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The Other Death Sentence: Aging and Dying in Prison

James Ridgeway

SHIRLEY — William “Lefty” Gilday was 82 and suffering from dementia and Parkinson’s when officials at Massachusetts’ Shirley Prison placed him in an isolation cell — a “medical bubble” —  for throwing an empty milk carton at a guard.

He spent the last months of his life alone, separated by a window from medical staff, who placed manila folders across the glass so they didn’t have to look at him — and also blocking his view.

As we get older, it is easy enough to imagine old age as a prison — the body imprisoned by illness and loneliness. But in recent months, I have been corresponding with older men in Massachusetts state prisons who are in for life — or in this case, death.

I am 75, so we share a camaraderie of sorts as we compare notes on our aches and pains and our medication regimens. They know I understand what it’s like to be growing old and facing illness and death. But they also know I have no idea what it’s like to endure life behind bars, to face the difficult end of life with no chance of ever again breathing the free air.

The men in prison want to tell me, and they want the outside world to know what their lives are like. They know full well the retribution that will likely follow for speaking with the press, but not one of my correspondents asked for anonymity.

Daily Indignities and Isolation

What is clear from my correspondence is that days are filled with indignities, such as trying to heave an aging body into the top bunk, fighting off younger troublemakers, struggling to move fast enough to get a food tray filled or get a book at the library when you can barely walk.

Most of all, there is isolation. Prisons discourage inmates from forging friendships, and prison officials are suspicious of anything that smacks of organizing. So they switch inmates back and forth between prisons and deny them the right to communicate with anyone else who is incarcerated.

Yet the group of lifers I’ve corresponded with have tried to make something of their lives, serving as jailhouse lawyers, organizing against abusive conditions, helping other inmates survive.

Sometimes these pursuits get them in trouble, but their prison records are free of any violent offenses. Even if technically eligible for parole, as a few of them are, most have been convicted of crimes that were both horrific and high-profile, ensuring that they will never get out.

Joe Labriola, 66, is a former Marine war hero who served two tours in Vietnam, receiving a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with V for valor. After returning home, Labriola was convicted of killing a drug dealer, who was an FBI informant. He got life without parole. So far he has served 38 years, 18 of them in solitary confinement.

Agent Orange exposure left Joe struggling to breathe. He can’t walk more than 10 steps without help from an oxygen tank. He’s in a wheelchair most of the time and lives in a ward called Assisted Daily Living, which he describes as a clutch of hospital beds in a corridor.

“The only assistance we get,” he tells me, “is what other prisoners assigned to clean the floor and bathrooms render us when we ask.”

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. They come in chairs, geriatric walkers, and all have medications. In one week we had three deaths.”

Seniors in the outside world complain about health care. But the inpatient facilities at the prison’s hospital 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 with nothing to do but watch soap operas and the rare housefly that meanders in.

“What they need is mental, spiritual and human stimulation in the form of one-on-one care provided by trained prisoners,” Labriola writes. “There are many men willing to volunteer their time and energy to make this a reality.”

“We Loved the Old Man”

Labriola’s “best pal” was Lefty Gilday. A minor league ballplayer turned ’60s revolutionary, a convicted cop killer and target of one of the most famous manhunts in Massachusetts history, Gilday had been in and out of prison several times on robbery offenses when he fell in with a group of young Brandeis students who thought they could spur on a black revolution by stealing guns and money.

When the Boston police answered an alarm during a bank robbery with guns drawn, Patrolman Walter Schroeder was shot dead. Lefty maintained it was a ricochet of a warning shot, but he was tried and convicted of first-degree murder.

Initially sentenced to death, Gilday became a lifer when the U.S. Supreme Court briefly banned capital punishment in 1972. The students got sentences of no more than seven years.

In prison, Gilday became renowned as a jailhouse lawyer, putting together cases for other inmates. He settled disputes and became something of an elder statesman.

“We loved the old man,” Labriola wrote.

When dementia set in, Gilday was already suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease and a host of other ailments. Inmates at Shirley Prison formed an ad hoc hospice team in their crowded ward. They brought special food from the prison commissary, heated it in an ancient microwave, and fed it to their dying friend. They helped him to the toilet and cleaned him up.

Labriola tried to see that Gilday got a little sunshine every day, wheeling his chair out into the yard and sitting with his arm around Lefty to keep him from falling out.

After Lefty was placed in the medical bubble, his friends were denied contact with him. When Joe snuck in one day he found unopened food containers stacked up. Lefty said he couldn’t open the tabs to get at the food. The stench of piss and feces was overpowering.

In September 2011, Gilday died in a Boston hospital. His friends sought permission to conduct a service in the prison chapel. Their request was denied. A chaplain helped put together a service in a classroom, which culminated in some 80 men sailing paper planes into the air in a symbolic representation to Lefty’s spirit.

Younger Prisoners Not Told of Dementia

Other inmates with dementia are not as fortunate in their cellmates. John Feroli, in for murder, wrote to me about several lifers at Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater. They are housed in double cells with much younger prisoners who are never told about the old timers’ ailments.

In one case the guy with dementia believed his cellmate was stealing his clothes and started a fight. His cellmate broke his jaw. Another thought his cellmate was urinating in his socks, so he smashed his cellmate’s guitar and hit him over the head with it. He got knocked out in return.

Feroli also wrote about another guy in his 70s, who was in solitary confinement 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’.”

At 73, Frank Soffen, convicted of armed robbery and second-degree murder, has spent more than half his life in prison. He has suffered four heart attacks, has kidney and liver disease, and can move about only in a wheelchair.

Because of his failing health and a record that includes once rescuing a guard threatened by other prisoners, Soffen has been identified as a candidate for release on medical and compassionate grounds. He has a supportive family and a place to live with his son.

The Massachusetts Board of Parole voted to deny his release in 2006, and again this past January. He will not be eligible for review for another five years. Today, he is warehoused in a medical observation bubble at Norfolk State Prison, bed-ridden, unable to wash himself, clad in adult diapers, and unable to hold a pen.

In May, I went to visit Gordon Haas at Norfolk, some 35 miles south of Boston. Haas has been in prison since his 1975 conviction for murdering his wife and children. That conviction was overturned and a retrial ended in a hung jury. He was reconvicted in a third trial in 1982.

Since he has been behind bars, Haas has earned a master’s degree from Boston University. Now at age 68, he is active in the prison’s lifers’ group, which he now leads, and is pushing compassionate care legislation in the state legislature. Haas has been urging the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to adopt a hospice program for the last 15 years.

“Our contention is that since lifers will probably be in need of such care we [prisoners] are a resource for others now,” he tells me. “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 for programs and fresh air, even those in wheelchairs. That is good, but that is all there is.”

James Ridgeway wrote a longer version of this article for Mother Jones in cooperation with New America Media through a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a collaboration of NAM and the Gerontological Society of America.