Inmate has come a long way since 1979 sentence
Times-Dispatch Staff Writer
December 7, 1997
When most of Virginia last heard from Joseph Giarratano, the former Hampton Roads scallop fisherman was the sole inmate of the decrepit, soon-to-be razed Virginia State Penitentiary.
It was February 1991, and the condemned capital murderer-turned-legal-eagle was arguably the best-known death row inmate in the country. His supporters included Hollywood celebrities, conservative and liberal newspaper columnists, Amnesty International, clergymen, politicians and schoolchildren.
Today he keeps a much lower profile at the Joliet Correctional Center, a crowded, maximum security, 137-year-old institution best known as the abode of one "Joliet Jake" of the cinema's fictional "Blues Brothers."
He's 41 now, a prison old-timer, his beard and hair flecked with gray. He uses his wits to survive in close quarters with the likes of the Gangster Disciples, the Vice Lords and the Latin Kings.
"I'm lucky. I have a skill that is in great demand here y my legal skill," explained Giarratano. "The gangs pretty much have a hands-off policy where I'm concerned." Nevertheless, he said, "I have to stay on my toes around here. I walk a fine line." Giarratano was sentenced to die in 1979 for the rape and capital murder of a 15-year-old Norfolk girl and the murder of her mother. The sentence was later commuted to life.
His journey from the old state pen in Virginia to Joliet in Illinois includes a stabbing in Virginia, a hunger strike and stretches of isolation in Utah, and two cross-country flights in Virginia Gov. George Allen's executive jet.
Through it all, he has maintained his remarkably loyal and vocal base of supporters as well as his penchant for filing lawsuits. Giarratano, who's had an essay published in the Yale Law Review, studied law while on Virginia's death row in the 1980s and made a name for himself as a jail house lawyer.
In 1991, he was within days of the electric chair when then Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder commuted his death sentence without explaining why. In a later interview, however, Wilder said he was troubled by Giarratano's inconsistent confessions to police. Soon after, then Attorney General Mary Terry turned down his request for a new trial.
He was sent to the Augusta Correctional Center where, with the help of former Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy, the founder of the Center for Teaching Peace, he set up a peace education program for other inmates.
The nonprofit group had a newsletter with a mailing list of 6,000 on the outside. It was closed in 1995 because of alleged financial improprieties, said a spokesman for the Department of Corrections.
Then in October 1995, he was sent to the mental health unit at the Powhatan Correctional Center and from there to the Buckingham Correctional Center. While at Powhatan, he heard from friend and supporter Marie Deans.
"Marie Deans got a call from some of my buddies from Augusta saying that the guards and the administration had put the word out that I was a snitch and that I had worn a wire for internal affairs and got some people busted," Giarratano said. Stuff like that spreads like wildfire throughout the population," he said. He was at the Buckingham Correctional Center when he was stabbed.
"I was coming up the stairwell after chow and some guy stepped out from underneath the stairwell. . . . He said, 'You're a snitch.' He swung the knife, I turned towards him and he stabbed me in the arm," Giarratano said. He was sent back to the Augusta Correctional Center.
Then, on Sept. 29, 1996, "they came to my cell at 2 o'clock in the morning, 15 guards dressed up in riot gear and [carrying] chains. They said, 'Let's go, you're leaving.' "
He said they "put me on the governor's jet. Nice little jet." "When I got into the jet, they said, 'We want you to sit right in this seat right here.' I said, 'Why is that?' He said, 'Well, that used to be where Governor Wilder used to sit."
"We made one stop at Kansas City for refueling. They wouldn't tell me where I was going." He was told he was being moved to protect him from other inmates.
Giarratano claims the department used a bogus reason to close down his peace study program because it and its newsletter were critical of the administration.
He also claims officials deliberately leaked word he was a snitch to discredit him. "I was one of the most-liked prisoners in the system. I was helping a lot of guys," he said.
Gerald T. Zerkin, one of Giarratano's lawyers, agrees. "To the extent his life was in danger, the people in the department put him in danger and used it as an excuse to get rid of him."
Ronald J. Angelone, director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, disagrees. He said Giarratano was shipped out of state for his own good.
"You can put somebody into protective custody, but you're always worried about somebody infiltrating that area . . . so it's easier" to send someone out of state.
Angelone denies he moved Giarratano because he had become a big wheel. And he denies that the department labeled Giarratano a snitch.
"There's no way we'd say, 'hey, let's get this person hurt' so we'd look bad in the newspapers tomorrow," Angelone said.
Giarratano's flight took him to the Utah State Prison, at Draper. "They took me to a cell. A real small cell. Filthy. It had the regular barred door and then it had a steel door on the outside. They put me in the cell and then they closed the steel door and turned off the light. I sat in the cell for a week. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face."
"Mike Farrell tracked me down, had the local ACLU come in and see me," said Giarratano. Farrell, a star of the television series "M*A*S*H," is another long-time supporter. Giarratano said he was moved to a high-security unit where they "locked me down 24 hours a day. The ACLU had to go to battle to get me legal phone calls. The officers made it clear that they were going to break me."
Meanwhile, a story noting his arrival appeared in the Salt Lake City Tribune. It began with two prophetic paragraphs:
"Virginia prisoner Joseph Giarratano was halfway through a cigarette when 15 guards unexpectedly appeared in his cell to escort him to the governor's personal jet.
"The aircraft delivered one of the nation's most articulate prison critics and effective litigators to Utah on Sept. 4 as a part of a prisoner exchange officials here may regret."
Regret they did.
"He was a pain," said Jack Ford, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Corrections, which held Giarratano from September 1996 until March, when they gave him back to Virginia y which sent him to Illinois.
"He was disruptive, he was very persuasive with other inmates, he [wrote] a lot of letters, and he [got] a lot of support from around the country," said Ford. Ford chuckles about Giarratano now, but he said Utah is glad to be rid of him and the unwanted attention he drew to the 5,000-inmate system.
"Apparently Ron Angelone was having a problem with Giarratano who has a following with the ACLU and Amnesty International and a whole bunch of people," said Ford.
Among Ford's complaints: Giarratano would not pose for his mug shot. He stuck his tongue out and closed his eyes. He refused to allow his blood to be tested for mandatory screening. "We finally had to send a SWAT team in to hold him down and draw blood," said Ford.
Giarratano admits there were times he did not cooperate with Utah authorities, but, he said, "my resistance was all passive, even when they came to get blood. . . .
"I didn't want to be in Utah. Didn't
why I was there. . . . Every time I came out of a cell they'd handcuff
me, shackle me
His friend, Deans, head of the now-defunct Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons, said Giarratano went on several hunger strikes while in Utah. The last one got himtransferred to Illinois, he said.
He said his last strike lasted 60 days, the last seven without water, and that his weight dropped from 270 to 215 pounds. "After about 15, 20 days, they moved me into the medical unit," he said.
While on his hunger strike, Ford said Giarratano "started telling people about a thing called 'the devil's chair,' which is a restraint chair. I never heard of the 'devil's chair' before."'
According to news accounts, a mentally ill Utah inmate died after being confined in the restraint chair for 16 hours March 20. Ford said the chairs were used to restrain self-destructive inmates and that Giarratano never was confined to one.
Carol Gnade, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, confirmed that Giarratano helped them investigate the use of the restraint chair and that he never claimed to have been in one. Utah officials have placed a moratorium on use of the chair.
"When I visited him in the infirmary, he was right next to a man who had been in the chair several times, so we got a lot of information from him," said Gnade.
Giarratano said that seven days after he stopped drinking water, "they hooked me up to the [IV] tubes and they called Virginia and told Virginia to come and get me."
Ford agrees they called Virginia but insists Giarratano "didn't lose weight. Everybody else in the system was passing food to him, but he was telling everybody that he was on a hunger strike." And "he continually wrote letters and everybody in the world got involved in his case."
Giarratano insists it was a real hunger strike and that he became so dehydrated his lips cracked and he would lose consciousness. He said that, with outside help, his plight "was going out on the Internet. Amnesty International got involved, all of my old supporters got involved, and they were sending a lot of letters to the prison making inquiries."
Ford said, "I got 30 e-mails a day," including messages from Ireland, from Giarratano supporters. "Once people learned he was here, it was just people all over the country e-mailing and writing. . . .
"I mean the governor's office probably got 10 letters a day about Giarratano," said Ford. "I honestly don't know how he generated that support, but it came from everywhere. "
On March 29, he was back on Virginia's executive jet, this time headed for Joliet. Angelone said Giarratano was transferred to Utah and Illinois under the terms of an interstate compact among correctional systems across the country.
Department spokesman David Botkins said inmates like Giarratano must be transported in a state plane to prevent a "Con Air" situation, where convicts could hijack a plane.
After dropping Giarratano off in
aircraft brought a Utah inmate to Virginia in a swap. Giarratano shared
the plane on
Giarratano said Joliet is a big improvement over Utah. Joliet is "a crazy prison. It's all gang-run." But, he said, "when I got here it was like making parole. In Utah they had me . . . locked down 24 hours a day." After he arrived, "they gave me a job in the law library," he said.
"I'm up at five. Go through my morning routine. Wash up. Make my coffee, that sort of thing. I don't go to breakfast." He said he eats one meal a day y lunch. He said he tries to stay away from the dining hall, a frequent setting for trouble.
He goes to the library at 8 a.m. and stays there until 3 p.m. Then he goes back to his cell. He returns to the library from 5 to 7 p.m. He has a television set in his cell but said "I usually listen to music. I don't watch much TV." His cell is so cramped that he and his cell mate take turns being on the floor.
He has been visited by Zerkin and Farrell since he's been there. Farrell, reached at his office in Sherman Oaks, Calif., recalled Joliet.
"It's an odd kind of antiquated place. For all the history and all the legends about Joliet I expected it to be this massive institution, and I found it to be kind of small and on some levels an unimpresive place," he said.
Farrell said he was grateful to Joliet officials for "treating [Giarratano] in large part like any other prisoner. [That] is just a major step in the right direction."
As far as the other Joliet inmates are concerned, Giarratano said: "They're a pretty rough crowd. I'm just lucky to have the legal skills.
"Nobody's trying to get me to join their gang. It's pretty much been a hands-off thing. It's like, this guy is a lawyer, just leave him alone, let him help all of us."
Among other things, Giarratano has written a 32-page federal lawsuit on behalf of himself and another Virginia prisoner being held in Illinois. The suit alleges various constitutional rights violations as well as Illinois' failure to live up to the contract it signed with Virginia to take them.
"I've got a busy work load. Word has spread around here that I'm the best in the system . . . when it comes to legal work and everybody's banging on my door," he said.
"I'm not supposed to get anything in exchange for it. But it gets me access to the telephone. It might get me an extra piece of chicken in the chow hall. "Something like that," he said.
Joe Giarratano is now a prisoner in Virginia's Red Onion "Super Max" prison, and he needs to hear from you.
Letters cannot weigh over one ounce or they are automatically returned to the sender unopened. No copied materials of any kind can be sent to him. Everything must be originial.Joe Giarratano, #118475