The Death Penalty By Increments: Life Without Parole

I was still in shock when we pulled up in front of Walpole prison back in 1973. It was the most notorious prison in the nation at the time. To illustrate this point, I will recall entering into this violent arena.

As the officers were escorting me to the new-man section, we noticed a hearse parked at the door we had to go through. A guard and another prisoner were loading a body bag into the back of this vehicle. When one of the court officers asked "What happened to that guy," he was told: "Oh, he fell on his pen . . . several times," and the guard exchanged a hearty laugh with the prisoner helping hom load the body. Right then and there, I vowed that I would never leave Walpole like that.

I am a Vietnam vet, and in my mind I went back to the jungle where it was eat the tiger or get eaten by the tiger. I would be serving a life without parole in this arena. I had just been sentenced for a shooting death of a drug dealer. There were no witnesses against me. No one saw the shooting, and no one heard the talk about a shooting. The "evidence" used against me was my Vietnam War record. That is a story unto itself, so I will not go down that path on this page. I learned very early not to tell people I was innocent, because I would get the eye roll or hear: "Sure you are. Everyone in here is innocent."

After I was processed, they assigned me to cell block 2, where 9 out of the last 11 murders happened. Not so ironically, the block handle was "DEATH VALLEY." It was my first time ever being inside a prison, and I did not believe I knew anyone there that I could talk to. However, someone who knew me from a mutual friend was asked to look out for me. He gave me a large knife and told me to keep it on my person even in the shower. His name was Paul Harding. Years later he was killed while on escape.

The trash in all the cell blocks was piled up to the control window, which was a good twenty feet from the floor. Rats and mice ran rampant throughout and feasted on the discarded food. The cell doors did not lock; the motors that controlled them were all ripped out. There were plenty of drugs, and men stayed up all night partying. I remember a lot of laughing and loud talking, with radios that still had the speakers in them blaring away, all seemingly on different stations, each one turned louder to be heard over the others. It was madness. I thought I would go insane.

I served almost seven years in the United States Marine Corps, and we had a saying: Adapt, improvise, and overcome. This was 1973 and there was no such thing back then as PTSD. I was thrown into the belly of the beast and reverted back to combat mode. Fortunately, I never had to stab anyone, but I took a political stance, and I tried my hand at prison reform. I spent many many years off and on in the "hole." There I did my best to read the entire library, while writing poetry (see Poetry) and trying my hand at essays dealing with things like voting rights, which prisoners in Massachusetts had a right and privilege to at the time. An idea of starting a Political Action Committee formed in my head, and years later I made it into a reality. Again, another story for another time.

I "adapted" to my environment, and the harder they made it for us, the more I was able to "overcome." I spent much time meditating on the war in Vietnam and doing my best to "come home." I never asked anyone for help. The healing was God's work. I left Him behind in the rice paddies, but He never left me. It took a long time for me to understand that.

So here I sit, still in prison almost a full 46 years later (on May 17, it will be my 46th). I am sick and dying from what I think was an exposure to Agent Orange, suffering grievously from COPD and heart disease. I am confined to a wheelchair and must use oxygen at night to sleep. I am on a dozen medications and need to use a nebulizer machine two or sometimes three times a day in order to get a single deep breath. Most of my day is spent trying to cough the fluid out of my lungs.

I am now 73 years old, and I think about the younger me the first day in Walpole prison. The strangest part of this journey is that I never hated anyone or got despondent. I had hopes that I would get back into court and go home. I never envisioned that I would spend all these years in a man-cage. Everyone evolves. Think about who you were just ten or twenty years ago. Ask yourself if you are that same person, or are you better than you used to be?

Many are the times I wished Massachusetts still had the death penalty. The internal debate was that death would have been kinder than Life Without Parole. There are those who say where there is life there is hope. Really? Tell that to a man who has been beaten, stabbed, gassed, starved, frozen in winter, and watched as the years took the lives of his mother and then his incredible wife. Tell that to a woman in Framingham who was ripped from her children and had to watch them grow up in the visiting room once or twice a month.

Massachusetts needs to adopt a more humane way of dealing with lifers so that they are all given a chance at redemption and are seen by a competent board to determine if 25 years was enough time to serve.

No one is the best or worst on any given day. We all deserve a second chance, an opportunity to be with people who love us, and when the time comes, to die in a hospital bed without leg shackles. Ask yourself: "What would Jesus do?"

   Joe Labriola

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