A young prisoner’s quest for knowledge took him from illiteracy to a high school diploma with honors. It unlocked prison doors to a freedom that can last a lifetime.
“Return to your stronghold, O Prisoner of hope; today I declare that I will restore you.” (Zechariah 9:12)
As the Jubilee Year of Mercy was coming to a close in Advent, 2016, I was invited to write an article about how the Year of Mercy unfolded behind These Stone Walls. It was published in the Winter 2016 issue of Marian Helper magazine entitled, “The Doors That Have Unlocked.” Today I want to write about other prison doors that have unlocked in strange and unexpected ways.
But first I have to preface it by telling you just how heavy some prison doors can be. If I descend to the lowest floor of the building in which I now live – the one I recently described in “Labor Day Weekend Behind These Stone Walls” – I come to an Administration Office. Just inside the door, a dismal display awaits all who enter.
Along one wall are the photographs of some 26 young prisoners who earned their way out of this prison in the last three years only to die of a self-inflicted drug overdose. President Donald Trump raised the ire of some local politicians during the presidential campaign when he called New Hampshire “a drug-infested den.”
It was the American President’s typical lack of polish. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Some in national law enforcement have called this state “ground zero” in the national opioid epidemic. If that is so, then this prison is the crater left by its impact.
As I began to type this post, an officer here told me that he had just added two photographs to “The Wall.” So I walked down the 52 stairs to the office and saw them instantly. I knew them both. In fact, I knew about half of the 26 young men whose lives came to a dismal end on that wall.
I left the office with a silent prayer for them and their families – those few who had families anyway – but I also left with a prayer of thanksgiving for those who are not on that wall. One who could have been, but thankfully isn’t, is my friend, Skooter.
IN THE YEAR OF THE PRIEST
It seems so long ago now in the face of the sometimes trivial pursuits that consume us and all the political rhetoric that divides us, but back in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI inaugurated a Year of the Priest. These Stone Walls was in its infancy then -or perhaps I should say its “novitiate year.” Writing for a blog was entirely new to me, and writing from my present location had many obstacles to overcome.
Among those obstacles was the fact that over the previous three decades, the online world exploded from a fringe culture into a mainstream of human communication. I spent the last 23 years of that time offline in a dark periphery of my own called unjust imprisonment. Such a plight can cause a man to focus entirely on himself and his own bizarre fate. Those without hope here live in a prison inside a prison. I saw this happen to so many others that I wondered whether it was happening to me.
At some point, I felt as though that special Year of the Priest was passing by without me. So I decided that I must write something about its progress and its passing. As I pondered that idea, I was drawn ever more deeply into another mission, a sort of side road that seemed more important at the time. It was a side road that had no room for the “woe is me” lament that had been beckoning me from my horizon of hopelessness and loss.
My first steps down that road were taken when someone else emerged on the road beside me. Readers of These Stone Walls have read some of Pornchai Moontri’s story, and the road less traveled upon which others have walked with us along the way.
One of those others was my friend, Skooter (he insists on spelling it with a “k”). Skooter showed up on our path just at the onset of the Year of the Priest. In fact, Skooter had never before even met a priest, and I knew him for many months that year before he found out that I am one. It was Pornchai Moontri who first told him. It seems odd, today, that Skooter never mentioned it, or asked me a single question about it.
I wrote about Skooter’s life back then and I hope you will take a few minutes to read it. Like so much at These Stone Walls, “In the Year of the Priest, the Tale of a Prisoner” is both heart-wrenching and hopeful.
Skooter left prison three years ago with no place to go and no plan for finding the infrastructure of a life that had been missing for all of his life. While on parole, he was not allowed to contact anyone here, but he is off parole now so I can tell you that he cheated just a little. He sent me a message through a friend whose own addiction brought him back into this prison.
I heard Skooter’s voice only once after he left. His friend gave me a telephone number and I called it. Skooter was on his way to work, driving a car that burned more oil than gas. When he heard my voice, he pulled over and cried. “I miss you so much,” he said, “and I owe you my freedom.”
Prison does such a dismal job of restorative justice. Close to fifty percent of the young men who leave here return with parole violations or new sentences within a few years. Skooter, who faced more challenges than most, never came back, and never ended up on the prison wall of death.
I wrote about Skooter’s journey in an article about restorative justice. Some of you may have read it, but I want to add it here as part of this post. Skooter read it and loved it. Four years earlier, he would not have been able to read it at all. So this is in honor of Skooter and his tenacity in staying the course:
LEFT BEHIND: IN PRISON FOR THE APOCALYPSE
This medium security prison has a library where I have been a prisoner-clerk for the last ten years. Its shelves are stocked with 21,000 volumes. With an average of 1,000 visits, and some 3,000 books checked out each month, the library is a literary hub intersecting virtually every facet of prison life. But there is a lot more going on than books flying off the shelves.
There are few proud moments in prison, but one of mine came in the form of a second-hand message from my friend Skooter, now free. Two months after Skooter ascended through the corrections system to finally hit the streets, another friend of his was sent back to prison for a parole violation.
That friend came to the library one day, and standing at my desk, said, “You’re the guy who broke Skooter out of prison!” The man explained that he lived near Skooter in a seedy urban rooming house while both were unemployed and barely surviving in their first few months on parole. He said that Skooter had been unable to land a job, working in temp jobs for minimum wage and at times faced with a choice between food and rent.
It is an all-too-familiar account for young men struggling to emerge not just from a prison, but from a past. Skooter came very close to giving up, the friend said, but often spoke of his “wanting very much not to disappoint you” by coming back to prison. “So he stayed the course,” said the friend, “and now he’s gotten his life together.”
I first met Skooter several years earlier, one of the scores of aimless, rootless, fatherless, uneducated young men for whom prison can become a warehouse, a place in which thousands of “Skooters” store their aimless, hopeless futures. One day as we slowly ascended the multiple flights of stairs to be checked in at the Education Floor where the prison library is located, Skooter told me with a sense of shame that, at age 24, he had never learned to read or write.
Having resisted all the concerted efforts to recruit him into any number of prison gangs that would only foster his ignorance and exploit it, Skooter became a regular fixture in the prison library. For an hour a day there, I and other prisoners worked with Skooter to teach him to read and write.
My friend, Pornchai Moontri tutored him in math, Skooter’s most feared academic nemesis. We made sure he didn’t starve, and in return, he struggled relentlessly toward earning his high school diploma in prison, a steep ascent in a place that by its very nature fosters humiliation and shuns personal empowerment.
One day, shortly before his high school graduation in May 2011, Skooter came charging into the library looking defeated. He plopped before me the previous day’s copy of USA Today, opened to a full-page ad by some self-proclaimed Prophet-of-the-End-Time announcing that the world is to end on May 21, 2011, a week before Graduation Day.
“It’s just my luck’” lamented Skooter. “I do all this work and the world’s gonna end just before I graduate.” “It’s not true,” I said calmly. “It MUST be true,” Skooter shot back. “They wouldn’t put it in the paper if it wasn’t true!” Like many prisoners, and far too many others, Skooter believed that all truth was carefully vetted before ending up in newsprint.
Apocalyptic predictions sometimes play out strangely in prison. I told Skooter that back in 1999, a prisoner I knew became convinced of dire consequences from a looming technological Armageddon called “Y2K.” ‘That prisoner deduced somehow that prison officials would release toxic gas at the turn of the millennium so he spent the night of December 31 sewing his lips and eyes shut. Skooter wanted to know how the guy managed to sew that second eyelid, a small tribute to his deductive reasoning.
I pointed out to Skooter in the USA Today ad’s smaller print that this newest End-Time prediction was actually a revision of the author’s previous one set in 1994. I strongly urged Skooter not to put off studying for final exams because of this. Skooter stayed the course.
Since then, a subsequent prison policy barred all prisoners from teaching and tutoring other prisoners, a decision that effectively eliminated all of the positive influence, and none of the negative influence, that takes place in prison, driving the former underground.
Still, that graduation was Skooter’s finest moment, and one of my own as well. It was a direct result of a prison library subculture that grants every prisoner a few hours a week out of prison into an arena of books, a world of ideas, a release of huddled neurons yearning to be free.
A week after graduation, Skooter showed up in the library with a copy of The Wall Street Journal opened to an article by science writer, Matt Ridley. The article explored evidence that the Earth’s magnetic core shifts polarity every few hundred thousand years, and pointed out with dismal foreboding that it is 780,000 years overdue. Mr. Ridley stressed that no one knows its potential impact on our global technological infrastructure.
“It’s just my luck!” lamented Skooter as he plopped the article on my desk. “Just when I was thinkin’ about college!”
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: To learn more about Skooter, and to share in Thanksgiving for our freedom, visit these other timely posts from These Stone Walls:
- In the Year of the Priest, the Tale of a Prisoner
- Holidays in the Hoosegow: Thanksgiving with Some Not-So-Just Desserts
- The True Story of Thanksgiving: Squanto, the Pilgrims, and the Pope