A Remarkable Man
It was Heather, who taught ballet to children, who introduced me to Joe Labriola late in the 1970s. “I want you to meet a remarkable man — and prisoner — who will shortly be released after having spent a few years in maximum security for a crime he did not commit.” She hoped I could help Joe get used to “civilized” men in preparation for his rejoining life outside the walls.
Unfortunately, Heather was wrong about Joe gaining his release, but she was not wrong in thinking that Joe and I might get along. We did, and we have for a quarter century. Ironically, in many ways it is Joe who is the civilized man and I who have learned from him. My role has become principally that of a witness — and friend.
Were I called to testify as character witness on behalf of Joe
Labriola, much of my testimony would be inadmissible as hearsay:
- his role as forager, fighter, and protector for his fatherless family on the streets of Philadelphia;
- his role as fighter, protector, and leader of men in Vietnam;
- the bewilderment of a wounded warrior amid the prevailing air of ingratitude and disrespect for Vietnam veterans in the early 70s;
- his incredulity upon being apprehended and ultimately made the “fall guy” for a murder without connecting physical evidence in a legal process where his words were misrepresented and his defense lawyer was literally in business with the prosecutor;
- his struggle to survive, filled with rage, in the early years in the volatile atmosphere of maximum security prisons like Walpole (now Cedar Junction) in Massachusetts.
I can only imagine what some of this list of circumstances may have felt like because Joe has told me a lot of what he felt. I question how I might have navigated this chilling, cratered course. I frankly doubt I would have made it at all, let alone with the courage and resourcefulness of Joe Labriola.
Moving away from hearsay to personal experience, my testimony would begin with when I met this intrepid survivor for the first time. The man I met and have known was not the grizzled, fearsome fellow I anticipated. He accepted me without challenge, opened up further with each round of questions, and gradually took over the conversation. He was disarmingly candid, eager to engage, self-effacing. I returned to visit regularly and (inequitably) maintained written correspondence. Like others of his friends over the years, I saved most of Joe's weekly letters. He has made an art form of letter writing, his most reliable means of making contact.
In the early years of our friendship, I gradually became involved in efforts to obtain his release or re-trial. I read his trial transcript, joined his “defense committee” to pursue legal avenues of redress, met his friends, lawyers, social workers, religious advisors, fellow inmates. To a person they had high regard and affection for Joe. He'd made a significant impact on each of us, and we shared an outrage at his plight, and the heartbreak at the ultimate obtuseness of his trial appeal process.
Meanwhile, within the walls, Joe spoke out against prison conditions and naturally and reluctantly became an inmate leader and lightning rod. He used his influence for ends as noble as the collection of funds in support of homeless women with AIDS, as valuable as forming a “Lifers Group” of mutual support and problem solving for this fundamentally isolated and suspicious population, and as hilarious as the mailing of hundreds of cockroaches to prison officials as a commentary on the neglect of the institution's physical environment.
Targeted because of the power of his influence and for vexing the authorities, Joe was given enormous amounts of “segregation” and isolation time — solitary confinement. He learned to appreciate this time, and he used it to satisfy a voracious appetite for reading and learning. He earned at least one degree, he completed at least one novel and multiple short stories (I have many of the transcripts), he read the Classics, he read the great religious works, he memorized lots of Shakespeare, he read all he could get his hands on. Currently, he is very excited about Buddhism and has read numerous volumes, including the 5000-page seminal work of that philosophy.
When he is allowed access, he haunts the prison legal library, and with the help of other like-minded inmates, he has become his own legal advocate. His petition in appeal to the Veterans Administration for retroactively rescinding eighty percent of his medical benefit is a well-researched, tightly argued, and beautifully written piece of legal work tracing prohibitions of ex post facto laws back as far as the seventeenth century.
The years rolled by, the legal defeats accumulated. Friends and supporters moved, dispersed. Joe suffered the immense loss of his mother. Prevented from going to her deathbed, smoldering below the flash point, he kept remarkably composed. He credited his mother with being tougher than he was. I met her once: physically small and thin, almost frail, she was soft-spoken, straightforward, resolute — Joe's straight-spined counselor of the stiff upper lip. How excruciating must it have been to helplessly view her son's plight.
As fundamental to Joe as his mother's support and guidance, it was another woman whose nurturance, loyalty, open heart, sense of humor, and absolutely unwavering love and support gave Joe wings, even in his cage. Lynnette fell in love with Joe when she was fifteen, kept that love alive while they both had other spouses, and let that love reawaken fifteen years later, a decade into Joe's imprisonment. Scores of her unpublished poems describe her journey and the intensity of her feelings, and few who saw her were ultimately unmoved by her devotion to Joe, the purpose their love gave to them both, the sight of the two of them holding hands and laughing like children.
Lynnette, who visited Joe an average of three times a week for the next fifteen years, became his muse and eventual editor, as well as ardent advocate, co-strategist, and faithful friend. They were eventually married in the Bridgewater prison's visiting room, amid a party of about ten, with vending-machine food and drinks for post-ceremony celebrating. I was his “Best Man,” and it remains one of my proudest and joyful moments.
If there is a limit to what one person can be expected to suffer in a lifetime, clearly Joe's limit was surpassed when Lynnette got sick and died from cancer at the age of 48. Incredulous that such a stalwart soul could be taken from him so prematurely, he was forced to endure the pain of being kept from his mate as she valiantly fought for her life and struggled with the terrifying prospect of leaving Joe for the cold night of mortality. The horrors of the Vietnam jungles were not as difficult as the vigil Joe maintained, helpless, during those last many months of Lynnette's life. Ultimately, and again, Joe's primary female connection passed away and — the final indignity — he could not be at her deathbed or at her funeral (September, 2001).
Not coincidentally, I think, Joe has been physically sick a great deal since Lynnette's passing. To his friends, he maintains his sharp-witted demeanor, but his ailing body may be a physical expression of the impact of the blow to him of her loss. This is only my theory, though it helps to make Joe more human to me. Through these years, I've had such admiration for the resilience and dignity, the energy and intelligence, the plain courage of this man, that he grew almost larger than life. And he was never sick, despite the nutritionally bereft food and unhealthy physical environment.
But, no, the man is not beyond the human; he is merely an extraordinary human. He has suffered so much pain and deprivation, yet he has unceasingly been such a fighter for flag and friend and principle. Willing to put his life on the line, or to battle any foe with his wits, Joe is first and last a consummate warrior: of body, mind, and spirit. And contrary to appearances, he has won. He has won by overcoming his circumstances. Through years of loss after agonizing loss, to this moment and undoubtedly to his last days, he has not become cynical or vengeful, indifferent or withdrawn or self-pitying. To the contrary, he remains open, curious, thoughtful, emotionally expressive, generous. His challenge to others is simple: “Tell me your heart, and I will show you mine.”
My testimony concludes. As these paragraphs suggest, Joe has made a big impression on me. It has disturbed me for decades, now, and I struggle to come to terms with the harshness of his fate. Is there perhaps a purpose to his suffering? This is a larger question than I have been able to answer.
And lately, seemingly every six months or so, these philosophical ruminations are interrupted by another newspaper account of a wrongly convicted prisoner being freed after years in prison. And the injustice at the heart of Joe's story becomes less a matter of pondering the ways of the almighty than the scheming of man. Thanks to the Boston Globe research, for example, and some of our own experience of Boston and the USA in the 1960s and 70s, an image emerges of a turbulent time when disorder in the streets was matched by disorder within the governing and law enforcement institutions. In Boston, documented FBI and police malfeasance in collusion with the criminal underworld in a murky, corrupt, give-and-take relationship. Mob crime, bought-off and intimidated witnesses and informers, attorneys and police under extreme pressure and tempted to obtain convictions and establish reputations by rushing to judgment, or worse.
Joe Labriola had the critical misfortune to stumble into the life path and violent death of a guilty player in this shifting nexus of law breakers, informers, and law enforcers. And Joe Labriola, decorated Marine, had the additional misfortune of returning from Vietnam to a Boston public that was tired of, if not infuriated by, that Southeast Asian debacle and the soldiers who were principal actors, willing or not. His valor was turned against him in the courtroom, and a man who today would be considered a returning hero, instead was plunged into yet another hell.
He was a victim of a “perfect storm” of temporal forces, an actor in a drama for which he was recruited from the streets but whose script was a deception.
I pray that time remains to rewrite the script's conclusion and let Joe return to the streets.
Cambridge, MA June 16, 2004