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Bob Kerr: Transcending Prison Walls

My friends Joe Labriola and Mike Skinner did the Walk for Hunger a few weeks back. They have done the walk before. They have done walks for Toys For...

My friends Joe Labriola and Mike Skinner did the Walk for Hunger a few weeks back. They have done the walk before. They have done walks for Toys For Tots too. They have a problem with people going without in the richest country on earth.

Mike, who played football at Boston College and spends a lot of time in the weight room, pushes Joe in Joe’s wheelchair. Joe, a Vietnam Marine who was twice shot out of country, has bad lungs. He’s had a heart attack. And he has an indomitable spirit that has carried him through 42 years in prison and made him one of the most inspiring people I know.

Some of the strongest people I’ve ever met I’ve met in prison. They are people who refuse to let prison define them, refuse to give in to the spirit-sapping, mind-numbing sameness of a system that thrives on keeping men and women under complete, minute by minute control. People like Mike and Joe go deep inside themselves to find a life of thoughts and ideas that take them away from the life of morning counts, hideous chow, waiting in line for medications, and submitting to personal searches after leaving the visiting room.  

For Joe and Mike, the Walk for Hunger to benefit Project Bread brings an opportunity to claim a piece of humanity in the prison yard at Shirley Medium Security Facility in Central Massachusetts. It is impossible for me to hear about that unlikely 20-mile trek around the rough prison track and not think about Paul Newman downing 50 eggs in an hour in “Cool Hand Luke.”

Other prisoners took part in the walk, but the football player and the Marine were the unofficial standard bearers for this day of charitable purpose.

Donations came from inside and outside the prison. One man pledged a dollar to Joe and Mike. It was half of what he had in his prison account.

For an account of the walk, I rely on Mike Skinner, who is a very good writer. He tells of a hard day that ended in triumph, some high points, and a few low ones.

The night before the walk, Mike and Joe loaded up on carbs. They ate cold pasta salad, which Mike had prepared himself in the cell block. He took Joe’s wheelchair to the sewing shop, so the guys could tighten every screw, nut and bolt for the walk to come.

On race day, Mike picked up his official number, 79, a nod to his college football days. Joe’s said simply “ the legend,” because that’s what he is after 42 years in prison.

It was a hotter day than Mike expected, but all went well until mile 18. That’s when Mike says severe cramps set in. He tells of dropping to the ground and trying to stretch out his legs. He got up, started to push Joe again and the cramps returned. 

Other prisoners offered to take over the chair but Joe and Mike refused.  Some guys told Mike they could see the knots in his calves and that his lips were turning blue.   

But they finished. Because that is what they do every year.

They covered 20 miles and raised money to feed the hungry. And they reached beyond the wire to claim a place among caring people everywhere.

Joe and Mike are serving life sentences for murder. Mike is still eligible for parole. Joe is not. He has always denied that he murdered a drug dealer  in Dedham in 1973. I have read his trial transcript. It was a strictly circumstantial case against him, something the judge pointed out in his charge to the jury. But Joe was convicted. He was convicted at a time when Vietnam veterans were becoming increasingly regarded as psychopathic time bombs in American popular culture. There is simply no way to know if that swayed the jury. The only one of Joe’s jurors I was able to talk to said it did not. 

So Joe began his long prison odyssey. And along the way he says he found ways to survive, even thrive, despite a degrading system

Sure, I’d like to see Joe and Mike on the outside. I’d like scotch and cigars and conversation. I’d like to see them share their hard-earned wisdom in all kinds of places. But I don’t know if that will ever happen.

What I do know is that Joe Labriola and Mike Skinner were out that day in the prison yard. They did those 20 hard, bumpy miles and found a moment that lifted them above their grim circumstances. And I have no doubt they will find ways to do it again.

Bob Kerr: Transcending Prison Walls
Bob Kerr: Transcending Prison Walls