It’s a sign of our times that something as hopeful and wonderful as the daily prison mail call could evolve into frustration. Most prisoners who receive any mail at all hear only from a few friends and immediate family. Many never get mail. Most of my mail is from people I don’t know, people from all around the world who read These Stone Walls, but often they are people I cannot respond to, except perhaps through a TSW post. In this prison, we now receive only the contents of mail, but not the envelopes. So unless a return address is in the body of a letter, I have no way to respond.
Of course, writers also have no way to know this. Our TSW “Contact” page provides a short list of rules for writing to me in prison, and I hope to update it soon with one or two new rules – such as the recent development that we receive mail contents, but not envelopes.
Two December letters from a very nice woman in Scotland, the land of my ancestors, told a story that warmed my heart. As would cause anguish and heartbreak for any mother, her young adult son had been taken off to jail. He spent but a night there before being released with a hard lesson learned, but that night of anxiety was his mother’s dark night of the soul. During that night, she did a Google search for “the patron saint of prisoners.” It took her to my post, “Suffering and Saint Maximilian Kolbe Behind These Stone Walls.” She wrote of how reading that post and exploring TSW comforted her, and helped carry her through that awful night. Then she had a request:
“I particularly am interested to read about the day to day, practical side of your life. We on the outside have absolutely no idea what it’s like to have that total loss of liberty and what it actually means to be imprisoned. There’s a really strong feeling shared by many in the UK that somehow prisoners have an easy ride with a warm bed, meals, satellite TV, etc. etc. However I do not support that sentiment.”
My only foray into a U.K. prison was the one I wrote of in “Downton Abbey’s Prison Drama” earlier this year. I imagine prisons in the U.K. are for the most part like prisons in America. The only way to describe the nature of prison is to describe the people in it. Last year I wrote a post for Fathers’ Day entitled, “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men.” With no Internet access at all in prison, it’s hard for me to track past posts to see how far they’ve traveled.
A friend recently looked that one up, however, and was shocked to see that it was shared on nearly 1,000 Facebook pages. (Apparently, the number appears about the “F” in the “Share” section before and after each post.) It is no mystery why that post became so popular. Just about everyone is impacted at some level by the wreckage that post describes.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas – at least, the twisted early 21st Century secular version of it. As I type this, FOX News is showing a video clip of a brawl that broke out at Philadelphia’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony. So much for the City of Brotherly Love! A week before the brawl, I saw news footage of department store fights around the U.S. as people emerged from Black Friday sales with black eyes and battle scars. A TSW reader wrote that I might be safer in prison at Christmas, but life here is no different. The marauding, aimless, and fatherless young men society cannot deal with out there have been herded by the thousands into U.S. prisons – including this one – but what is to be done with them?
There is no satellite TV here, no warm bed, no free ride, and meals are scant. In this prison, 1,500 men are fed with a food budget of less than one dollar per person per day. Young men deprived of freedom and dignity will either descend into the madness of a marauding, predatory mob, or ascend into selfless examples of real manhood. Prison degrades a majority of young men into the former, but some find their way to become the latter, to become true leaders for the betterment of others. So if you’re stressed and depressed by the sales and the tinsel, by Christmas with the cranks, and by all the rest of this generic “holiday cheer,” then join me for a few moments behind the walls and razor wire for Christmas with the outsiders as I stare it down in prison for the 20th time.
DANIEL IN THE LION’S DEN
Here’s an example of what Christmas spirit really could be, even in prison, and it’s an example that will make you proud. By the hundreds, the aimless, irresponsible, fatherless young men who so abused their freedom on the “outside” are now living in this prison abusing everyone else – or at least everyone who cannot come back at them in equal measure. In the midst of them, living in an overflow bunk out in an overcrowded dayroom, is a 67-year-old disabled Vietnam vet, a cantankerous and PTSD-riddled old man and social outcast named Daniel who, before prison, was homeless.
A few days after Daniel arrived on this pod where I live, some young punk urinated in his water bottle, then gathered his peers to watch the show as the broken old man choked and sputtered. I was furious when I heard about it, but no one would own up to it. I spread word around the cell block that I do not want this old man to be abused, and will be very angry if this ever happens again. It hasn’t, but my tirade had the effect of leaving Daniel even more of a social pariah than before. Other prisoners avoided him as they would a leper.
A week after my explosion about learning how to act like men, we received the annual Christmas food packages that prisoners here ordered months ago. Most lobbied their families, and those without families saved and scraped for months for an annual 20-pound package of real food and coffee that we will not see again for another year. Daniel, the old Vietnam vet who is so ill-equipped to cope with life in the lions’ den, was one of the few who received nothing.
On the day after the packages arrived, our friend Pornchai-Maximilian (I’ve given up on “Max” – not Thai enough!) was preparing a Thai noodle and beef dish in his hot pot in our cell. For the few weeks around Christmas each year, we have the ingredients for him to create a few Thai culinary masterpieces. When Pornchai finished, he walked out of the cell, across the tier, and stood before Daniel’s bunk to ask him for his bowl.
You could have heard a pin drop as the usually plotting, insecure little groups of snickering young prisoners watched in shock and silence. Moments later, Pornchai returned with a bowl of Thai beef and noodles for Daniel, and explained its ingredients and how he made it. As he ate it, Daniel told him it made him feel as though he were back in Saigon at a roadside cafe. This simple act of dignity and kindness had a domino effect, just as cruelty does in a place like this.
No one snickered. No one dared! No one spoke. They all just stared, and more than a few hung their heads in shame. I asked Pornchai what motivated him to do this. I told him that it took a lot of courage to reach out to such an outsider. Pornchai pointed to our cell wall, to an icon of Blessed Mother crushing the head of the serpent. “Twenty years ago,” he said, “I might have been the one tormenting Daniel, but today I know this is what she wants me to do.” I was very proud of Pornchai. The “33 Days” we had just completed was not at all lost on him.
For young prisoners, examples of predatory behavior are contagious, but so are examples of courage. No one disrespects Daniel now. His lot has improved immensely, and it had nothing to do with my anger. It was solely the result of Pornchai’s example of courage and leadership, among aimless young prisoners who all look up to him.
THE GIFTS OF THE MAGI
The treasures we typically associate with Christmas, the Gifts of the Magi of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, have a fascinating symbolism that I explored in two related posts awhile back. The first was my favorite Christmas post entitled, “Upon a Midnight Not So Clear, Some Wise Men from the East Appear.” It’s about the Biblical story of the Gifts of the Magi, told in just 12 verses in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (2:1-12), but as you will see in that post, those verses are packed with symbolic meaning for the ages. The story reveals a truth about us, and about the world into which Christ was born.
The Roman Empire had consumed the known world, and “Hail, Caesar” was the declaration of all who recognized the source of the Empire’s Earthly power – loved by a few, respected by some, feared by most. It’s an irony of Biblical proportions that the redemption of humanity I described last week in “Behold Your Mother!” opened with an angelic Annunciation to a world on the threshold of all that really matters, and that story began not with “Hail, Caesar,” but with “Hail, Mary!” Two thousand years later, “Hail, Caesar” is but an ancient footnote on history, but “Hail, Mary” remains on the lips of billions.
In our time, the idea of Christmas has undergone an evolution that the Magi would not recognize as even remotely related to the first. The other half of the story of the Gifts of the Magi was told by me not at Bethlehem, but at Calvary in a Holy Week post entitled “Dismas, Crucified to the Left: Paradise Lost and Found.” It uncovered a legend in the apocryphal literature that the Cross may not have been the first place Dismas met the Christ. According to that legend, they first met in the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt spurred on by Herod’s infamous slaughter of the Holy Innocents in history’s first of many attempts to rid the world of Christ.
The entire cast of characters from the crèche to the Cross to Pentecost – from the Magi and the shepherds at Bethlehem, to Dismas and Simon of Cyrene at Calvary, to Mary Magdalene at the Empty Tomb, to Saint Stephen stoned to death at the feet of Saul of Tarsus – was a cast of outsiders.
Remember my friend Michael? I wrote of him in “Pope Francis Has a Challenge for the Prodigal Son’s Older Brother.” Michael has undergone surgery for his shattered collar bone, and is recovering slowly. Michael is 21 years old. His father is in prison in some other state, and they long ago lost contact. He does not know where his mother is. Michael is alone in this world, and for the last two years has been alone in this prison fending for himself. That’s how he shattered his collar bone which was left untreated for six months.
Michael knows that I offer Mass late at night in my cell, but since Advent began he has asked me to also accompany him to an early Sunday morning Mass offered on most Sundays in the prison Chapel. Father Bernie Campbell, the Capuchin priest who comes to the prison for Mass, also plays bass for a small jazz band. Go figure! Anyway, he brought his band into the prison one night this week for a special Christmas concert. Michael asked me to go to it with him, so for about three hours one night this Advent, we weren’t in prison.
During a break in the music, Michael turned to me and said, out of the blue, “I want to do that 33 Days thing you and Pornchai did.” When I asked him what brought that on, he said, “I just want to be part of something better than prison.” I told Michael we would see it done, and I added, “But you’re already part of us.”
Michael smiled for the first time since I’ve known him. Then Father Bernie’s band struck up, “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing.” Michael turned to me and said over the music, “This is the best Christmas I’ve ever had!”
AMID THE ENCIRCLING GLOOM
For me the Magi represent also those who have fallen, who have become alienated from God and banished East of Eden. They saw His star there, and followed its light. I am in a place filled with men who lived their entire lives East of Eden, and for them the Magi are a sign of Good News – the very best news. Freedom can be found in only one place: and the way there is the Star of Bethlehem. My cell window faces West so my gaze is always out of the East. On this cold and gray December day, the sun is just now setting behind the high prison wall, and glistening upon the spirals of razor wire like tinsel. Its final glimmer of light is just now fading from view. I am reminded of my favorite prayer, a gift from another wise man, Blessed John Henry Newman, and it has become a tradition of sorts as the Sun sets on These Stone Walls at Christmas. I can hear the Magi praying this as they follow that Star out of the East. On my 20th Christmas in prison, this is my prayer for you as well:
LEAD, KINDLY LIGHT
Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on.
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene;
One step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path, but now,
Lead Thou me on.
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
pride ruled my will: Remember not past years.
So long Thy power hath blessed me,
sure it still will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent,
till the night is gone,
And with the morn those Angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since,
and lost awhile.
The readers of These Stone Walls have cast a light into the darkness and isolation of prison . It’s a light that illuminates the path from East of Eden, and it is magnified ever so brightly, in my life and in yours, by the Birth of Christ. The darkness can never, ever, ever overcome it.