During the early 80s through 1986, cockroaches ruled the segregation unit at Walpole (Massachusetts) State Prison. They were everywhere in 10 block. They floated in the toilet bowl, ran up the wall, crawled upside down on the ceiling, and crunched when you stepped on them. Not everyone had shower shoes, and those who did not, wiped the roaches off their feet on the bottom metal rung of the cell door (much the same way you'd wipe your shoe on a curb after stepping in dog droppings).

The roaches were everywhere; when I lay on my metal bunk (which was welded to the wall), I would stare at them on the ceiling over my head. The walls and ceiling were always damp from years of breath moisture and tobacco slime, so occasionally, they would lose their grip and fall onto my bed; often on me! They would walk across my body, but nighttime was the worst, when they would walk across my face. It was not uncommon for roaches to crawl into men's ears while they slept and then not be able to back out. The roaches would die, painful infection would set in, and men's heads would swell up grotesquely, like balloons, until they received medical attention.

You could always tell the arrival of new men into segregation. They were the ones foolish enough to keep getting out of bed to squash the roaches on the wall with a rolled up newspaper or the bottom of their sneaker. The long timers didn't bother, because the roaches were too many and it was futile to keep after them. When we complained to the guards, all we got back in return was laughter. There was nothing they could do, since any decision to call an exterminator had to come from "downtown." I wrote several letters to the Commissioner of Corrections, complaining on behalf of everyone about the infestation, but I never even received a single response. Neither did anyone else who wrote. "Downtown" simply didn't care.

Eventually though, "Downtown" did care. They cared when they heard from Phillip Johnston.

Phillip Johnston was the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and he had an office at the State House in Boston. One day, his office received a large manila envelope which was sealed all the way around with scotch tape. Enclosed was a letter: "Dear Secretary Johnston, I am sending you my pet roaches because I can no longer afford to take care of them. I am on alternate feedings of cheese sandwiches three times a day and there aren't enough to go around, as my menagerie grows by leaps and bounds each day. I am hoping you will feed them and give them a good home at the State House. Sincerely, Joe Labriola, Prisoner." Also enclosed were cockroaches, a thousand or more, caught by each man on the tier on one day and handed to me in empty wax milk containers.

I am fairly certain the roaches made it to the State House alive and active. However, I can only imagine the reaction when Mr. Johnston's secretary opened the envelope!

Three days later, the men of 10 block were put in waist chains and leg shackles and taken outside to the ten segregation cages. These resembled dog kennels and were about four feet wide and fifteen feet long. They were surrounded by cyclone fencing all around, and five or six men were put into each cage for a full day (about nine in the morning until five in the evening).

When we returned to 10 block, there was a virtual carpet of dead roaches, several inches thick, which we had to walk through. There were millions and millions of them, covered by a yellow powder! When we returned to our cells, we used pieces of cardboard to sweep them out under the door. The guards used snow shovels to scoop them up and put them in large barrels lined with plastic bags. I don't know how many barrels were filled that day, but I do know that even now, twenty-one years later, there are no roaches in 10 block.

Not long after that incident in August of 1986, I was sent into exile at the Federal Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for being a "Negative Inmate Leader." How did they come up with that?

Joe Labriola

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