“I was freezing to death,” says Natale, who says it was the only time when he wasn’t sure if he was going to survive his last years in prison. “I’ve been all my life in those places. But this place! It was terrible.”
At the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Brian Younge took pictures of his eyes and asked him to read an eye chart.
“I said, ‘I can’t see the chart,’” Natale says. “He said ‘What do you mean?’ He got a little feisty with me. I said, ‘I can’t see the chart! I can’t see nothing!’”
On the paperwork from the appointment, Younge advised that Natale should be brought back within the next few months if symptoms persisted.
“They never brought me back [to the doctor],” says Natale. “So eventually I called home … One of the guards, a decent guy, let me have the phone call after everyone went home at 5 o’clock. I said, ‘Lucy, you’ve got to get me out of here! I’m not going to make it in here. I’m freezing to death.”
Natale learned later that in Dr. Younge’s report filed to the Federal Medical Center, Younge had made a notation: “He sees better than he admits.”
Natale’s eyes go wild as he tells the story. “Why would I lie?” he says.
A couple of years later, he says, he learned his charts indicated he was legally blind after he was transferred to the Allenwood prison in Pennsylvania and ran into a friendly guard. “The first night he walked over … He said, ‘Ralph! Did you know you were going blind?’ He was looking at it on my record!”
“It just continually got worse and worse and worse,” says Frank, Kathaleen’s husband. “It was never a point where anybody did anything; now he finally gets to see somebody and when he sees someone now, he’s so far gone there’s nothing they can do.”
Natale has been seeing doctors since getting out of prison but does not yet have an official diagnosis.
The paperwork that Natale’s lawyer filed in May is technically not yet a lawsuit, but rather a declaration of an intention to sue, a formality Corcoran says is required when suing the government. “The feds enjoy a six-month grace period to get their goddamn ducks in a row,” says Corcoran. “And if they don’t do the right thing, then I’m going to haul them into court. They have an opportunity to right the wrong before it gets messy.
“They’re going to have to … do a wee bit of soul-searching as to why Ralph was not allowed out of prison for a degenerative eye condition that his family was more than willing to pay for,” he continues. “And they’re going to have to consider the implications of their actions for specifically targeting a high-profile defendant and preventing him from getting him the treatment that he’s constitutionally guaranteed to get.”
“Once the suit is filed,” a spokesman for the Department of Justice told PW in an email, “we’ll review it, and will ultimately make a determination as to how the government will respond. Until that point, we’d obviously not have any comment.”
Lucy says she just wants the government “to admit they did nothing.”
Though it’s difficult to tell from just talking with him, signs of Natale’s dimming world are all over his home. Two recliners sit side-by-side, just a few feet in front of the large-screen television. The landline telephone has keypads the size of dominoes. A 6-inch magnifying glass rests on a stack of legal pads piled two feet high on the floor next to the couch.
The notepads are a draft of his memoirs.
“I wrote all of this in a prison cell,” says Natale, gesturing at the pile. He’s frustrated. “I’ve been a man who took care of myself and my family my entire life. [Now] I can’t see. When I write something, I can’t read my own writing.”
He is still working on the book, but more slowly. He writes what he can, and Lucy reads his work back to him.
“My wife is magical,” he says. “We went through things in our marriage … but I never, ever fell out of love with my wife. Just my life got carried away. The stupidity of men. We’re stupid. Thank god I woke up.”
Natale talks about his family a lot. Today, he rattles off the educational and career accomplishments of his three daughters and two sons, and his grandkids, with great pride.
PW's Music Issue 2014