The first installment of Rolling Along as Long as It Lasts, a series of profiles and interviews from inside the Massachusetts Department of Correction.
George McGrath has been inside Massachusetts prisons for a very long time, due to his being convicted as the getaway driver in a Jamaica Plain drugstore robbery. Unfortunately, during the robbery two workers were shot and killed by one of the robbers in the store. George was tried and convicted in July, 1969, and sentenced to life without parole, as opposed to death by electrocution. The only path to freedom without a successful court appeal is for the governor to commute his sentence to life with eligibility for parole.
In the past, Massachusetts governors would sign executive clemency orders during the Christmas season to grant commutations and pardons to a select few applicants after a vetting process. It was referred to as “a letter from the government” or “a kiss in the mail,” depending on your preference. Even with the rare signature of the governor, a majority vote by the Governor’s Council is required to confirm the nod of the corner office. But because of the politics involved, this process can be shut down quickly, and after 12 months, a new petition for commutation must be submitted.
After five years in prison, George filed his first petition for commutation on Beacon Hill. On a 12-hour furlough — one of more than 200 he has been allowed to take — on May 10, 1974, he hand-delivered the initial document. Nine months later, the advisory board ruled that the application was filed prematurely. Thus, a new application was submitted on June 30, 1977, and scheduled for a hearing the following January. Less than three weeks later, on Jan 30, 1978, the petition was denied “due to not enough time in prison.”
In his early years behind bars, George was very active in the Honeywell Computer program, which began in the early ’70s at Walpole State Prison and then later expanded to include inmates at Norfolk, Framingham, and Bridgewater. The primary requirement was to attend classes taught by industry professionals and then to be willing to teach other prisoner-students core courses related to data processing, flowcharting, and three computer languages: BASIC, COBOL, and Report Program Generator (RPG). George contributed to the success of the work product at every site while mentoring men and women alike during their preparation phase for release from long-term confinement.
Now George needs help, or else he is destined to die inside prison. No longer can he walk the big yard for hours or play various team sports. He travels in a wheelchair alone or accompanied by another to push him to and from a medical appointment or activity. Most buildings in the older prisons are not handicap accessible, so he has travel restrictions, but George doesn’t complain about limitations. He continues to push forward, even as his network of family and friends dwindles. Making matters worse, complications from long-term diabetes have resulted in the amputation of his foot and several eye surgeries.
Through it all, George continues to be active in the lifers group at MCI-Norfolk, and he still helps prepare men who are eligible to appear for a hearing at the parole office in Natick. He counsels younger inmates about setting and achieving goals, and about avoiding mishaps along the difficult prison journey.
In The Big Book of AA that we study in prison, chapter five is entitled “How It Works,” and it begins, “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.” Though he’s not likely to talk about his past, good or bad, at this point George is clearly among the winners, his good deeds outweighing his past sins. As is taught at AA meetings, George not only asked for help and claimed his own seat in recovery but has been willing to help others.
Over a 30-year period, George has submitted seven petitions for commutation of his sentence, which have resulted in three public hearings. Following the unfavorable vote in 1978 for him not having been in prison for long enough, in 1984 he was denied again. George got another chance in March of 1992, and in 1994 finally received a favorable vote, but then-Gov. Bill Weld refused to sign the document. Weld only signed six such approved petitions during his tenure, which was followed by a 17-year drought before Deval Patrick commuted four sentences in 2014. Unfortunately, George’s wasn’t one of them.
Meanwhile, George has been clean and serene for decades, taking things one day at a time. His simple plea is to be allowed to return to society — not just for the 12-hour furloughs or volunteer shifts at the Fernald School in Waltham that he is currently afforded. Last time he came close to freedom, George was released by a judge for 19 months, only for a higher court to later reinstate the original conviction and sentence. With that all behind him, George hopes to gather with his remaining friends and family members in a community setting, and also with the relatives of the two individuals who lost their lives during the 1969 robbery that led to his incarceration. He wants to publicly apologize to the impacted parties and to begin the next step of an authentic healing process.
The great charity work that George has done — from the Wrentham State School, to the Fernald School, to Toys for Tots at MCI-Norfolk, to volunteering with elderly folks — should be recognized. Volunteerism and service deserve acknowledgment, regardless of the location or situation of the recipient. George continues to wheel around Norfolk Prison helping others. Will you help him? Send Gov. Baker a message today.