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Prisoners’ project voices beyond the cell at First Parish Church

Tomorrow evening Dot residents will have their monthly opportunity to go to Meetinghouse Hill to hear the intimate thoughts and feelings of prisoners in the Commonwealth.

First Parish Church has long supported social justice programs. One of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) church’s more recent collaborations has been to offer space regularly to the ‘Through Barbed Wire’ (TBW) program, which every fourth Friday of the month presents poetry, films, readings, and discussions related to Massachusetts inmates. The series was originally hosted by the Community Church on Boylston St. and then bounced around town to various places including Dimock Health Center in Roxbury and The South End Technology Center at Tent City.

The program was conceived and continues to be promoted by Arnold “Arnie” King, who since 1972 has been serving life without parole at the Bay State Correctional Center at Norfolk for first degree murder.

In 1971 , as a drug-addicted 18 year-old released just two days earlier on parole, King fired point black into the face of a total stranger, who happened to be John Labanara, aide to former Mayor Kevin White. King and his army of supporters seek to have King become the first prisoner to have a life without parole sentence commuted by Deval Patrick. The governor has repeatedly denied the appeal despite the pleas of many politicians, doctors and scholars, who testify that, in this case at least, the convict would do more good for society outside of rather than behind bars.

While TBW is tied to King’s efforts to gain his freedom, he seems sincere in helping young people avoid prison or become productive if they land there. Here are excerpts from recent TBW readings about claustrophobic lives “inside the box.”

life without, by Arnie King:
life without… being categorized, scrutinized, and ostracized through barbed wire, is a converging meniscus view.  Will I ever be seen clearly again or simply destined to wander aimlessly in this 6x8 container? 

life without… an opportunity to rectify a mistake involving loss of life, after 40 summers gone by.  The misery caused by my hand has been transferred into a gift of service toward others, but will it ever be enough!

Vogue, by One Sun
You wear it well - that box.
The wood complements your skin tone.
Your suit is 2 sizes too big.
It doesn’t matter - you’re wearing that box.

Both at Norfolk and during several furloughs King has earned three degrees including a Masters from Boston University. In 2011 he received the Drylongso Anti-racism Award and the Sacco and Vanzetti Social Justice Award.

Among the lives he touched was that of Joe Lewis, who as a teen attended the City School in Dorchester, where he connected with King through his youth development programs. Lewis says, “Mr. King has a tremendous effect on students from juvenile day reporting centers and [he] would be able to contribute more if he were accessible to the youth within the community.”

The connection with the Meetinghouse Hill church started when King met pastor Art Lavoie during a Mother’s Day walk in Dorchester. Church coordinators say about a dozen people have been showing up consistently on the fourth Fridays to share their concerns over a potluck meal.

For links to articles and documentaries about King, testimonies of prominent Bostonians who support him, and further information about his educational/mentoring activities go to www.arnoldking.org.


Mr. Harding has produced a well-researched summary of what Through Barbed Wire and the Commutation Project are about. The article's scope, clarity, and enthusiasm are greatly applauded and appreciated. The inclusion of the Community Church of Boston, Dimock Detox Center, and South End Tech Center magnify the blessings put forth for many years by their simple acts of kindness - opening their powerful doors to our community. These blessings continue to flow now through the First Parish Church of Dorchester, in the neighborhood where Family and Friends of Prisoners was started by John McGrath, Donna Finn, Ruth McCambridge, and other dear friends back in the late 1970s.