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The Other Death Sentence

More than 100,000 Americans are destined to spend their final years in prison. Can we afford it?

| Tue Sep. 25, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Kentucky State Reformatory inmate Charles Webb, 74, shields his eyes from light. Webb is losing his sight. Click on the image to see more of Tim Gruber's photos.Kentucky inmate Charles Webb, 74, in 2008. Click above for more photos.

In recent months, I have been corresponding with several older men in Massachusetts state prisons, and have visited one of them in person. They are all lifers with murder convictions, which makes them atypical even among the long-termers. These men will never be paroled, and they are unlikely to qualify for early release no matter how rehabilitated they might be or how aged and decrepit they become. They have accepted this, and have generally tried to make something of their lives in prison—serving as jailhouse lawyers, organizing against abusive conditions, and helping their friends survive.

I am 75, so we share a camaraderie of sorts as we compare notes on our aches and pains and medication regimens. They know I understand what it's like to be getting old and facing illness and death. They also know I have no idea what it's like to deal with these things behind bars. Their letters tell of lives filled with daily indignities—trying to heave an aging body into the top bunk, struggling to move fast enough to get a food tray filled or get a book at the library, fighting off younger troublemakers. But worst of all is the pervasive nothingness and isolation.

The few available activities are open only to people who can walk long hallways or climb stairs. For some old-timers, doing time simply means awaiting death.

Prison officials tend to discourage close friendships, and they dislike anything that smacks of organizing, which is considered a security threat. So they routinely transfer inmates between prisons and deny them the right to communicate with friends in other facilities. The activities available—which are few, since lawmakers wiped out most rehabilitative programming during the 1980s and 1990s—are accessible only to inmates who can walk long prison hallways or climb stairs. For some old-timers, a cell is their entire world; doing time simply means awaiting death.

Joe Labriola is a former Marine combat hero. Now 66, he joined the Marines at 17 and served two tours in Vietnam, receiving a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Combat "V" for valor. After returning home, he was convicted of killing a drug dealer who was an FBI informant and got life without parole. So far he has served 38 years—18 in solitary.

Labriola has chronic breathing problems that he attributes to Agent Orange exposure. He says it's hard to for him walk more than 10 steps without help from an oxygen machine, so he's in a wheelchair a lot of the time. At least 75 prisons in 40 states now have hospices, but you won't find any in Massachusetts. At MCI Shirley, Labriola lives in a ward called Assisted Daily Living, which he describes in his letters as a clutch of hospital beds in a corridor. "We live in an 11-man ward with all the beds side by side," he says. "No ventilation or windows that can open. We do have hospital beds and standing wall lockers, something the general population does not have." Unlike most assisted-living facilities, this setup provides little actual assistance, he says, other than what "the prisoners who clean the floor and bathrooms render us when we ask." Residents get to move around outside the ward for just 10 minutes every hour, which means the person pushing Joe's wheelchair must race from place to place—the prison library, he estimates, is a quarter mile away.

One elderly inmate "was partially paralyzed from a stroke and the batteries in his hearing aid were dead and he never heard the announcement for Count Time," says a fellow prisoner. So the old man got thrown in the hole.

From his window, Labriola has a view of the prison hospital. "I see men coming up for medication and insulin at least three to four times per day," he says. "They come in chairs, Canadian canes, geriatric walkers. In one week alone we had three deaths." The hospital's inpatient facilities consist of a series of five small wards with five beds in each. Men in various stages of bad health or terminal illness lie in bed all day long with nothing to do but watch soap operas. "What they need is mental, spiritual, and human stimulation in the form of a one-to-one care provided by trained prisoners who would be first cleared for drug usage and sex crimes as there are female nurses in the area," Labriola suggests in one of his letters. "There are many men willing to volunteer their time and energies into making this a reality."

Lifer John Feroli told the following story in one of his letters: "A guy in his 70s I knew personally was in the [solitary confinement] unit because he failed to stand for the afternoon count. He was on the third floor of the housing unit, he was partially paralyzed from a stroke and the batteries in his hearing aid were dead and he never heard the announcement for Count Time."

Another convicted murderer, 73-year-old Billy Barnoski, wrote me in April to report that he was in solitary after a younger cellmate jumped him and beat him up. His friends came to his aid, there was a melee, and four people were thrown in the hole. Barnoski suffers from a heart condition called atrial fibrillation, which is treated with a blood thinner called coumadin. He also has high blood pressure, high cholesterol, shingles, and severe arthritis in his back and neck. He takes 25 pills daily. "There have been many times, so many, that they simply say, 'We haven't got that med today,'" he writes. "Mind you it has been heart meds just last week. Locked in this hole without necessary meds is torture."

Then there's Frank Soffen, also 73. Sentenced to life for second-degree murder, he has spent more than half of his life in prison. Nowadays he is confined to a wheelchair. He has kidney and liver disease and has suffered four heart attacks. He currently stays in the assisted living wing of Massachusetts' Norfolk prison. And because of his failing health and his clean record during 40 years behind bars—which included rescuing a guard being threatened by other prisoners—he has been held up as a candidate for compassionate release.

Frank Soffen, 73, is bedridden, confined to a medical observation bubble, clad in adult diapers, and unable to wash.

Soffen is physically incapable of committing a violent crime. He cannot even hold a pen, in fact, so I had to rely on the other prisoners' accounts of his situation. They told me has already participated in prerelease and furlough programs, and has a supportive family and a place to live with his son. One member of the state parole board recommended his release. But the board has denied him parole twice—in 2006 and again in January 2011. He won't be eligible for review for another five years—if he lives that long. These days he's warehoused in a medical observation bubble, bedridden, clad in adult diapers, unable to wash.

Gordon Haas, 68, is in better health, but he too has been in prison the better part of four decades, ever since his 1975 conviction for murdering his wife and children. While inside, Haas earned a master's degree from Boston University, but such opportunities are exceedingly rare nowadays. Ever since Willie Horton—the furloughed Massachusetts prisoner who went AWOL and committed murder only to become the bane of Michael Dukakis' 1988 failed presidential run—Haas has witnessed the rollback of parole and the end of programs that once allowed inmates to work outside prison gates and further themselves on the inside.

This past May, I visited Haas at Norfolk Prison, about 45 minutes outside Boston. Norfolk was designed for 750 men and holds 1,500. Built in during the 1920s to mimic a college campus, its buildings look more like dormitories than cell blocks, if you ignore the razor wire.

Haas tells me his advocacy for prison reform has earned him the scrutiny of the prison's Inner Perimeter Security force, an internal police unit. They read his letters, he says, and monitor his phone calls. So rather than make a formal media request, I simply go in as a regular visitor.

"We are a resource for others," one aging inmate insists, but "the DOC does not sanction prisoners helping other prisoners."

Once I pass through the metal detectors—presenting ID, taking off my shoes and showing the bottoms of my feet, the underside of my collar, and the inside of my waistband—I proceed across the campus into a large visiting room filled with rows of chairs. Prisoners and visitors may sit next to, but not opposite, one another. They must keep their feet flat on the floor at all times and their backs against the chair backs. Guards posted at stations at either end of the room roam about and escort visitors to the toilet. Prisoners are strip searched before they enter and after they leave.

Haas enters wearing a short-sleeve button down, pressed blue jeans, and thick glasses. With his neatly combed gray hair, he reminds me of an IBM executive on a visit to the factory floor. He is affable, and a keen storyteller. In addition to leading the Lifers Group, a collection of men unlikely to ever get out, Haas is chairman of the Store & Finance Committee of the Norfolk Inmate Council. He takes a big interest in Project Youth, which teaches younger prisoners to speak to students and youth groups about what led them to prison.

As of June, according to its own figures, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections had 11,679 inmates. About 19 percent of them were 50 or older and 6 percent were at least 60. Last year, Haas used the DOC's figures to produce his own report, which notes that the 60-plus contingent is the fastest-growing demographic in the state's prisons.

Haas says he has been urging the state to adopt a hospice program for more than 15 years. "Our contention is that since lifers will probably be in need of such care, we are a resource for others now," he says. But "the DOC does not sanction prisoners helping other prisoners. There is one outlet, and that is prisoners can volunteer to take those who can go outside out for programs and fresh air, even those in wheelchairs. That is good, but it is all there is."

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