Fixed by gravity on our planet’s surface for 20,819 rotations on its axis, I will complete fifty-seven revolutions in elliptical orbit around the nearest star on April 9th. That’s geek-speak for “I turn 57 this Friday.” I’m not sure how 57 should feel. In the minds of most long-term prisoners, time stands still. It’s a strange phenomenon. It isn’t that time drags along slowly. It really doesn’t if you’re busy. I mean that in my mind I imagine everything and everyone – including myself – to be just as it was before prison. I was 41 then, and I still spontaneously say “41” when asked my age.
A dear friend, a Sister of Divine Compassion in New York, was a vibrant 52 when I came to prison. I just read in her recent letter that she had hip surgery at age 68 last month. How could she be 68 when she’s only 52? It makes no sense.
When I was ten – just months before “The Day the Earth Stood Still” – I got a new rod and reel for my birthday and counted the days for the start of fishing season. Growing up north of Boston (see “February Tales“) I took my new rod to the pre-dawn empty city streets to practice casting. Perhaps for that reason, I still associate my birthday with fishing season, and stare with more than the usual longing at the twenty-foot prison wall and its spirals of razor wire. Every year in prison at the start of spring, I have dreams of fishing. You should see the one that got away last night!
I type my posts sitting on a five-gallon plastic bucket that doubles as my typing stool. My cranky, aging typewriter is on a concrete slab waiting for its cranky, aging owner to think of something to type. It’s a beautiful 58-degree spring Saturday afternoon in Concord, New Hampshire, the kind of day when prisoners stare out the small, hermetically sealed windows in their cells at signs of spring. I’d love to be outside, but it’s another six weeks until the prison ball field opens (see “Field of Dreams“), so there’s no “outside” for us just yet. There’s no fishing either, so I sit on my bucket and type.
AFTER A WINTER OF DESPAIR …
I used to be able to take my typewriter out to a table in the recreation area and type amid the noise and haste of workouts, ping-pong, and card games. Due to chronic prison overcrowding now, there are a dozen men living in bunks out there feeling terribly exposed. So I have to type in my cell on this bucket.
Robinson just came crashing into my cell. “Crashing” really does capture the effect of his six-foot, 220-pound, 21-year old frame bounding into this small space waving the American History final exam he just got back. We’ve been working on American History all month, and he beamed as he dropped the exam down in front of me, its bold red “90%” shouting out from the first page. Robinson spends a lot of time in our cell.
Pornchai is a veritable wizard at math, so every prisoner taking classes comes to him for tutoring. I tutor just about everything else. Joseph (see “Forty Days and Forty Nights“) is also in the doorway with his draft of an essay he wants me to read, bickering with Robinson to hurry up. Pornchai is sitting on his bunk commending Robinson for his A-minus. I’m feeling terribly outnumbered, and I know where this is all going.
Robinson is determined to finish the high school diploma that was interrupted by prison at age 16. In prison slang, being in prison is known as “being down,” as in “How long have you been down?” It seems strange hearing a 21-year-old describe “being down” for his fifth year. He spent the first two segregated in a county jail waiting to turn 18 to start his state prison sentence. I was just going to write that 57 is not a good age to be in prison when Robinson burst in saying “21 sure isn’t a good age to be in prison.” I guess there is no “good” age to be where we are. Some New Hampshire judge just sentenced an 83-year-old man to this prison for a drug charge – a man with no prior record.
Robinson is calling my attention back to his A-minus. I’m glad he likes school because he’s going to be here for a very long time. Like half the men in the cellblock where I live, Robinson was convicted of murder at age 16 when his gang ties overcame his far weaker family ties, and he was led down a path of reckless violence. Robinson is a big kid, and a tough one. He grew up – fatherless, of course – on the streets of New Hampshire’s largest city. I don’t know all the details of what Robinson did, but I know it was senseless. Robinson’s sentence is the same as mine: 33 1/2 to 67 years. He will be the age I am now when he is first eligible to walk out these doors.
I asked Robinson today what he would like the world to know about him. He sat down on Pornchai’s concrete stump, cup of instant coffee in hand, and became suddenly nervous. Robinson pondered for a moment, cleared his throat, and said carefully,
“I don’t want to be judged forever by my mistake. All my focus is to work on having a good heart. I go to school, I want to graduate from high school, and I hang out with people like you and Pornchai instead of punks who would get me in trouble. I try to do what you and Pornchai do. When I’m old like you, I want to be someone people look up to.”
AH, I knew it was coming. Now Pornchai and Joseph are rolling in laughter at the “old like you” part, but I think Robinson’s reflection was honest and sincere. He could be doing far worse things with his time than going to school. I tried to call the room’s attention away from my geezer-hood and back onto Robinson’s well earned A-minus.
Prisoners aren’t really supposed to write favorable things about the prison system keeping us behind bars, but I do have to give the New Hampshire prison credit for this one thing. There are opportunities here for young men to better themselves, and all three of the men sitting in my cell poking fun at my age at this very moment are good examples – for each other and for you. They give you an opportunity to look inside a prison and see something other than mindless gang-bangers and thugs. I know what these three young men have done. I also know that most prisons would change them for the worse, and for that I give this prison due credit for at least trying to point out another path.
Education in prison is probably the state’s most crucial underfunded mandate. Education might be the road less traveled for too many aimless young men, but these three snickering clowns a few feet away are becoming leaders instead of followers in this system. It’s marvelous to behold.
… COMES A SPRING OF HOPE
I saw an extraordinary example of such leadership last week in Pornchai Moontri (see “In the Land of Nod, East of Eden”) who seems to have no clue about the enormous influence he has on younger prisoners. A few days ago, Pornchai told me that sometimes he feels very bitter, and wanted to know if his bitterness affects me negatively.
I’m not sure I understand the colored glasses with which Pornchai examines and measures the worth of his own life. Just the day after asking me this, I watched something miraculous unfold before my eyes, and Pornchai was at its center.
Prisons are violent and demeaning environments, and this one is no exception. It’s never really clear whether education and other programs are winning the war for prisoners’ minds and souls, but if Pornchai is an example, then hopelessness doesn’t have a chance. Several months ago, two younger prisoners here got into a disagreement that evolved into violence. Like most combatants in prison, the brawl was noticed and they were “lugged” in restraints to “the hole” where they spent several months apart while brooding in silence. It’s a regular occurrence here.
Sitting in punitive segregation, the two prisoners pondered their plight and let their anger and resentment simmer until it consumed all reason. One got out of the hole, then the other. Now they are both back in the general population surrounded by manipulative voices craving entertainment at their expense: “fight, fight, fight!” It’s something akin to junior high school peer pressure that’s relentless until one or the other gives into it.
For the first time in months, the two hostile combatants, simmering with hate for each other, faced off in the prison chow hall last week. We walked into that scene and could feel its tension immediately. I took an empty seat in the chow hall ready to pick at the dinner on my tray, wondering what exactly it was. Instead of taking a seat at the same table as he usually does, Pornchai put his tray on an empty table nearby.
I watched with curiosity as he walked to one side of the chow hall and motioned for one of the enemy combatants to get up. “Oh no,” I groaned as I braced myself to be ready to intervene. Pornchai led the young man to the table where he left his tray, and motioned for the kid to sit down. Pornchai then walked to the other side of the chow hall and did the same with the other brooding, simmering prisoner in full view of everyone.
For the next twenty minutes, I watched in fascination as the two enemies faced off at the table with Pornchai. I could not hear what was being said, but I could sure imagine it. Very little of it could be repeated here – at least not without my having to pay a 50-cent fine (see “Descent into Lent.”).
By the end of the 20-minute meal, however, the enemies’ fingers were doing less accusatory pointing. Their heads were bowed as they avoided eye contact while Pornchai had his turn. They pondered whatever he was saying to them, then all three stood. The enemies gave each other a brotherly knock on the back, shook hands, and parted ways. The war was over to the unspoken disappointment of too many of their peers and so-called “friends.”
Henry Kissinger could not have negotiated a more effective detente – certainly not in 20 minutes. There is no one else here who could have accomplished what Pornchai Moontri accomplished with no apparent effort. This is not an isolated event. Pornchai reaches people that everyone else has long since given up on as lost forever.
Pornchai is the reason Robinson and Joseph are in here poking fun at me this very moment. He’s a role model and leader, the big brother they wish they had pointing the correct way before they landed here in the first place.
THE NARROW GATE
Some months ago, writer Ryan MacDonald published “Pornchai’s Path to the Narrow Gate.” There is a witness value that is immensely powerful at work in Pornchai’s interaction with these young men. Robinson and Joseph both know of his upcoming Baptism as a Catholic. Pornchai will be Baptized, Confirmed, and receive his First Eucharist on April 11, Divine Mercy Sunday. Anyone who knew Pornchai Moontri a decade ago and reads this post may not still be standing by this point.
Pornchai started his 19th year in prison just before Easter, and now he is entering a life of faith through the narrowest gate, an open and honest witness to redemptive grace.
Pornchai has asked Charlene Duline to be his Godmother. They share an interesting bond that Charlene describes in a new post entitled “Pornchai Moontri is Worth Saving” on the Prodigal Catholic Writer blog. Pierre, the visitor I described in my post, “Stigmatized,” has graciously assented to be Pornchai’s Godfather. Because this event is happening in a prison, however, neither one of them will be allowed to be present. I will act as proxy for them both because of the unusual circumstances.
I call upon the Church to recognize the transformation that has led Pornchai to Her Sacraments. In “Pornchai’s Story,” the powerful autobiographical essay published by The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Pornchai described his transformation:
“I arrived at the New Hampshire State Prison on October 18, 2005, dragging behind me the Titanic in which I stored all my anger and hurt and loss and loss and loss – and guilt … I have been in prison for nearly half my life, but in the last year I have begun to know what freedom is … One day I felt strangely light so I looked behind me, and the Titanic was not there. I parked it somewhere along the way. I have put my childhood aside. Now I am a man.”
“Gordon never asked me to become Catholic. It is the path he is on and I was drawn to it by the sheer force of grace, and the hope that one day I could do good for others. [In] Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict wrote, ‘The true Exodus … consists in this: Among all the paths of history, the path to God is the true direction we must seek and find.’ “
If you would like to congratulate Pornchai, the Comments on this post will be printed and mailed to him. If you would be interested in sending him a card, you may do so. The address for Pornchai in prison is:
P.O. Box 14 – #77948
Concord, NH 03302-0014
Please take note that the rules for writing to us in prison are posted on our TSW “Contact” page. The same rules apply to mail to Pornchai.
Pornchai is taking the name “Maximilian” as his Christian and Confirmation name. He hopes to eventually use it as his official middle name, something that most Thais do not have. It is important for Pornchai to have a new name to go with his new life in faith. The name he chose is, of course, in honor of St. Maximilian Kolbe, one of the patrons of These Stone Walls and someone who has a strong presence in our lives here. If you have never read my first three posts on These Stone Walls, I hope that you will.
Please welcome my brother, Pornchai into the Catholic Church. In fifty-seven times around the sun, I have never met a man more worthy of our hope for our own faith and its power to endure. Charlene Duline is right. Pornchai Moontri is worth saving. So is the faith that drew him out of darkness into its wonderful light.
Don’t let the news media and those with an agenda do your thinking for you about the worth of your faith.
Pornchai Moontri sure doesn’t.
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing something new; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19)