The Harvard Crimson

The Abolitionist and the Prisoners’ Union

Fifty years ago, the Massachusetts corrections commissioner handed the keys to the men incarcerated at Walpole State Prison. They ran the facility for two months — to prove to the world that prisons shouldn’t exist at all.
By Courtesy of John Booras via Digital Commonwealth/Creative Commons

The Abolitionist and the Prisoners’ Union

Fifty years ago, the Massachusetts corrections commissioner handed the keys to the men incarcerated at Walpole State Prison. They ran the facility for two months — to prove to the world that prisons shouldn’t exist at all.
By Julian J. Giordano and Bea Wall-Feng

These days, Bobby Dellelo lives in Cambridge. “Come over,” he says to us on the phone. “I’ll show you a view that’ll make you want to punch your landlord dead in the mouth.”

He greets us at the door. A dusty brown, partially deaf cockapoo named Riley shuffles into the living room. “He’s a cool little bugger,” Dellelo tells us. His apartment overlooks Central Square; you can see Memorial Hall from it. The walls are covered in stuff: the “Fear is the mind-killer” quote from “Dune,” a sign that reads BAD COP NO DONUT, a calendar commemorating the National Prisoners Reform Association.

Dellelo grew up in Roxbury, and he had been incarcerated for more than half his life when he entered Walpole State Prison in 1964. He left it in 2003, after appealing to overturn his life sentence. He has a strong Boston accent and a deliberate way of moving; and in 1973, when the prisoners ran Walpole, he was the chapter president of the NPRA, their union and governing body.

Bobby Dellelo poses for a photo in his Cambridge apartment. Dellelo, 81, was president of the NPRA during the 1973 guard strike.
Bobby Dellelo poses for a photo in his Cambridge apartment. Dellelo, 81, was president of the NPRA during the 1973 guard strike. By Julian J. Giordano

On March 15, 1973, the reformist prison commissioner handed the keys to the prisoners at MCI-Walpole, a maximum-security men’s prison with a reputation for violence. A few months earlier, the men inside had unionized during a wave of prisoner-led activism in Massachusetts and across the nation. The guards walked out in protest, and the union — the NPRA — was put to the test: Could they maintain peace at what was regarded as one of the most dangerous prisons in America?

Two years after the brutal massacre of prisoners by police at the Attica state prison in New York, the world was watching. Thirty miles north of Walpole, Harvard students boarded buses with other activists to come to the prison as civilian observers, there to document the situation and deter the state from violently reclaiming the facility.

For their part, the prisoners didn’t just want to survive: They wanted to prove to the world that the prison itself was unnecessary. The two months that they ran Walpole before the guard strike ended were, depending on who you asked, either a dangerous mistake that never should have been allowed to happen — or a powerful model of what abolition might look like in the hands of prisoners.

Fifty years later, Walpole Prison — now officially MCI-Cedar Junction, though everyone we speak to still calls it Walpole — is shutting down. Citing dropping incarceration rates and aging buildings, the state announced that it would be phasing the prison out in 2022. As of this June, all of the men incarcerated there have been relocated to other institutions. We don’t yet know what will become of the massive facility, but its history is already beginning to disappear.

Weeds grow from cracks in the asphalt in front of Cedar Junction.
Weeds grow from cracks in the asphalt in front of Cedar Junction. By Julian J. Giordano

The Massachusetts Department of Correction did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

Scholars and activists have done important work documenting the history of Walpole and the two months in 1973 when everything shifted. But the prison has yet to receive the public attention that it deserves: as a site of both some of the darkest moments in Massachusetts prison history, and some of the most genuinely radical.

We set out to trace the history of Walpole and the men who were imprisoned there from its inception until today. In the process, we found that Harvard students have been regularly visiting the prison since its founding in 1955.

Speaking with the student tutors, basketball players, and lawyers-in-training who passed through Walpole cast light on the roles that students at institutions like Harvard can play in supporting or inhibiting prison movements. But this is ultimately not their story. Our conversations with former prisoners, activists, and officials told a narrative about self-determination: about the men who organized and are organizing themselves in the face of staggering dehumanization, whose legacy, now, may be more important than ever.

‘If We’re All Dirt, We Wanna Be Dirt Together’

The vice president of the NPRA at Walpole was Ralph Hamm, who, by all accounts, was larger than life. Six foot six and an intellectual giant, Hamm was born in 1950 and entered Walpole at the age of 18. As a Black man, he was frequently attacked by white guards and prisoners and had to learn to defend himself. In 1970, Dellelo heard noise coming from the corridor, looked out his window, and saw him.

“He’s got a good 20 guards in front of him and a good 20 behind him. He got blood coming down here,” Dellelo says, gesturing at his head. “And he was walking proud as a motherfucker, you know?”

Their friendship would form the basis for their accomplishments as leaders of the prisoners’ union. Both men were charismatic, skilled negotiators, and in a violently segregated facility — around 10 percent of the prisoners, and none of the guards, were Black — Dellelo could talk to the white prisoners and Hamm could talk to the Black prisoners.

But far from occurring in isolation, what was happening at Walpole was part of the wave of Black radical and prison movements that swept America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nearly everyone we speak to begins by talking about what happened at Attica.

In August 1971, guards shot and killed the Black revolutionary George Jackson during an escape attempt at San Quentin State Prison. On the other side of the country, 700 prisoners at Attica State Prison went on a hunger strike in protest of Jackson’s murder, and a month later, they revolted in protest of their own abject living and working conditions. The prisoners took control of the institution and held it for four days, taking guards hostage. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller refused to meet all of their demands — instead, he sent the state police in. The police shot and killed 29 prisoners and 10 guards. It was a massacre by anyone’s standards: the deadliest end to a prison uprising in United States history.

In the wake of Attica and the negative attention it garnered, Massachusetts Governor Francis W. Sargent was convinced his administration had to change the prison system. In December 1971, he named John O. Boone, a social worker and prison administrator from Atlanta, as commissioner of the Department of Correction.

Boone was the state’s first Black commissioner, and was committed to the eventual elimination of prisons through community corrections: the creation of rehabilitative systems, like expansive furlough programs, that allowed prisoners to establish and maintain close connections with their communities. Through these systems, Boone believed, every person sent to prison would have a short, clear path to leaving it.

The chair of the parole board at the time remembers Boone’s impact on the state prison system as being “like a bomb exploded.” Here was this Black man from the South telling the prisoners they could advocate for themselves and telling the guards they would eventually lose their jobs; what’s more, it was working. Recidivism rates in Massachusetts more than halved under Boone’s tenure.

At the time, Walpole had the highest murder rate of any prison in the country. Riots, strikes, and hostage situations were common from the ’50s through the ’70s. Nearly 600 men were imprisoned behind Walpole’s 20-foot walls, distributed across 10 cell blocks and watched over by eight guard towers. Two of the cell blocks were segregation units, filled with windowless isolation cells and carrying a reputation for guard brutality.

A State Trooper searches for escaped prisoners from Walpole on October 18, 1971.
A State Trooper searches for escaped prisoners from Walpole on October 18, 1971. By Courtesy of John Booras via Digital Commonwealth/Creative Commons

In 1972, Boone appointed Raymond E. Porelle as superintendent of Walpole. Boone had worked with Porelle before and expected him to be harsh yet fair, but the move lost Boone the trust of many prisoners. Porelle was a “real sick son of a bitch,” Dellelo remembers, the kind of guy who walked around the prison floor carrying two pistols, who had a reputation among both the men in the prison and the men running it. “I think the attitude of the government toward him was, he’s a Nazi, but he’s our Nazi,” Cathy Moritz, then an administrative assistant to the Massachusetts Parole Board, remembers hearing around the office.

Porelle’s brutal management style boiled over in December, when, an hour before the Kwanzaa feast that Black prisoners had spent months preparing for, he locked all the prisoners in their cells for over two months. The prisoners went without showers or clean clothes; the guards ate their holiday food.

“He did us a favor,” a prisoner says in the documentary “Three Thousand Years and Life,” filmed in the wake of the 1973 guard strike. “He said, you’re all dirt and I’m gonna treat you like dirt. We said, well, if we’re all dirt, we wanna be dirt together. And that’s just what we did.”

Walpole’s Black prisoners were already organizing through Black African Nations Toward Unity, or BANTU. Porelle’s treatment of the prisoners, Hamm said in the book “When the Prisoners Ran Walpole,” was “the single profound catalyst” that convinced them to join the NPRA as well. The prisoners voted to recognize the NPRA as their representative body, and, extraordinarily, for it to function as a formal labor union. In February, led by the NPRA, they staged a general work strike. Boone supported them. The only significant impediments were the guards, who were wary of the shift in power, resentful of reporting to a Black man, and worried that a reduction in prison size could jeopardize their jobs.

Following the Kwanzaa lockdown, a group of prison activists including Reverend Ed Rodman, a radical young priest, suggested that Commissioner Boone bring in outside observers to take shifts inside the prison — so that, Rodman recalls, “if something went down, everybody would have someone to tell the story.”

“Word on the street was that it was going to be worse than Attica,” he remembers.

Boone was on board. “You will probably see us with some unrest for a period of time,” he told reporters, “but we think that it will pay off in something much better.”

The observer program was initially a small group of allies, but it grew to comprise more than 500 volunteers from across the Boston area, including students from Harvard. The guards’ union opposed the program. On March 9, two days after the first observers came in, 50 guards walked off of their 3 p.m. shift in protest. On March 15, the entire guard force went on strike.

“They walked out, hoping it’d be a bloodbath,” Dellelo tells us: Either the prisoners would kill each other, or, like in Attica, the state police would do it for them. If Boone lost his job as a result, the guards believed, that was a bonus. The prisoners gathered in the auditorium and Dellelo told them that for this to work, they would have to be unified. He backed up this declaration with the threat of violence.

“For the next six months, all the racial bullshit, all the other problems, gotta be put on the back burner,” he remembers saying. “Anyone that violates it, we will take them out.”

The Whale

Jonathan Prude had never seen anything like Walpole before.

“We approached and someone said, ‘Oh my God, it’s Moby Dick.’ This huge white building, looming up in the middle distance,” he remembers. Prude was at Harvard getting his Ph.D. in History when he became a civilian observer. For many of the former students, prisoners, and activists we spoke to, this first sensory encounter was also what stayed with them the longest: seeing the monstrous facility and hearing its gates close behind you.

One of MCI-Cedar Junction's 10 guard towers can be seen from the road.
One of MCI-Cedar Junction's 10 guard towers can be seen from the road. By Julian J. Giordano

The civilian observers worked six-hour shifts inside the prison. The observers took detailed notes about their surroundings and the interactions they had. Partly they were there to report back if something happened; partly they were there to prevent something from happening in the first place.

The Massachusetts State Police “had the place surrounded,” Michael Ignatieff tells us. Ignatieff, now a professor at the Central European University, was also a Harvard graduate student when the call for observers came out. The whole time, he says, the possibility that the police would come in and cause a second Attica was palpable.

While the observers and prisoners waited, they talked to each other. The situation was tense, but the prisoners knew how the prison worked — they had been doing the labor inside it already, for less than minimum wage, and were able to organize themselves efficiently.

“The guys that worked in the kitchen, we made them the kitchen managers,” Dellelo says. “The guys that worked in the hospital, we made them the medical people.” One observer described it as “a complex society at work, a society that puts out official state documents, records and printed forms, building materials, light handicrafts, license plates and 18,000 meals a day for its population.”

Walpole produced every license plate in the state of Massachusetts. The work was dangerous and barely compensated — the men were paid only 50 cents a day. A man in “Three Thousand Years and Life” describes watching a 17-year-old, who shouldn’t have been operating the machinery at all, lose his hand in it.

“After a few weeks there, you were really good at making license plates,” Alex Keyssar ’69, a professor at the Kennedy School who served as an observer, remembers a prisoner telling him. “The problem with that as a skill was that the only place in Massachusetts that made license plates was in prison. So it didn’t really help them get a job outside.” (This is still the case today: One DOC spokesperson said in 2007 that though former prisoners couldn’t find employment doing the same work they did inside, making license plates still taught them important skills like being a “team player.” All of the state’s license plates are still made by incarcerated people.)

Without union recognition — and under the 13th Amendment, which permits slavery as punishment for incarcerated people — prisoners had no formal ability to demand a minimum wage or safe working conditions. This was why, the previous December, the NPRA had filed for recognition not just as a governing body but as a collective bargaining unit; and it was what set them apart from other prisoners’ unions at the time. The men at Walpole demanded that they be recognized as workers, first and foremost, and for nearly 10 months, they waited for the State Labor Relations Commission to approve their petition.

For all that the observer program was necessary for securing the prisoners’ safety, it was also, to an extent, at odds with the environment that created it. The Harvard alumni we spoke to largely described themselves as white students who had never been inside a prison before — and they understood the situation differently from the men inside, whose aim was to demonstrate that the prison should not have existed at all. “Many of the observers were there because they wanted to fix Walpole,” Rodman said in 2006. “A few dedicated individuals understood the NPRA as an abolition project, but we never really made the transition.”

Prude tells us he keeps returning to an NPRA meeting he sat in on. He was writing his dissertation on industrialization and working-class life in Massachusetts; Ignatieff was researching penitentiaries in the Industrial Revolution. “My jaw dropped,” Prude remembers. “Oh my god, this is what we’ve been writing about: agency among repressed people. Jesus, here it is.”

And for all that the observer program did, ultimately, it wasn’t enough. “The reality was that there were not enough people on all sides who were willing to support that nonviolent, dialogue-oriented process,” Rodman recalls. Governor Sargent wanted Commissioner Boone to bring the guards back in, and eventually he bowed to pressure.

In May, the state police came in with shotguns. The Black prisoners improvised weapons to defend themselves with and locked themselves in their cells. The police shot three prisoners, beat Dellelo bloody, dragged him through broken glass, and threw him in solitary confinement. The observer program ended, and in June, Sargent fired Boone. In September, the State Labor Relations Commission ruled against the NPRA, refusing to certify it as a labor union.

One might take the ending of prisoner control as evidence that it never could have worked, but in many respects, Dellelo tells us, the NPRA did work. There were the metrics that government officials might care about: In the 16 months before the guard strike, there had been 12 murders at Walpole. When the prisoners were in charge, there were none. Rates of rape and theft also dropped to zero.

There were also the intangible metrics, the kinds of agency that Hamm believed were necessary to create a world beyond prisons.

“Our pursuit of unity collectively generated responses from our historic repressor, which allowed our individual creativity to have full range,” Hamm wrote in a 2012 memoir. “We treated our neighbors as ourselves and shared in the growing pangs of liberty together. Each cause of momentum was both a joy and a revelation.”

The Prison Committees

In the late 1960s, a few years before Porelle became superintendent and the NPRA ran the prison, the men at Walpole conspired to keep a “mobile underground library” of books hidden from the guards, transferring them from cell to cell. The books were for a Black history class taught by David Dance ’74, a Harvard student and volunteer tutor.

As a teenager, Dance had been involved with the Boston chapter of the Black Panther Party, attending their political education classes and driving a van for their liberation school. He came to Harvard in 1970, a year after concerted protests pushed the University to create an Afro-American Studies department.

The course at the prison combined authors approved by the prison administration — Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes — along with other texts by Marxist and anti-colonial theorists like Frantz Fanon and Paulo Freire, brought in by Bob Heard, a Panther who co-taught the class.

Aerial view of the Walpole Prison and surrounding area taken on January 14, 1958.
Aerial view of the Walpole Prison and surrounding area taken on January 14, 1958. By Courtesy of John Booras via Digital Commonwealth/Creative Commons

In “When The Prisoners Ran Walpole,” Hamm describes the class as fundamental to “my greater understanding of the Third World struggle against colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, and racism.” When he saw prisoners playing chess, Hamm would throw a book at the board and tell them to read it instead.

“Every single Black prisoner in that prison was attending that Black history class,” says Jamie Bissonette Lewey, who co-wrote “When The Prisoners Ran Walpole.” The Black prisoners formed Black African Nations Toward Unity, or BANTU, which would become one of the most powerful tools for organizing Walpole’s Black prisoners. Dance and Rodman joined its external board of directors.

Dance’s program was run through the Phillips Brooks House Association, a student-run service organization at Harvard. PBHA’s Prison Committee had been teaching prisoners across Massachusetts since 1953, two years before Walpole opened. By 1961, three dozen volunteers on the Committee tutored around 200 men and women incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons, 10 percent of the total prison population. Students led weekly classes of three to 15 pupils at four of the state’s seven prisons — Norfolk, Walpole, Concord, and Framingham — and discussed a diverse range of subjects, from mathematics to philosophy.

Over the next 10 years, the program doubled in size, but it would experience its most dramatic growth after the 1971 uprising at Attica, when the number of Committee volunteers skyrocketed from 61 to 147.

A poster advertises a conversation about Massachusetts prisons at the Phillips Brooks House in the fall of 1973, five months after the end of the Walpole guard strike. Arnie Coles, the then-president of the National Prisoners Reform Association, was one of the guest speakers. (HUD 3688.272. Harvard University Archives.)
A poster advertises a conversation about Massachusetts prisons at the Phillips Brooks House in the fall of 1973, five months after the end of the Walpole guard strike. Arnie Coles, the then-president of the National Prisoners Reform Association, was one of the guest speakers. (HUD 3688.272. Harvard University Archives.) By Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives

In the fall of 1973, five months after the end of the Walpole guard strike, Arnie Coles, then president of the NPRA, came to Harvard to speak at the Phillips Brooks House.

“There is so much you undergraduates could do,” he told the three dozen students listening. “Students are the only ones who have consistently supported prisoners and shared their education and resources and you can't stop now.”

“You’re in your own prisons here at Harvard,” he added. “It’s about time you come to Walpole and find out what principles are all about. You could see that our society’s prisons are nothing but the dumping grounds for people who are denied schooling and training.”

Still, some volunteers had doubts about the work they were doing.

“More and more members of the Committee have come to feel not only that the effect of our ‘voice’ is minimal, but that our continued weekly presence at the prisons is in fact tacit support of the existing institutional structures and practices,” the Committee wrote in their 1972-73 guide for volunteers. “At the same time, of course, the feeling that we should not literally desert the many men and women who have no other regular contact with ‘outsiders’ remains strong.”

Facing allegations that the Bridgewater prison was inhumane, officials at the facility cited PBHA’s work as an example of a rehabilitative program run inside to argue against closing it. Not wanting to advance this argument, PBHA began pursuing placements of volunteers outside of prisons, working with groups of people on parole and advocating for prison reform with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

The Prisons Committee was also challenged from within Harvard. A report on the PBHA’s programs conducted by a freshman seminar class in 1968 concluded that the Prisons Committee’s tutoring programs were “perpetuated more for Harvard students to be able to have the experience of ‘being friends’ with prisoners,” and that these relationships were “inherently unequal, paternalistic and unreal.” In a scathing conclusion, the report accused the Prisons Committee of providing “education-as-recreation.”

The Harvard Classics, a junior varsity basketball team, had also been coming to Walpole since shortly after it opened in 1955. The Classics played regular games at other prisons across the state as well.

“Playing these basketball games is one of the funnest things we do,” Walpole prisoner Ralph Sanders told the Crimson in 1984. “It’s one of the only things we do.”

The former Classics players we spoke to don’t recall having any conversations with the incarcerated men beyond courtside banter. Regardless of the outcome of the game, the students went home at the end of the night, and their opponents stayed in the prison. Now, those students are doctors, lawyers, CEOs; the team even counts Barack Obama as an alum. Many of the men they played are still behind bars.

Back on campus, Classics players told stories to their friends, but none of their excitement translated into advocacy. While the Classics are still around today, they haven’t played at Walpole since the ’90s.

In his senior thesis, then-PBHA president Donald Henry Gips ’82 summarized the dilemma facing the “activist radical students” of Harvard in the early 1970s. “The worst evil for the students lay in ‘selling out,’” one of Gips’ interviewees told him. “Anything short of revolution constituted pacification.”

But, Gips writes, “No one knew how to create revolutions.”

The Shakedown

The front page of the July 7, 1973 Boston Phoenix ran with a striking image: the ex-commissioner’s headshot superimposed onto a bullseye and the words “Who Shot John Boone Down?”

“Racism, an irresponsible or lax press, demagoguery from state legislators, a weak governor and a vindictive, corrupt union are not pretty things,” the attached column concluded. “John Boone is damn lucky to be out of this ugly mess.”

Boone knew from the start that his tenure would be short. When he was hired, Sargent said he could only guarantee Boone two years in office before political blowback might catch up to him. The day the first guards walked out, the Boston Herald, which was overtly sympathetic to them, ran a cover story with the headline “Boone the C--n.”

But Boone was determined to take on the challenge. He knew that he was going to try to change the system from the inside, and he understood that what he started would take longer than his tenure — and lifetime — to finish. When he came to Walpole, Bissonette Lewey remembers Boone telling her, he was a radical reformer; when he left, he was an abolitionist.

Bob Bell, the general counsel to the Department of Correction while Boone was commissioner, says that Boone’s philosophy “was simply about treating people as human beings.” If you do that, he says, “you’re going to get positive results.”

“He was more the good guy than the bad guy,” Dellelo tells us. “He was honest. He told you something, you could take it to the bank.”

The guard strike at Walpole gave Boone an unprecedented opportunity to advance his community corrections agenda, but it also upset corrections staff who felt endangered by his actions.

A prison guard at Walpole stands in a row of cells in 1959, three years after the prison opened.
A prison guard at Walpole stands in a row of cells in 1959, three years after the prison opened. By Courtesy of John Booras via Digital Commonwealth/Creative Commons

“I think that John Boone put a lot of us in jeopardy,” David Haley says, recalling the 12-hour shifts he spent supervising the death row block in Walpole at the start of the guard strike. A social worker at MCI-Norfolk, Haley was one of 14 non-guard corrections staff sent in to oversee operations the week the guards walked out. He was shocked to find that one of the men running the cell block was Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler.

Jim Circo, a student at Northeastern who worked in Walpole’s reception center, also oversaw DeSalvo’s cell block during the strike. He wrote in a retrospective essay that DeSalvo and his co-leader, who had twice been convicted of murder, “became my new best friends.” When we speak with him, he says that despite their cordial relationship, he worried that if they didn’t like something he did, no one would be there to protect him.

Still, Circo wrote, “prisoners experienced that fear even more intensely than we did.” Even now, half a century later, Dellelo tells us that it’s hard for him to think about it. Regardless of the opportunity that the guard strike posed for Boone to advance his vision for corrections, what would happen was still, ultimately, unplanned and uncertain.

When the strike ended in May, Boone had the opportunity to solidify his legacy. He worked to implement the landmark Omnibus Prison Reform Act, known as Chapter 777, that had passed when he took office in 1972. The legislation promised expanded furloughs, work release, education programs, and community correctional centers. From November 1972 to June 1973, Boone issued over 4,200 passes for prisoners to return to their communities on furlough, with a 98.6 percent success rate.

But on June 21, Governor Sargent forced Boone to resign from office. In his statewide address, he called Boone a “brave man” who had done his very best, and he praised Boone’s achievements in implementing community corrections. “John Boone is not the cause of the problem at Walpole,” Sargent said. “He is the victim of it.”

He said that Boone’s effectiveness was destroyed by the attacks he faced, that he was unable to lead through the chaos at Walpole. “Now,” he said, “we must bring Walpole Prison under control.”

After Boone was forced to resign, furlough programs were suspended, visiting hours were reduced, and guard shakedowns increased. The DOC was eventually moved from the Health and Human Services office to the Office of Public Safety and Security, a shift away from community corrections and toward “law and order.”

One man cuts another's hair inside Walpole State Prison in the 1980s.
One man cuts another's hair inside Walpole State Prison in the 1980s. By Courtesy of Steve Milanowski

“After Walpole, things started to tighten up,” Paul A. Chernoff, who was then the chair of the Massachusetts Parole Board, tells us. “They got tighter and tighter and tighter. It has taken almost 40 years for things to open up again.”

A rightward-shifting, tough-on-crime political environment rolled back Boone-era policies at the local and national level. The “Rockefeller Drug Laws” in 1973 and the wave of three-strikes laws in the ’90s made it easy to be locked up on minor charges. Chernoff says that Michael Dukakis, who was Massachusetts governor after Sargent, continued to commute some prisoners’ sentences during his term, but his presidential bid was cut short by an attack ad that stoked white Americans’ racist fears over the furlough program. Bill Weld, who succeeded Dukakis in 1991, stopped commuting sentences almost completely.

As reforms were rolled back, a group of radical Harvard Law students took it upon themselves to serve as lawyers without licenses for prisoners, representing them in disciplinary and parole hearings without faculty supervision. They called themselves the Prison Legal Assistance Program, or PLAP.

In 1972, two years after their founding, the Department of Correction contacted them, asking if they could mediate a prisoner uprising at MCI-Concord. The “PLAPpers,” as they called themselves, drove out to Concord and walked around the cell blocks, working with the men incarcerated there to facilitate a peaceful resolution.

Over the next couple decades, PLAP sent students to prisons across Massachusetts to represent thousands of prisoners in disciplinary and parole hearings that they would otherwise be left to go through alone.

John D. Fitzpatrick was a PLAP member from 1984 to 1987, and has been a clinical instructor at PLAP since 1998, but his connection to Walpole dates back even earlier: His mother developed an autonomous health collective there in the 1970s as part of her dissertation, teaching men medical skills so that they could tend to each other.

Speaking rapidly, Fitzpatrick tells us about the violence that Walpole descended into through the ’70s and early ’80s. He recalls his mother’s collective being immediately crushed after she left the prison — the prison administration was “very skittish about empowering prisoners to any extent at all.” When he first visited Walpole as a law student in 1984, there were what he calls “dog cages” for prisoners in the solitary confinement block, as well as a complete lack of heating or air conditioning and rats running around. “It was medieval,” he says.

John D. Fitzpatrick sits at a desk where students receive calls from prisoners in the PLAP office. Fitzpatrick worked at PLAP as a student in the 80s and has been a clinical instructor there for the past 25 years.
John D. Fitzpatrick sits at a desk where students receive calls from prisoners in the PLAP office. Fitzpatrick worked at PLAP as a student in the 80s and has been a clinical instructor there for the past 25 years. By Julian J. Giordano

Fitzpatrick tells us that PLAP’s presence in prisons provides a form of accountability. As outside observers bearing witness to what is taking place, he says, student volunteers help ensure that the institution adheres to legal norms.

There are other prison assistance programs at law schools across the country, but none of them have been around as long as Harvard’s, and few have the same scope. In the past 50 years, the program has gone from having fewer than 20 active members to having a current team of more than 120 members serving all 14 Massachusetts corrections facilities, with each student taking at least one case per year.

Still, the structure of the program has changed very little. At the PLAP office, students pick up calls from prisoners, writing down details and hearing dates to flow into a case management system. Students then pick up and prepare cases before driving to meet their client in prison. Jason Adkins, who volunteered with PLAP in the late ’80s, remembers working with three clients to have them be granted parole — one of them without forcing the client to confess to the alleged crime, which is unusual for parole hearings.

Seeing the systemic injustices of prisons — often for the first time — shaped the way the students thought about their future careers in law. Some became reform activists and others vowed to never become prosecutors; some actually walked away with a stronger confidence in the need for prisons. All of the students described their experiences as rewarding.

Sandra Grannum, who volunteered with PLAP from 1983 to 1986, recalls learning “what it’s like when somebody really depends on you.”

“I don’t know that ever in my life I ever felt like that before, like I was the last hope,” she says.

While incarcerated men say they were grateful for representation from students in PLAP, representation was never guaranteed, often inconsistent, and sometimes unpredictable. The way the system was supposed to work, prisoners would leave their information with the PLAP hotline, and one student or another would eventually take the case. That’s not how Dellelo remembers it.

“What the professors do is they take the card with information and they put it on the fucking board,” he says. “And if a student picks it, then they’ll come somehow talk to you. But they don’t, and what happens is you lose your appeal time ’cause you wait for some student, who you have no idea if they’re gonna take the damn thing, and if they don’t, you’re fucked.”

Dellelo adds, “You can’t do that to fucking people ’cause they’re losing their appeal rights, because you don’t want to get off your fucking ass.”

Harry Rouse IV, another former PLAP member, points out that Walpole, an hour’s drive away and inaccessible by transit, was difficult for students to get to. “Sometimes the dates didn’t work out. People didn’t have cars. It was hard to get to Walpole because it was square on the other side of Boston,” Rouse says. “To do it right took some time” — time the prisoners didn’t always have.

Many of the former PLAP members we spoke to told us the program was an unequivocal good. It was a place to make friends, learn valuable skills like cross-examination, and help people in need. For the people on the other side of the wall, though, Harvard students were only a small part of their experience — albeit with an outsized ability to alter their sentences.

A whiteboard in the PLAP office at the Harvard Law School reads: PLAPpers are: RADICAL! OFFENSIVE! DANGEROUS!
A whiteboard in the PLAP office at the Harvard Law School reads: PLAPpers are: RADICAL! OFFENSIVE! DANGEROUS! By Julian J. Giordano

Today’s PLAP student directors tell us that they’re always trying to do more. They now engage in impact litigation — pursuing civil suits that, for example, increase access to courts for incarcerated people — and have a team that does policy advocacy.

“This work is really radicalizing,” says Faith Blank, one of the directors. Her co-director Manvitha Kapireddy adds: “We’re really trying to have more guidance, more education on what abolition means, so that people can get there on their own.”

The Factory

Bobby Dellelo escaped from prison three times, served five years in solitary confinement, and, in 1997, began the moonshot process of trying to overturn his life sentence. He spent years poring over the sparse materials in the prison’s law library and filing motions. He argued prosecutorial misconduct and that he had received inadequate counsel — he had been convicted of first-degree murder for a shooting where he had not actually been present.

In 2003, the court reduced his conviction to manslaughter. Dellelo walked out, a free man for the first time in decades. It was his 62nd birthday. “When I got out,” he says to us, “the world I knew was gone.”

The only times Dellelo had been on the street in the past 40 years were during escape attempts. After his release, it took time to be able to let his guard down in everyday situations. “The subway train pulls in, door opens up. Instant panic attack,” he says. “I got no gun and I’m surrounded by people.” He stayed temporarily with family in Beachmont while he looked for somewhere to live.

If the world was changing, though, the punitive institutions at its center remained more or less untouched. In 2004, the year after his release, Dellelo testified in front of the Harshbarger Committee, which had been commissioned by then-Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to investigate violence within the prison system. The committee’s findings would result in the identification of hundreds of counts of physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by guards.

In the middle of this process, Kathleen Dennehy became commissioner of the DOC. The first woman to head the state prison system, she pledged her commitment to “a culture that looks to the future, that embraces change and relies on new performance measures and accountability systems.”

On her first day on the job, Dennehy overturned a regulation that had effectively shut down PLAP the previous year by excluding all but third-year law students from prison hearing rooms. She worked with the Harshbarger Committee to develop their report and stopped the use of canines in cell extractions — that is, sending dogs in to bite prisoners. The guards’ union resisted her attempts at reform, slashing her tires and hiring private investigators to tail her.

After she left the position in 2007, she tells us, all the official copies of the Harshbarger report disappeared, and the department resumed its previous canine policy. A report published in Insider this summer names Massachusetts as one of eight states to still deploy attack dogs in this way. (A spokesperson for the DOC told Insider that the department, which is “committed to de-escalation,” uses patrol dogs “that do not engage in use of force tactics.”)

At minimum, Dennehy says, corrections systems need independent oversight. “There’s some things that frankly can’t be explained or defended,” she says.

A copy of the 2008 book "When the Prisoners Ran Walpole" by Jamie Bissonette Lewey sits on a table in the PLAP office.
A copy of the 2008 book "When the Prisoners Ran Walpole" by Jamie Bissonette Lewey sits on a table in the PLAP office. By Julian J. Giordano

Things were changing at Harvard too. David Dance, who had helped start Walpole’s Black history course as an undergrad in 1970, returned to PBHA as its director in 2002. (We ask him what made him come back. “The students!” he says, laughing.) PBHA’s prison tutoring program — now called the Harvard Organization for Prison Education and Advocacy, or HOPE — no longer sent students to Walpole, but operated at several other county facilities. Those facilities had a “very reputable education program,” says Kerry McGowan, one of PBHA’s directors of programs: Incarcerated people would take classes toward earning their GEDs in the daytime, and Harvard students would come in and tutor them at night.

Around the early 2000s, PBHA began a scholarship program for prisoners. Each year, McGowan guesses, five or six people within three months of release would receive between $500 and $1,000 to attend a class of their choice: cooking, driving, phlebotomy. The money went to the educational institutions, not the former prisoners — but you could see traces of the community corrections model Commissioner Boone had advanced in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, through word of mouth and initiatives like Harvard’s First-Year Urban Program, undergrads connected to the criminal justice arm of the American Friends Service Committee. At AFSC spaces in Roxbury and Cambridge, Jamie Bissonette Lewey had begun trying to historicize the events at Walpole in the 1970s. She worked closely with Reverend Ed Rodman, as well as with Dellelo, who was using his legal expertise to make a post-incarceration career of prisoner advocacy, and Ralph Hamm, whom she visited weekly in prison to edit her manuscript.

When it came out in 2008, “When the Prisoners Ran Walpole,” co-written by the four, was perhaps the first public history project to position what had happened as something more than undirected chaos: a comprehensive vision of what prisoner-led abolition projects might look like. The royalties went to Dellelo and Hamm “for their use in post-prison survival,” Bissonette Lewey says.

Ralph Hamm remained a prisoner. In his decades of incarceration, Hamm published poetry collections, plays, and essays; wrote volumes of theory drawing on Freire, Fanon, and the other philosophers he had been introduced to in the 1970s; and earned multiple diplomas, graduating magna cum laude from Boston University’s Metropolitan College.

At his third parole hearing in 2009, Hamm reported in a prison newspaper, the chair of the parole board asked him if he was a man of his convictions.

“I try to be,” Hamm said.

The chair said, “Then why don’t you die in prison.” Hamm was denied parole. He was denied it again in 2014.

The lights around the vast white perimeter of MCI-Cedar Junction flicker on and off.
The lights around the vast white perimeter of MCI-Cedar Junction flicker on and off. By Julian J. Giordano

‘That Place Has Ghosts’

Now that there are no more people in Walpole Prison, the state faces the question of what to do with it. Joel Thompson, one of PLAP’s current supervisors, tells us about a conversation he had in 2009, when one of Walpole’s maximum-security units was repurposed into an intake center.

“What are they gonna do with that place now that we’re all out of there?” he remembers the prisoner asking. Thompson said it was going to become an intake center. The man shook his head.

“That place has ghosts,” he said. “They should tear it down.”

We drive south to what used to be Walpole the day after the hurricane. There’s no one around — just crickets and birds and the highway in the distance — but someone has been taking care of the lawn, and the lights on the vast white perimeter flicker on and off. Mugwort and sandgrass shoot up from cracks in the asphalt.

Civilians can’t drive past the gates, and most of the building is hidden by trees, but pull over on an overpass on Route 1A and you can look down on the whole facility. It’s bigger than you might imagine.

An overpass on Route 1A looks over the walls of Cedar Junction and into the vast complex within.
An overpass on Route 1A looks over the walls of Cedar Junction and into the vast complex within. By Julian J. Giordano

This spring, in a seminar on prison abolition led by Thomas A. Dichter ’08, students digitized handwritten notes from the civilian observers who were present during the guard strike. As an undergraduate, Dichter had volunteered at the American Friends Service Committee, where he met Bissonette Lewey and Dellelo; he regards Dellelo as a mentor.

In May, Dichter organized a 50th anniversary retrospective event at the Mahindra Humanities Center, bringing together Dellelo, Dance, Rodman, and other figures from the time into a two-day series of panels. Named after Bissonette Lewey’s book, the panels grappled with the question of what to make of that unprecedented moment, especially now. But the panel had two glaring absences: Ralph Hamm and John Boone.

Boone, the former commissioner, died in 2012 at the age of 93. That year, there were 11,723 prisoners incarcerated in the state of Massachusetts, the most of any year on record. Since then, incarceration rates have declined steadily, in part due to a 2018 criminal justice reform bill that reduced the usage of mandatory minimums and solitary confinement. This year, there were 6,070 people in Massachusetts prisons: triple as many as in 1973, but half as many as in 2012.

A "No trespassing" sign hangs on a gate to the entrance of Cedar Junction. The Department of Correction has yet to announce what will be done with the building now that all of the men incarcerated there have been relocated.
A "No trespassing" sign hangs on a gate to the entrance of Cedar Junction. The Department of Correction has yet to announce what will be done with the building now that all of the men incarcerated there have been relocated. By Julian J. Giordano

Incarceration rates also dropped during the pandemic. Covid spread like wildfire inside facilities whose inhabitants were overcrowded and underprotected to begin with; prisoners in Massachusetts were 50 percent more likely to die of Covid than the statewide baseline. Many prisoners were given an expedited release. Harvard initiatives like PBHA’s prison tutoring and scholarship programs shuttered during the pandemic, and members are trying to restart them now.

David Dance, who retired from PBHA in 2017, says the onset of the pandemic made it clear that the government had the resources to create rehabilitative systems for prisoners — online education, job assistance, housing assistance, family communications — but was not using them. “It makes you wonder about the seriousness of so-called reforms,” he says. “We’re 20 or 30 years behind where we should be.”

“When we slow, they’re still going, so we can’t slow down,” Dance adds. “The forces that created this situation are still creating it day by day.”

This past decade saw a massive surge in prisoner-led organizing and resistance, University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Toussaint Losier ’04 says. In 2010, there was a strike across prisons in Georgia demanding a living wage, healthcare, education, and parole. In 2011 and 2013, prisoners led a hunger strike across California protesting solitary confinement. In 2016, 24,000 prisoners across 50 prisons took part in what was called the largest prisoner strike in U.S. history; in 2018, more strikes and work stoppages followed.

These strikes, like other recent prison organizing, drew on the history of prison movements. In a 2020 webinar hosted by the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, a representative from the organization Jailhouse Lawyers Speak said: “We feel like the other Attica is already upon us.”

“The death rates. The Covid-19s. The murders,” the representative said. “We’re seeing suicides, drug overdoses daily, around the country. So we think we are already in the midst of an Attica. We’re not looking for it to come in the way that the previous Attica came.”

Losier studies mass incarceration and grassroots resistance. He says he was drawn to Walpole because, despite the Walpole NPRA being perhaps the “most advanced of any prisoner organizing effort,” the story has been relatively forgotten. The national prisoner strikes in 2016 and 2018 explicitly invoked Attica, using the anniversaries of George Jackson’s assassination and the 1971 uprising as their start and end dates. What would it look like if Walpole were recognized as part of that lineage, too?

Walpole, Losier says, where the men inside organized and educated themselves, “unsettles the narrative that the abolitionist movement has about itself” — namely, an understanding of prison abolition that does not include prisoners in the conversation. Maybe this is one way to understand the Boone era: less a model of what the future could look like than a map of how it might be reached. In their philosophy and negotiations, the NPRA called it self-determination.


Ralph Hamm was granted parole in March 2020, part of what the official record calls an “expedited resolution in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” after having been denied on four previous occasions. He can’t speak with any other former prisoners because it might result in his parole being revoked.

“He has an ankle bracelet on,” Dellelo says. “If he talks to me, he’ll get violated. I mean, they’re really fucking with him bad because of all the shit he did, thanks to yours truly.”

To Dellelo and others, Hamm’s protracted sentence was something like retaliation. “Ralph is more of an example than a human being to the system,” Bissonette Lewey says. His record has been “crystal clear” since the mid-’80s, but his actions left an impression on administrators, she tells us — and to get parole at all, Hamm had to essentially renounce many of the radical ideas he had developed in his work.

“I came to realize that the core of the rote system of (mis) education is domination,” Hamm wrote in his 2012 book “Manumission: The Liberated Consciousness of a Prison(er) Abolitionist.” “It enslaves the individual and manipulates him with misinformation to not act as a subject in history,” he continues, “thereby relegating him to an object and preventing him from becoming an authentic human being.” It would take a global pandemic to set Hamm materially — and only conditionally — free.

After Dellelo’s release in 2003, he used the legal expertise he had gained to become a certified paralegal. He continued the work he had started while incarcerated of helping other prisoners learn the relevant laws, so that they could advocate for themselves in the way that he had.

“I would get you the case law that you needed and you would read it,” Dellelo says. “I would know when you were explaining it to me whether you read it or not. And if you’re not interested, neither am I.”

He rifles through a teetering stack of documents next to him on the couch and pulls out an old copy of the Boston Phoenix.

“This is the only copy I got left,” he says. “This is information that you need.”

Dellelo has a print-out of the "Fear is the mind-killer" quote from "Dune" on his wall. He repeats the final sentence — "Only I will remain" — when we ask him about it.
Dellelo has a print-out of the "Fear is the mind-killer" quote from "Dune" on his wall. He repeats the final sentence — "Only I will remain" — when we ask him about it. By Julian J. Giordano

The cover of the issue he wants us to look at is emblazoned with the words PRISON FROM HELL, and it’s not from his own time in prison but from 2010: an exposé detailing countless alleged acts of horrific abuse, overcrowding, and racism at Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater. (The article is called “Troubled Over Bridgewater.”) Dellelo had spent time incarcerated there in the past, and he’s quoted briefly in the article.

What you notice when he talks about it, as much as the content of the article itself, is the urgency with which he speaks. The conditions created at Bridgewater by the guards and carceral system are important: not because they are unique, but because they aren’t. Expensive reform measures are “building this system instead of tearing it down,” Dellelo says. “The object of corrections should be to put it out of business.”

The people we spoke to for this article made this point over and over: Dealing with the carceral system — what Dellelo calls “the factory” — requires dealing with more than just prisons.

“Once you embrace that concept, abolition as a way of life, you’re basically committed to changing everything,” Bissonette Lewey tells us. “These answers are in the spaces left behind by those greedy hungry structures that dominate our world.”

The sun is setting out the window, washing the Cambridge skyline in pink. What are Dellelo’s hopes for the future, we ask.

“Thing is, I’m 81. November the 19th, I’ll be 82. I don’t think I got that much time left on this planet,” Dellelo says.

He pauses and chuckles, and Riley looks up at him from the dog bed. “I’ll just roll with the punches, you know?”

— Associate Magazine Editor Bea Wall-Feng can be reached at Follow them @wallfeng.

— Staff writer Julian J. Giordano can be reached at Follow him @jjgiordano1.

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