Immigration and Customs Enforcement deports foreign born prisoners to their country of origin. It’s a practice easy to embrace until it happens to someone you know.
Now before anyone’s blood pressure goes up, let me preface this story with a disclaimer. The “why” of it is not an issue. The United States has a vested interest in the removal of criminal aliens from U.S. soil. It’s the “how” of it that I want to tell you about, beginning with a little bit of nuance about the terms.
“Criminal aliens” is what they are called. It’s part of a nomenclature that, like so much of modern American justice, is a one-size-fits-all term used more for political expediency than for any measure of the man, woman, or child involved. The term makes no distinction between the drug dealer looking to put one over on America by enslaving its youth, and the child brought to this country with hope in his eyes only to commit an act of passion or aggression as a teen, pay for it with decades in prison, then pay for it again with deportation to a country barely remembered. That final solution often takes place long after any criminality in the person is extinguished.
American justice appoints judges, then removes from them the ability to judge. The system imposes mandatory sentences and mandatory policies that apply to crimes without much thought about the persons behind them. As a result, no distinction is made between the unrepentant and the repentant, the recidivist and the reformed. Both are cuffed and stuffed onto the same plane after months of a nightmarish journey from one holding cell to another.
This is that story, and I am driven to tell it because I, too, have a vested interest in the state of justice in America. Some of my fellow Americans have put me into this prison for decades on end, and I will never pretend that justice was fulfilled. No, justice was denied, perverted, and flat out discarded. In the twenty-two years during which I have lived in that discarded state called a life sentence, I have seen justice perverted in other ways as well, against other persons, and some of them have been my friends.
I have to believe that this outlet, this gift of God (and the First Amendment) called These Stone Walls with its global outreach exists for a reason beyond just me. Remaining silent wouldn’t just be cowardly. It would be a sin. So hear me out, please, and lay the politics of all this aside for a few moments.
MY FRIEND, AUGIE REYES
I have mentioned my friend, Augie in a few posts on These Stone Walls, most notably in “Science and Faith and the Big Bang Theory of Creation,” and more recently in “The End of Downton Abbey,” posted here on October 21, 2015. Two days after it was posted, Augie was gone.
Like Pornchai Moontri, Augie was a child when he arrived in America. And like Pornchai, he committed an act of desperation as a teenager that ended in tragedy. But like most stories of this kind, the bare naked facts without any context serve the interests of vengeance, but not necessarily justice.
Their stories remind me of a scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy Dufresne’s friend, Red – portrayed by the great Morgan Freeman – tells the parole board, “I want to go back there and talk some sense into that kid, tell him how things are, but I can’t. Now I can only live with him.” Movie viewers could readily accept that Red was no longer the troubled youngster who committed that crime all those years ago. It’s because in this wonderful film they come to know him in another capacity beyond his offense.
I have known Augie for twenty-two years in this prison, and when I arrived he had already been here for two years. It is a long time to have a friend in one’s daily field of view only to vanish in the night. But it was much more difficult for Augie who spent twenty-four years here struggling to stay on the high road to which he ascended. Like Pornchai Moontri, Augie is very intelligent. Not cunning, but smart. I mean no insult to other prisoners, but in this setting intelligence without guile stands out beyond any other trait. Augie and Pornchai and I have been friends for a long, long time. This post from here on is written by my friend, Augie, sent to me after the vanishing:
OCTOBER 23, 2015
“It’s early in the morning, and I’m standing at the rail of the upper tier on Bravo pod just like any other day for the last 24 years. But today I’m waiting to hear someone call my name and say “pack up, you’re leaving!” I’m nervous, then my heart jumps when I hear my name. Were you there, G? I can’t remember. Wish I could! The moment is just a blur. I wanted to say goodbye, but I also doubted that I could.
Once all the prison doors slammed behind me, the world changed. Two ICE agents shackled me and loaded me into a van. We rode in silence south to Manchester to a federal courthouse where I waited to be processed. They explained that I cannot be sent to my country of origin until the Consulate issues travel documents. How is it that I never knew that? It turns out that ICE doesn’t do any of that. ICE has no contact with the consulate which must somehow be accomplished by a prisoner while still in prison. No one ever told me.
But I was not permitted to call or contact the consulate from the courthouse. It had to be done from the next destination, the Strafford County Jail where ICE leases space for detainees. So after being handed a bologna sandwich (there are a lot of bologna sandwiches in this story), I was shackled again and placed into the same van for the drive further east to jail. So much for huddled masses yearning to be free. I’m back in prison, only an unfamiliar one. I got assigned to a top bunk above a really angry cellmate. Then word got around and I was mobbed by more Latinos than I have seen since I was 17. I had nothing. I didn’t know I could have anything. So I was herded to two or three cells where Latino prisoners I have never seen before and may never see again handed me their hard-earned canteen items: soap, toothpaste, a new toothbrush, packages of ramen noodles. It was a gesture of humanity that was humbling.
I’ll skip over the weeks – many weeks – of frustration there while daily trying without success to reach the Honduran Consulate through the inmate collect-call-only telephones. When I finally made contact with the Consulate number provided, I learned with dismay that I was actually talking to an intermediary in Tegucigalpa, Honduras who took my information to pass on to a Consulate in the U.S. I felt helpless and defeated, rage even, but I digress…
For weeks I am trying to talk to someone on the other end of the phone. I had been gone from my country of origin for so long that the Consulate had to set up an interview to confirm my identity. So I start all over again. I’m back to writing inmate request slips to get back in line to talk with the ICE agents when I finally figure out that I haven’t actually even been talking with a real person in the Consulate. (I’m gonna say Consulate a lot – sorry!). I ask the ICE agent who comes to the jail how I actually contact the Consulate to get this process rolling, and he just shrugs his shoulders.
I arrived at this jail to contact the Consulate for travel documents on October 23. It wasn’t until the second week of December that I was able to reach a family member who spent the next three days harassing the Consulate to produce a file.
Later that week I get called to the jail booking area. An ICE agent takes me to an office and places a call then hands me the phone. It was to the same Tegucigalpa operators I had been talking with to no avail for almost two months. Dead end! So I ask the ICE agent to please call the Consulate at the number I handed to him and ask for the lady whose name I gave him. Looking puzzled and defiant he finally places the call. Right there on the phone, that lady punched my file up on a computer then within a minute she issued the travel documents that I needed all along. Now I could be placed on a plane to Honduras. I was held hostage to that simple phone call for two months!
NEXT STOP, BOSTON
“So then I wait, day after day after day, for my name to be called so I could get out of that place. I hear other names every day, people who arrived after me and left before me. Then very early on December 17, I wake up hearing my name. I had been told that money sent in to me by my family could be taken to the next place. Wrong! I could not take anything with me, and had to send it back to my sister where it came from. To this day I don’t know whether she ever got it.
Then I’m shackled again and stuffed into another van. A two hour drive and now another jail, the Southbay Correctional Facility near Boston. I’m thinking I’ll be flown to freedom from Boston’s Logan Airport. Wrong again! The story I hear from other detainees is that anyone going south of the border is destined first for a private Louisiana prison until a plane load of people going to the same place is filled up.
At South Bay they book us and separate us by “threat level.” For that they judge only by crime, so I of course draw the highest even though the crime was 25 years ago when I was 17. So I’m handed a yellow jump suit. Everyone else gets orange or white. While changing, everyone starts pulling out soap, toothpaste, deoderant, pens, paper. Turns out I was the only one who took seriously the “bring nothing with you” order.
I find out I’m getting on a plane that Monday (Dec. 21), and I think it’s finally to Honduras and freedom. Wrong again, but I digress again. The worst part of this story is the waiting. Discomfort is nothing. It’s the waiting, and the total absence of even basic information. One day everyone protested by refusing to eat. It was an empty gesture. No one noticed or cared whether we ate or not.
In my yellow jump suit at South Bay, I’m told to go to cell #9. Guess who I see in the first bunk? It’s Timmy, that older guy from Ireland that I was in a class with back in the Concord prison. He had been sent here waiting for weeks and weeks. It was good to see a familiar face so we talked about the people we missed (your name came up, G, so did Pornchai’s).
After three days in yellow, I get back into the Concord prison greens that I’ve worn every day for two months. There’s no dignity in any of this. ICE is checking our “luggage.” Some guys have net bags filled with all the stuff we were told not to bring, but no one cares. Family could drop money off at the Burlington ICE office, and mine did so they show me the money which they sorted and stapled to an inventory sheet. Shackled and stuffed on a bus again, we’re off to… where?
We’ve waited varying amounts of time and we all think, “This is it! We’re leaving the U.S. for…” I can’t call Honduras “home” yet. Not after a 24-year prison sentence. So I’ll call it “freedom.” I keep telling myself I’m going to be free. There’s a party atmosphere on this plane. It reminded me of that Nicholas Cage movie, “Con Air.” The marshalls escorting us were just chillin’ like this is all just daily routine. They just let us think that we really were on our way home.
Then the anxiety set in. I’m on a plane for the first time since I was a child. This thing gets out over water and I begin thinking that it’s going to crash. Gut wrenching, absolute terror comes over me. Every bump and dip signals the end time for me. A prayer comes from somewhere deep. “Don’t let all these years in prison end this way. Let me breathe the free air just once before I die.” Sorry for the drama, but it felt very real just then.
It turned out that we were not headed for anywhere but a private prison in Louisiana called GEO-something. It’s like a county jail with its own runway. The plane pulls right up to a pen where we are all unchained wondering where we are. It’s about 9:00 PM and we wait for booking.
Into a huge tank we go, 24 at a time in one room. There’s a stainless steel toilet in each far corner, right out in the open with zero privacy. Benches along the wall are all filled. Others sitting on the floor. It’s now 1:00 AM and they are still cramming people in, telling us to be patient. People start acting up. They hand out bologna sandwiches in bags. (When I get to where I’m going, I’m buying stock in whatever company sells bologna sandwiches to ICE!)
It was freezing in there as I sat on the cold floor. After waiting all night, I was taken to a cellblock. Then some guy in a bandanna asks me, “¿A que le jalas? (“Who do you roll with?”) I did not know how to answer. Then another asks the same, “Who are you with?” I said, “I’m not with anyone.” They look at me like I’m an alien among aliens. I realize then that they’re asking me what gang I am with. I’m not with any gang. I explain that I’ve been in prison for 24 years and I’m just going home. (Did I just say, “home?”) The guy then tells me that I’ll have to talk to the guy who runs the place. And he doesn’t mean a guard.
Picture if you can that this place is 99 percent Spanish, and there are some visible Mexican and other gangs represented.
Then I notice this young, tall, nondescript kid with glasses, no shirt, walk over to me. He’s the guy “in charge.” “A que le jalas?” he asks. I explain again that I’ve been in for 24 years and I’m just going home to Honduras. “For real?” he says as he puts out his hand. He is from there too. He was just the opposite of what I expected “the guy in charge” to be. He was polite, respectful, well spoken. He told me all their rules and said that all problems should come to him first and never take matters in my own hands. Where was this guy when I was 17 and did just that?
Finally, he says (in Spanish) that he’s not asking me to join anything, “but while you’re here you’re with us if anything goes down.” With that news, I climb up on my bunk and try to
sleep. It is now 3:00 AM and I can’t shut my eyes. What exactly does “if anything goes down” mean? How long will I be here? I had no idea.
Rumors spread that there is a list going around of the people leaving the next day and everyone should listen for their name. So who could sleep? Around 8:00 AM I notice some commotion. A guy is reading off a list. So I jump down from my bunk and go over near the crowd. I hear my name along with four other guys who were in New Hampshire with me.
I’m moved back to another holding tank, and then an hour later we’re lined up in a long hallway. I’m given the money that my family had dropped off back in Burlington, Massachusetts. A bologna sandwich for breakfast. (Do they mass produce these things?) There are 80-plus of us, all shackled and cuffed and stuffed onto busses for a short ride to the runway and plane.
It’s 9:00 AM, on Wednesday, December 23, two days before Christmas and two full months since I left the Concord prison where I spent 24 years. I’m sitting on this bus at the runway, thinking that this is it. I’m finally on the way. But … where’s the plane? There’s no plane!
Morally demolished, we were all herded back into the prison to be booked back in to wait for another chance scheduled for the following Tuesday, December 29. I can’t even begin to describe the let down, the feelings of helplessness and discouragement. So we do what prisoners do most. We wait. In my lifetime, I have felt gut wrenching murderous rage only once. I was 17 years old and never in my life felt so out of control again. Not even now. Not even in this torturous place of apathy and disappointments in which freedom keeps being promised on the horizon only to elude us at every turn. No one told us anything except, “Back inside!”
Then I learned that the next flight will be at least ten days away, and I had no choice but to dig in and wait longer. This holding facility can only hold prisoners for seven days so that meant being brought someplace else, another adjustment, another prison, another horror show, before being herded back here to try again.
Six of us asked if we could be housed together this time. A guard says, “sure,” then disappears and we’re all split up again. I go through the whole booking thing again with a new set of total strangers. “Hey, who do you roll with?” It was a very long ten days. Christmas passed unnoticed.
Ten days later I heard my name called again. I was cuffed and shackled (I was inexplicably happy to be cuffed and shackled’) and led to the same bus for the same ride to the same runway. AND there was a plane there. None of the terror of the previous flight.
Twenty minutes before landing in Tegulcigalpa, Honduras – a place that has not been home for three decades – my shackles and restraints were removed. I stepped off the plane, and breathed in freedom for the first time since I was 17 years old. I am now 43.
My purpose in writing this was to help G help our friends, Max and Chen and others so they will know what to expect and how to be better prepared to avoid some of the heartache and discouragement I experienced.
It’s hard for me to explain what adjusting simultaneously to freedom and a foreign land has been like after all these years. G managed to get a message to me asking me to just live one day at a time for now, and to be patient with myself. A lot of what I went through in this adjustment feels creepy. I walk the city streets and feel as though everyone around me knows I don’t quite fit in, but that is slowly dissipating. I have been here for four months now and it is slowly becoming home.
One of the most helpful aspects of my adjustment to this new life in a new land in which I feel so isolated is the ability to go to a computer and visit These Stone Walls. I don’t utter many prayers, but I have a prayer of thanksgiving for that. It is a chance to visit an old friend – two old friends actually – and learn how they are and even communicate with them. That has been just wonderful! A lifeline into the foreign wilderness into which I’ve been thrown. I thank you all for being here and reading this.
Editor’s Note: Ryan A. MacDonald wrote about our friend, Pornchai Moontri’s eventual deportation which could take place anywhere from one to four years from now. He wrote of a few ways you could help, if willing. Please read and share “Thomas Merton and Pornchai Moontri: A Prayer for the Year of Mercy.”