As NPRA’s inaugural president, Dellelo appeared in the film as a prisoner spokesman and leader. He and another former Walpole inmate named Albert Brown also appeared for a post-screening talk full of emotion. “It’s hard to explain to you,” Dellelo said with a nervous laugh, “because it brings back serious feelings.” At a loss for language, he kept returning to the word “insanity” in describing conditions before and after the takeover.
In a panel the next day, Dellelo articulated his vision for an alternative to institutions like Walpole. “How do we abolish the prison system?” he said. “We do it through attrition. We train prisoners to be carpenters, masons, electricians, teachers.” He acknowledged the presence of dangerous perpetrators. “But that’s a minor amount of the prison population,” he said, urging that these inmates receive intensive inpatient mental health care.
One panel recalled the 1970s founding of Black African Nations Toward Unity, which grew out of a Black history course organized by inmates at Walpole. Another touched on the legacy of John O. Boone, a prison reformer who became the first Black commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections in 1972 and resigned under fire in 1973 over the turmoil at Walpole.
As Jamie Bissonette wrote in the 2008 book “When the Prisoners Ran Walpole,” the inmates were hardly alone in their opinions of corrections staff. “It became apparent to Boone that the guards at Walpole saw their positions in the [Department of Corrections] less as jobs than as entitlements that they could pass on,” she wrote. Even some of the officers themselves held the group in low esteem. “What I found is I had more respect for those who were incarcerated than I had for the guards,” shared UMass Boston Africana studies lecturer Tony Van Der Meer, a panelist who worked as a Walpole guard in the late 1970s.
Stories of misconduct, systematic racism, and failed reforms finally caused the room to erupt. “I went to the prison system as a 17-year-old kid, man,” blurted out audience member Greg Diatchenko, speaking out of turn during the Boone panel’s question-and-answer session. “I met these guys inside who were abolitionist fighters” he continued, pointing to Brown and several men seated in the back. “They taught me to stand up and fight for what’s right.
“Close the prisons — especially Framingham,” Diatchenko told rows of rapt listeners. “Close it down. Lock it down. And let’s build up. Let’s bring people out in the community.”
In the event’s final panel, abolitionists and activists acknowledged the headwinds they face in the current political climate. “One of the examples we pay close attention to is marriage equality,” offered Andrea James, founder and executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.
She credited the LGBTQ+ movement’s success to on-the-ground organizing, with its emphasis on individual connections. “It’s the hardest work of my life,” said James, who also founded Families for Justice as Healing in Roxbury. “It’s time-consuming. It has to be led by volunteers. We don’t have the money at the National Council. We are women who came out of prison who are trying to advance a different mindset in this country about the use of cages.”
Appearing with James on the March 25 panel, Burnham appealed directly to all the Harvard students in the room. “You may end up before a computer figuring out some policy that will advance our ultimate objective,” she said. “But before you get there, you have to walk with somebody like Andrea. You have to understand what it means to organize.”
Soon, those who wish to learn from Walpole will have the benefit of a digital archive, thanks to Harvard lecturer Thomas Alan Dichter and students in his HIST-LIT 90ES “Prison Abolition” course. Their project, complete with oral histories and digitized records of the Walpole takeover, will launch later this year. In previewing the archive, which will be available to all, Juliette Low Fleury ’23 told the crowd: “It’ll be a good closeout for the 50th anniversary.”