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Bed behind prison bars
Photo by Instants on iStock

As I walked by the infirmary, I saw somebody new was in one of the medical cells. The four-bed cells are for inmates who are sick or awaiting a future operation. Each cell has a 55-inch TV for the patients to watch during their time living at the infirmary at State Correctional Institution – Phoenix, about 35 miles outside Philadelphia. 

The infirmary is a clean and sterile place, and it operates like a typical medical center out in society. 

Sadly, I’ve seen many men die there. I can’t be desensitized to this reality. 

The new man’s name was Joe Granroth. He was tall, slim and looked to be in his mid-50s. He kind of reminded me of a younger version of the great horror film actor Vincent Price. Joe’s hair was long. When I saw him for the first time, he was sitting in his cell drinking a cup of black coffee, wearing his green prison infirmary pajamas. The man seemed calm as he watched an old Western movie on that huge TV. 

I introduced myself. I told him my name was Larry and that I was a certified peer specialist (CPS) who was certified with the state’s mental health association. A CPS listens and helps people dealing with mental health issues, the loss of a loved one, a crisis and other various issues. 

Joe introduced himself too: “I’m a lifer dying from a brain tumor and full-blown bone cancer.” 

I was taken aback by his honesty. I felt sad for him. I felt helpless that I couldn’t do anything to heal this man. I also thought how I would feel if I were in this man’s shoes, dying of cancer in a prison infirmary cell, awaiting my turn to leave this Earth. 

I’ve seen bodies taken out of the infirmary in body bags. Those images are seared in my brain. There are some things one never forgets. 

“I’m here to help you the best I can,” I told him. “I’m here to talk to you, even pray for you, Joe.” 

He smiled and seemed grateful that somebody seemed to care about his well-being, even in prison, this land of the condemned. 

Over the next few months, Joe and I became good friends. We talked about spirituality, the criminal justice system, family, music, sports, movies, books, his loves and losses in life. Joe loved rock music. His favorite band was AC/DC. He loved to rock out: “It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll. He would jam to that song on his tablet like he was 20 years younger. We also bonded over our shared love of “Game of Thrones.”

Joe told me about his life. I told him about mine. I told him I recently lost my beautiful sister, Michelle, and how devastating it had been to me. 

Joe told me he was ready to move on to the next life, but he was scared to die in prison all alone, rotting away. Dying alone was his greatest fear. That’s why he was grateful that I came down to the infirmary every day to spend some time with him. We became more than friends. We became brothers. 

“Never give up on hope, Larry,” he once said to me even though he was the one about to die. 

Joe’s heart was genuine. He was sincerely remorseful. He spoke words of hope to me, a lifer myself. But the cancer was beating him down. The pain was immense. He couldn’t walk anymore. Every movement of his body caused horrendous pain.

He couldn’t eat anymore. He lost control over his bowels, which embarrassed him. He moaned in agony from painful bedsores. Over time, he became a shell of the man he used to be. The chemotherapy wasn’t helping. He longed for the peace of being pain-free. Even then, he kept telling me not to give up.

Joe began to deteriorate further. He looked like a corpse from the TV show “The Walking Dead.” The cancer was eating away at his bones at a rapid pace. The headaches were overwhelming. He lived on morphine to ease the pain, and had become completely incontinent. This was the true picture of death by incarceration in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. 

The last day I saw him, his eyes were wide open. I heard each gasping breath on his ventilator. Joe died that day. I cried. 

I guess my tears expressed a combination of sorrow and joy. I was glad that Joe was moving on to his next life, a place where sorrow, guilt, loss and pain no longer existed. It had pained my heart to see him endure such agony. 

Joe died with true courage. He inspired me.

Since then, I’ve met many men who later died in the infirmary. Some had life sentences and others were awaiting a parole date. They all became my friends. 

Each inspired me to be a man of more compassion, a man who continued to dream and refused to be desensitized by the system, a man who clung to hope with each dream and each breath, even while enduring death by incarceration.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Larry N. Stromberg is a writer incarcerated in Pennsylvania.