Commutations, Voting Rights, and Veterans in Prison
Will we ever see another commutation in Massachusetts? The last one, which was in 1997, was given to Joe Yandel. It was granted for three primary reasons: First, Joe's good behavíor. Second, Joe was not the primary in the crime of murder during a botched robbery. Third, and perhaps the biggest reason of all, Joe was a highly decorated war hero. His military record in Vietnam was so outstandlng that "60 Minutes" did his story twice, and people across this nation sent volumes of mail in support of Joe's commutation petítion. Joe had his DD-214 díscharge record, which showed he had been awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Combat "V" for Valor; the Purple Heart Medal for wounds received in action; the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry; the combat Action Ribbon; and the Good Conduct medal, to name just a few. The parole board thanked Joe for his servíce and lauded his bravery under fire.
Turns out, a few years later, it was discovered by an investigator in Texas that Joe had never even been in Vietnam at all. At some point in the early days of Walpole, Joe managed to get a copy of my DD-214 discharge record and whited out my name and service number, inserted his own, and then made coples for distribution to the pubÌic and the parole board many years later. I sit here over forty-two years later to tell you: I am that man Joe said he was, and yet I cannot even get a hearing before the commutation board, and I have tried twice. The first time I was rejected out of hand, and the second time they did not even bother to answer my petition at all. Like anyone else, I want to be heard on the particulars of my case and given an opportunity to present nyself based on the merits of my case. In 1973 I was sentenced to life at hard labor for killing a notorious drug dealer with his own gun. I have been in prison for over 42 years with my only prospect being that I will die in a surgical cage, alone, away from family and friends. This ís not a lamentation as much as it is simply a fact, for myself and others like me in the same position in today's system of justice.
I do not have a sterling prison record. From the minute I walked into Walpole in 1973 until this very day, I have been an outspoken advocate for príson reform, As a direct result I have spent many many years in segregation. I organized hunger strikes and work strikes. I became a stubborn recalcitrant and outspoken militant. In 1974 during a lockdown at Walpole, Senators Jack Bachman and Barbara Gray came to my cell to confer with me on what we prisoners were trying to accomplish. I have a very fond memory of Jack sitting at the foot of my bunk, while Barbara sat on a wooden slat placed across the toilet seat as we talked. Those were grim and daunting times in the history of Walpole. The prison was notorious across the land for being the most dangerous and deadly prison ín the entire nation. Yet, here were these two brave people sitting in my cell to talk about prison reform. Though we may not be sitting on toilet seats today in this auspicious meeting, it still takes courage to be here, for it seems the majority of people see us as something stuck to the bottom of theír shoes. Words cannot possibly convey how much admiration and respect I hold in my heart for these two public servants to this very day. They set the example for whät was right in our society, because they knew that we will all be judged not by what we say but by what we do for the disenfranchised, the poor, and the sons and daughters locked away behind prison walls and razor wire.
Today, I am the duly elected commander of the American Veterans In Prison (AVIP). We try hard to work not only for the benefit of our incarcerated veterans but for all prisoners ín general: what affects one, affects all. It is too easy to dismiss us in the legislature or in the media that judge all of us by the worst case scenario. It ís said that no person is the best or worst that they have ever been. People screw up. They make bad judgements, and in one síngle moment of time their entire lives change dramatically, as do the lives of their víctims. I have seen the best and worst in my 70 years of life and found that all of us are guilty of something. How we atone for the things we did to others is strictly in the province of our own conscience and the content of our character.
I think back with horror and revulsion to those days of being in the steaming jungles of southeast Asia, and I still see the faces of the dying — many at my own hands. It took me hard decades to forgive myself for acts committed then at the age of 19, but I will forever until my dying breath try to atone and be a better person in each and every day. On the local level right here in Massachusetts, we veterans still try to be the best that we can be. That should be a motto for everyone: Live to the fullest in each and every day as though it were your last, for who knows, it just might be. How will you be judged when your day comes? Will the Creator be kind to you for all your good deeds? Will you be able to say that you did your best to be of service to someone less fortunate?
A veteran such as myself cannot be buried ín any national cemetery with military honors, nor my family receive a flag from my coffin. Title 38, United States Code, Section 2411 and other federal laws prohibit burial in a national cemetery by anyone convicted of a federal or state capital crime and sentenced to death or life imprisonment. We cannot even be seen at any VA hospital for treatment of old war wounds. Geoge Bush even saw to ít that our pensíons were taken away, which added tremendous further burden on our families who depended on those checks to put food on the table for our children. We are not merely punished in life but now we are punlshed even after we die, as are those who so loved us. What happened to this country? How did we get here? When did we become so vindictive and mean spirited?
In 1997 I helped to form the first Political Action Committee (PAC) in prison. I did not realize what a furor this would set off 1n the political arena. I was interviewed by a reporter from The Boston Globe, and the story appeared on the front page. Then Governor Paul Cellucci signed his first executive order banning the prison PAC, and I was thrown in the hole. John Reinstein of the Massachusetts ACLU represented me at the disciplinary board because I participated in a group not sanctioned by the Department of Correction. The day I was released from the hole I went right back to work organizing prisoners and encouraged each and every one of them to cast an absentee ballot. l got over 700 men to vote within a week. I paid for the postage out of my own pocket because it was the best money I would ever spend in príson. Most all of the 700 plus men were first-tíme voters. My objectives were to teach men good civic responsibility and to show the younger guys from inner cities that they could indeed change more with a ballot than they every could with a bullet. They had an opportunity to help elect leaders from their own communities who would best represent them in the legislature.
One would have had to have been there to see the excitement among the prisoners. They were all feeling a part of somethíng as opposed to being merely on the frínges of society. Along comes the House Minority Whip, Francis L. Marini. He filed a bill to take voting rights away from prisoners in Massachusetts, which was at that time only one out of five states that still allowed them to vote. He appeared on the news every day to rail about prisoners voting, and I offered to debate him publicly on the merits of voting rights in prison, but he refused. The only voice people got to hear on this issue for the most part was his. There were still some intrepid legislators who felt that this country was not about taking rights away from people, but to the contrary, was about gíving rights to them instead. Marini was a headline-grabbing príg who used several prison issues to see his name on a bi11. Prisoners should pay for medical visits. Prisoners should pay for haircuts. I watched PBS everyy day when they broadcast the House, and I could see that even guys like Finneran were laughing at Marini. I mean, who in their right mind is going to stand up in the legislature and say: "No, I think prisoners should not have to pay for haircuts"? For many it would have meant a form of political suicide. Marini ran amok until Jane Swift appointed him to a judgeship.
I wanted an opportuníty to state on behalf of all veterans in prison that some of us actually bled for the right to vote. We not only bled for our own right but for the right of the entire commonwealth to enjoy that privilege. Today less than 1% of our population fights for the other 99%. God bless them all! May we always remember their sacrifice on our behalf.
Part of harm reduction should include the vote for prisoners, because being part of the process is certainly more solidifying than keeping us as outsiders living on the constant frínge of society.
I have (not as briefly as I wanted) outfined my case today because it is the best one I know. There are other veterans and non-veterans just like me who have reached out to various legislators in order to bring real and meaningful change to an antiquated prison system that has seen very little humane change in over 200 years. Harm reduction is more important and all-encompassing than we can stress here today. What the prisons turn out today will be in your neighborhood and city streets. What kind of man or woman do you want mixing in with your constituents? We have an opportunity today to make a positive difference in the behavior and attitudes of Massachusetts prisoners. lt just takes hard work against entrenched perceptions, and a lot of courage, like the kind exhibited by Jack Bachman, Barbara Gray, and you who sit here today.
Once a Marine, Always a Marine, so this Marine thanks all of you for the time, attention, and dedication to your elected public office. The men in the MCI Shirley AVIP and other groups stand ready to assist in any way you deem necessary.
Joe Labrio]a, former Sgt. USMC