The Death Penalty

I'm for it.

I know that opening statement will disturb many people and anger still many others, especially coming from a man doing first-degree life in prison, without the possibility of parole. A man who, had it been just one year earlier, might well have been sentenced to death, rather than life in prison.

Obviously, I need to clarify why I believe in the death penalty. It is not good for everyone, and it should not affect anyone other than those like me who advocate for it. Too many mistakes have been made in the past, and many have been legally murdered by various states under the cover of law. The Innocence Project has already gotten 201 people out of prison, mostly on the use of DNA evidence that did not belong to the convicted. What happened prior to such an organization to the executed hundreds who may have been innocent? Well, we know the answer to that rhetorical question. They were killed by "legal" means.

Some years ago, while touring the infamous segregation unit at Walpole prison (10 Block), a nun named Sister Peg asked me to write an article against the death penalty. I told her that I could not write such a thing because I believed in it. She was positively stunned by that answer, and a deep and lengthy political (as well as religious and philosophical) discussion began. After I argued the political points and how the death penalty was applied so arbitrarily and racially, we got down to the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill," and that I was an instrument of God with the ability to do His work by using my talents as a writer and as a man who was doing life in prison.

Sister Peg's contention, like most, was that "where there is life there is hope." Hope for what, I am not sure to this day, almost 35 years after being sentenced. Hope that maybe I will get a decent meal from the prison chow hall? Never! Hope that I might wake up one day to find this has all been a bad dream and that I am free? Fantasy. Hope that I might find a miracle and get out of prison? Judge Edward Harrington of the 1st Circuit Court shot down even a chance for me to approach the court, with the multitude of illegal mistakes employed in my conviction. He did not want to hear it. That was my last legal hope. I can go no further in court unless I can come up with newly discovered evidence. There was absolutely no direct evidence in my case to begin with, so it is highly unlikely that I will ever find newly discovered evidence.

As a sidetrack to this thing called hope, let me take you back to 1966 in Vietnam. We were searching a village one day somewhere near Chu Lai. I went into this one hut and found a bamboo mat covering a small hole that villagers used to duck into if mortar or artillery rounds fell on them. Under that bamboo mat I found three young children. A little girl about eight years old was holding a tiny baby no more than a few months old. The baby's head was flopping, as most will when they are held upright. The little girl was frightened to death, with eyes the size of saucers. There was also a little boy about two years old, wearing nothing but a dirty tee shirt, who was also looking up at me with big scared eyes.

I took off my pack and found a few chocolate bars that came in our C-rations, along with a few packs of gum someone had sent me from home. I gave them to the kids and made the shhh noise as I put my finger to my smiling lips. I then pulled the cover back over the hole. Clearly, they were no danger to anyone.

When I went out of the hut, I saw that most of the village had been searched, so I decided to sit down across the road next to a rice paddy and smoke a cigarette. All of a sudden, I heard someone shouting "FIRE IN THE HOLE! FIRE IN THE HOLE!" I looked back in time to see Hakeem (not his real name) come running out of the hut I had just searched, then I heard two loud explosions coming from the hut, followed by a billowing cloud of black smoke. I ran back in that hut, and what I saw in that hole, where once stood three beautiful children, has remained the constant source of nightmares and daymares for me.

Can hope take away nightmares like that, in prison, where there is no psychological counseling for men who might suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)? I cured myself through years of self-evaluation and self-counseling. The dreams have faded significantly, but they are still part of my psyche. Anyone with a conscience would suffer as I have suffered, and therein is why I believe in the death penalty. I never met anyone who died and came back to say how horrible it was. Nor have I heard them say how inhumane. Death is something I have not feared since combat in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. Death is, after all, a part of life, and to fear an inevitability is a fool's waste of time.

I remember not being by her side as my best friend in the world was dying in June of 1981: my mother. It is the death of others that calls the greater suffering. The greatest suffering, perhaps. Many dear friends have died. On September 18th, 2001, my beautiful wife Lynnette Kathleen (Lynnkat) died from cancer while I was in Walpole prison. I was in the only prison in the state that had non-contact visits (even if you did nothing wrong to deserve such cruelty). Behind the glass partition in the visiting room, for the one hour a week I was allowed to see her, I had to watch her die. She once said, and I know she did not mean to hurt me, but truthfully it ate my heart out: "You know Joe, one hug from you would do more good for me than all the chemotherapy in the world." Not long after her death, they sent me here to SBCC (Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center) where there are contact visits.

If the times were strung together, I spent over 18 years in segregation during my many years in prison. Never for anything violent, because I do not believe in it. Passive resistance is the only thing that even has the smallest chance of working toward meaningful change. I was an outspoken advocate for change. For decency in an indecent milieu. I went to the hole for real things like instigating work strikes, and I went on personal hunger strikes several times over the many years spent there.

On many occasions, I was sent to the hole for contrived reasons, to get me out of the general population, where it was perceived by the prison administration that I was a "negative inmate leader." While in the various holes across the state, I was gassed many times. Not me personally, even once, but when any man on the tier gets gassed, everyone on that tier gets gassed. Gas has a way of going in all directions. I did not fault the administration for treating me the way they did. I was a rebel against the system, because I was an innocent man and I felt I had the right to rebel. It caused even greater suffering.

Going on 35 years later, I am content to be warehoused in the only Level 6 (the highest) prison in the Commonwealth. Content mostly because of my debilitating health issues, which would make it extremely difficult for me to survive in lesser security, where I'd be in a cell or a dorm setting with other men — if they caught a cold, it could result in a slow death for me, because I have severe COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Every 90 days when they hold my classification board, I request to stay here, because I am in a single cell, which reduces my chances of contracting someone else's colds or flu bugs.

What I have endured over all these years in prison I would not wish on anyone. For those who believe that life in prison is so much more humane than the death penalty, I would argue with them — as one who has endured more than most could bear, no matter their strength. This is not a plea for death, because it is much too late for that. Humanely, they should have executed me before I had ten years in. Humanely, they punished me beyond a death penalty.

For those who advocate hope as the reason for continuing on, I would tell them that words are easy to say, but a hell of a lot harder to live.

Death would have been so much kinder.

Joe Labriola

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