA himself for about a year over the nearly 30 years he’s spent in prison, helping incarcerated patients bathe themselves, feeding them and listening to their stories. He credits that time with helping him understand the value of human life, a noteworthy development in someone who took the lives of two people three decades ago.

“Being a CNA helped me change my life to even feel human, being a part of something in here, because a lot of people consider us like cast-offs, the bottom of the barrel, no good,” Cox said on a phone call from MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution.

Cox could be the first person the Board of Pardons and Paroles grants a commutation since 2019. The board received 22 completed applications in its first open application period since revamping the commutation program, said Richard Sparaco, the BOPP’s executive director. Of those, six were advanced to a 10-minute pre-screen hearing on Sept. 14, during which all but Cox’s application were deemed unsuitable. Board members will consider whether to commute Cox’s sentence during a virtual hearing on Nov. 19. They are currently accepting new applications for another pre-screen hearing on Nov. 10. They will consider the suitable applicants in a full hearing in January.

The five applicants who were weeded out were between the ages of 54 and 70, all serving sentences for murder or manslaughter, according to documents obtained by the CT Mirror. Each of them has been in prison for decades; William Toste, the oldest among them, is more than 40 years into a life sentence for murder.

The overall number of applicants was low, considering the board crunched numbers in the spring and determined there are 1,073 people in prison — about 20% of those currently serving a sentence — who are sentenced to more than a decade behind bars, have already spent at least 10 years in prison and who are not eligible for parole within the next two years, all of which fit under the commutation eligibility criteria created by the board, said Sparaco.

“I’m glad we didn’t get a rush of applications, because we were able to manage these no problem,” Sparaco said. “But I still am expecting that we may get a lot more once this starts to catch on.”

Cox, as potentially the first person to be granted a commutation under the new policy, is set to become its example, at least until the board grants someone else a commutation, potentially as early as January. But, considering his medical conditions, his case could also wind up speaking to an aspect of the existing statute that lawmakers tried to fix during the last legislative session.

Working around a narrow law

Cox, 49, has a slew of medical issues. He has chronic renal failure, anemia, diabetes and a low red blood cell count. He is on dialysis. He suffers from gout. The combination of ailments requires him to use a walker or wheelchair to get around. A mitigation specialist wrote in a document dated July 7, 2020, that the Department of Correction classified Cox as having a medical score of 5, needing 24-hour nursing care for an extended period of time.

“Mr. Cox requires a chronic and convalescent nursing home with an indefinite length of stay,” Jozlyn Hall wrote. “Due to his end stage renal failure and the physical limitations that accompany, Mr. Cox is at a greatly reduced risk of recidivism.”

Cox is serving a 75-year sentence. “Over the past three decades I have struggled with the damage caused by my impulsiveness and the pain and sorrow inflicted on the victims of my crimes; their family and our community, as well as my own family and society in general. I realize now the magnitude of one person’s behavior and the effect it can have on so many others,” he said in his commutation application.

Because Cox is serving time for murder, he is not eligible for most forms of early release. Unless the Department of Correction sends him to a halfway house sometime toward the tail end of his sentence, he wouldn’t get out until 2055, when he’s 83 years old.

Issuing a commutation is complicated once you delve into sentence structures, said Sparaco. For one, the board cannot make someone eligible for parole — meaning release them to serve the rest of their sentence under supervision in the community —  if their original sentence makes them ineligible. But they could commute a person’s sentence — meaning shorten it— allowing the Department of Correction to place the individual in a halfway house so they get some community supervision after they get out of prison, or they could cut a sentence short enough that the person simply goes home.

Another option: cutting Cox’s sentence short enough that he qualifies for compassionate parole, a form of release with narrow rules for eligibility. To qualify for compassionate release, incarcerated people must have served half their sentence and be so physically or mentally debilitated because of their age or medical condition that they are physically incapable of presenting a danger to society. Given that Cox is about 30 years into a 75-year sentence, he is not yet eligible for compassionate release.

“He would be eligible for compassionate parole after serving 50% of his time,” Sparaco said. “So if you, if you change the 75 years and reduce that down, then the total of 50% comes down as well. So although he’s not eligible for regular discretionary parole, he would be eligible for compassionate parole, if we changed the total time he has to serve, to make him eligible earlier.”

That the board could use its first commutation in two years as a workaround of a narrow statute on eligibility for compassionate release speaks to the need for legislators to pass a new law, said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven. As the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, Winfield pushed lawmakers in the last legislative session to pass a bill that would have made it easier for sick incarcerated people to obtain compassionate release. The bill passed in the Senate but never got a vote in the House.

“That was the very purpose of trying to come up with a workable statute,” said Winfield, who has promised to raise the bill again in future sessions.

Alex Taubes, Cox’s attorney, said Cox is so sick he’s incapable of posing a danger to society. His body is deteriorating.

“We shouldn’t have to spend millions of dollars just so this guy, of all people, has to be one who dies in jail,” said Taubes.

That said, Cox and his lawyer are hoping Cox’s sentence is shortened so he can just go home, not be released to supervision.

“If you think about it, it’s kind of absurd for the parole board to say, ‘Let’s take off time so later we can consider whether to take off more time.’ They’d just be creating more work for themselves,” said Taubes.

“I just hope that they can see me for me, and just not see sickness and disease,” Cox said. “I want everybody to see a human being that made a mistake and that turned around and redeemed himself.”

A moment of anger, a lifetime of pain

Cox is serving a 75-year sentence for a string of violent crimes he committed in 1991. On Sept. 5, he shot a man named Lucky Rise in the leg during an argument. Less than two weeks later, while stealing a gold chain from Earnest Kinlaw, he shot him in the head, killing him.

On Nov. 29, Cox fatally shot Asvoldo Bergos in the stomach. The next day, he gave his friend Frank Pew a gun after Pew told him about a dispute he’d had with a man named Frank Martin. Cox then went with Pew to Martin’s home, knocked on the door and asked for Martin. Pew shot and killed Martin using the gun Cox gave him.

Cox received a 75-year sentence after he pleaded guilty to murder, felony murder, aiding and abetting manslaughter, and second-degree assault with a firearm.

“Over the past three decades, I have struggled with the damage caused by my impulsiveness and the pain and sorrow inflicted on the victims of my crimes; their family and our community, as well as my own family and society in general,” Cox wrote in his 256-page commutation application. “The pain and regret have been a driving force for me to want to do better. I was a boy who grew up in the penal system and developed into a man with a goal to succeed.”

Cox turned to the courts several times in an effort to shorten his sentence. A 2001 opinion by Superior Court judges states that “some individuals are simply too dangerous to live freely in society.” The judges noted that Cox had three previous felonies and had in the past violated his probation. Considering that Cox was involved in the violent deaths of three people and the wounding of another, incarceration was a necessary response, they said.

“When dealing with a sentence designed to protect society, the merit of a longer rather than a shorter sentence is apparent,” the judges wrote. “The petitioner’s long term imprisonment is neither inappropriate nor disproportionate but rather mandated by reason, logic and common sense.”

Stephanie Hyman holds a photo of her son Michael Cox. Hyman said as a mother she has a sense of failure about his imprisonment. “I’m wondering what I could have done differently,” she said. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Cox said he was shot on two separate occasions in the year before he got locked up. He was shot in the leg in New Haven in the summer. In the fall, he was shot in the back with a shotgun. In his 19th year, the same year he would ultimately end up in prison, Cox said he was shot in the head, back and legs, two separate times.

In his commutation application, Cox said he grew up on the streets of New Haven. His father beat him, throttling him with extension cords, leather belts, handball rackets — anything he could get his hands on. Cox employed tricks to make the beatings a little less severe, keeping his German Shepherd and Doberman Pinscher around so they’d bite his dad when he started hitting him.

“When there’s not a father in the household, you look for that love, and running around with a bunch of people that have the same problems and no guidance, you think that’s love,” Cox said. “A lot of times I was either high on drugs or mad. Sometimes a moment of anger can be a lifetime of pain.”

Cox said going to prison likely saved his life. “It allowed me to assess everything and get my life back together,” he said. “It was like being born again.”

He threw himself into rehabilitative programming, earning his high school diploma and enrolling in college courses. He became a CNA, helping to care for his ailing incarcerated peers, some of whom were gang members he might have feuded with in his previous life. He mentored incarcerated young people and spoke to visiting students who came to prison as part of a class trip.

“In my opinion this was probably one of the best field trips cause this is something at first I was kinda scared of but when I got there I did not meet monsters. I met people who had made one wrong mistake and that got them trapped for life,” one student said in a testimonial provided in Cox’s commutation packet. “One of the things that probably made me feel so bad for them is most of them were dumb decisions made by them when they were children.”

Cox said he wants to be a CNA again once he gets out — his license lapsed after he got transferred to another prison to be closer to his family — and continue mentoring young people at risk of going down the same wrong path he took.

“I really want to get involved with saving our streets from senseless violence,” Cox said in his application. “I believe I can use my past experiences and influence as a testimonial and demonstrate to the younger generation that crime doesn’t pay.”

Cox’s rehabilitation, however, is only one of 11 items that board members consider when weighing whether to grant a commutation. Among the other considerations are whether the length of sentence is in line with contemporary sentencing practices, whether an applicant is suffering from a terminal illness or a chronic disability that would be substantially mitigated by commutation, the impact of their conviction on victims and the community, and the extent to which it serves “the interests of justice” for an applicant to remain in prison.

Granting someone a commutation is very different from paroling someone, said Sparaco. A decision whether to parole an individual is based on different criteria, looking more toward rehabilitation and whether a person can be supervised effectively in the community.

“Commutations are a lot more complex because we’re not just talking about releasing somebody in the community to serve their sentence,” Sparaco said. “We’re talking about changing the actual sentence that was handed down by the courts.”

Before it’s too late

Like many family members with a loved one in prison, Stephanie Hyman feels like she’s serving the sentence alongside Cox, who is her son. She aches that he missed her wedding, the birth of nieces and nephews, and many funerals.

Cox wants to take care of his aging mother — and father, whom he still talks to — once he gets out of prison, but Hyman just wants him to take care of himself. She worries about how a lot of times he’s so sick that he needs to be in a wheelchair, about him finding a job that accommodates his disabilities, how he needs to get set up with health insurance once he gets out so he can continue on dialysis.

“I’m just scared, and I don’t want my son to die in prison,” Hyman said. “If he’s going to go anywhere, I want him to be here with us.”

Stephanie Hyman, mother of Michael Cox, said as a mother she first felt relieved when she heard that Cox was imprisoned. “I knew he wasn’t going to get shot in the street,” Hyman said. Gun shootings were common in her neighborhood, she said. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

A secretary at Yale New Haven Hospital’s emergency psychiatric unit, Hyman knows how difficult it can be for people to adjust to life outside hospitals and prisons. Cox has been incarcerated for almost 30 years. Navigating a world he hasn’t known since 1991 could prove a big adjustment, Hyman said.

“We have that in the psych ward — they can’t handle outside, so they do stuff to get back inside to get the three square meals, get a roof over their head and watch TV,” she said. “I don’t want him to do that.”

But the fears don’t dull her desire to be reunited with her son.

“I just want to be around for him to spend time with me, spend time with his family before time runs out,” said Hyman.

The first thing Cox wants to do when he gets out of prison is hug his mother and tell her how sorry he is to have put her through this. It’s been a long time since he was able to embrace her without a corrections officer telling him to stop.

Until then, Cox will continue to try to help his incarcerated peers and manage his serious medical conditions as best he can. Sometimes he’s in so much pain that it overwhelms him, and he has to sit down to catch his breath. Other times he wakes up in the night, his heart pounding, worried that this is the end.

“I’m not proud of my past, of the mistakes I’ve made, but I’ve done my best. As far as these past 30 years, I’ve been in here educating myself, reforming myself through rehabilitation, and just finding the true Michael Cox,” he said. “I don’t want to die in here, being alone.”

Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.