Remembering Alex Phillips

We are heartbroken to share that one of our dear friends, comrades and organizers, Alex Phillips has died of advanced colon, liver, lung and pancreatic cancer. Alex’s death comes one month after Alex made history as the first person to win compassionate release in the State of Massachusetts. Alex is survived by his mother Ann, who is a part of the #DeeperThanWater family.

While inside, Alex was heavily involved in exposing the poisonous water and inadequate medical care at the DOC, as well as for his role in the fight to reinstate real education inside. Alex was chair of the Norfolk Inmate Council’s Education Committee. An example of the committee’s incredible work can be found here [PDF]. In June 2018, Alex graduated Magna Cum Laude from Boston University’s Metropolitan College via BU’s Prison Education Program. Alex was the commencement speaker for his class.

Prior to his death, Alex was part of the effort to successfully bring back MCI-Norfolk’s legendary debate team, once home to Malcolm X during his brief incarceration at MCI-Norfolk. Alex and his teammates were featured on Morning Edition on the historic relaunch of the debate team:

From WBUR: He and his fellow debaters achieved their record against teams visiting from the likes of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, West Point, McGill and even the acclaimed Oxford University, whose undefeated 1959 string across America ended in Norfolk.” [ link ]

Prior to Alex’s release, he applied for two compassionate release petitions with the Department of Correction, both of which were denied. At the time of the second denial, the legitimacy of Alex’s illness was put on trial by Commissioner of Correction Thomas Turco III, a man largely responsible for the inaction that led to Alex’s early death. Turco deliberately misrepresented Alex’s psychological assessments during the decision-making process as documented by WBUR, and openly dismissed Alex’s entire team of highly qualified oncologists, saying that Alex did not appear to be sick enough. Six weeks later, Alex passed away.

Alex was released in October in large part due to a final CAT scan that revealed that the cancer the DOC fought so hard to ignore had invaded every part of his body. Two weeks prior to Alex’s death, he was being appraised of the vigil planning for Roger Herbert, a man who had been in Alex’s unit, who died from the same fatal condition. #DeeperThanWater is aware of a startling trend in prisoners at MCI-Norfolk who have been diagnosed with late-stage, fatal cancer. Alex spent his last weeks as he lived, working to end the epidemic of neglect and toxic conditions now claiming the people who became part of his family inside.

We do not have words enough to describe the feeling that comes from Alex’s passing. While we are forever grateful that Alex didn’t die inside MCI-Norfolk, we know that it pained him to the end that others were denied the chance that he was given. And we also join in the larger discussion asking why so many people are now dying. While there is no way to know exactly how or when Alex’s cancer formed, we know these things:

  1. Before entering MCI-Norfolk, he was 19 years old, and in excellent health as far as any physician had been able to determine.
  2. A little over ten years later, Alex’s body was ravaged by cancer.

  3. About two years ago, Alex began to experience excruciating pain and asked multiple times to see a physician. By the time Alex was taken to a qualified oncologist, he was given a year to live.

  4. During Alex’s incarceration with cancer, he was denied access to vital pain management medication prescribed by his doctors. Instead, Alex had to purchase his own over-the-counter NSAIDs via the canteen, NSAIDs that are medically contraindicated for hepatically compromised patients. Alex was forced to choose between slowing his accelerating illness, and managing his pain.

As we grieve, we look to a long history within radical organizing that says that that we can most honor the people that die by refocusing on the struggles they represented while they were alive. To quote visionary author and activist Cindy Milstein:

“Only because we fight- against losses that shouldn’t happen, and for spaces to grieve together in cities that increasingly isolate us and care for nothing. We fight not only for quality of life. We struggle for quality of death, for lives and deaths of our own making and mourning. We battle for a return to natural loss, such as the change of seasons and the seasons of life.”  [ Rebellious Mourning ]


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