These Stone Walls is written in the chaos of an overcrowded, underfunded, understaffed prison. It’s time to inject a dose of reality into the politics of punishment.
“From the prodigious hills of New Hampshire, let freedom ring!” (Martin Luther King, “I Had a Dream” – 1968)
When I wrote my recent post, “Consecration to Divine Mercy,” I wrote that every milestone along our spiritual journey had cost us something of ourselves. “As though right on cue,” I wrote, “the prison walls seem to close in tighter.” We end up in the heat of battle in spiritual warfare every time we stand at the starting point of a spiritual journey. A lot of readers have asked me to describe what this heat of battle looks like. Be careful what you ask for.
Perhaps surviving prison is inspiring, but the details of what exactly we survive and endure from day to day sound a lot more like the Way of the Cross. It takes a lot of distance from it to feel inspired by it. The Cross became inspiring only in the light of the Resurrection. Without that light, what happened in the Way of the Cross is deeply discouraging.
An American prison is a dangerous place. That simple truth is always in the back of my mind now. As I make my way through the daily maze of prison life, I have to always discern the way of things here. The rules of prison stay the same, but the rules of survival keep changing. For sixteen years I lived in relative safety in a saner place, two to a cell, coping with day to day life in 98 square feet.
For eight of those years, Pornchai Moontri was my roommate. For the most part, we heard only second-hand the stories of prison gangs, violence, and drugs that filtered up to us at a safe distanced from subterranean prison culture down below. Now, since I wrote “Not Quite a Zombie Apocalypse,” we are living in the very “down below” we once had some distance from.
ON THE ROAD TO PERDITION
The word “perdition” is often used to describe the path to hell, but its original meaning is something different. It comes from the Latin, “perdere” which means “to destroy.” The road to perdition is a road to destruction, just the opposite of what a PENITENTiary is expected to be. The road to perdition captures the present state of American prisons better than any other term, and the last few weeks here are an example.
The cell where I now live with seven other men, each allotted 24 square feet of living space, is in the front of this building. Four inches of concrete wall separate my head from the constant opening and slamming front door where over 500 prisoners and dozens of staff enter and exit all day and all night.
On Friday night, January 6, an ambulance pulled up to that front door. From our cell window, we watched just a few feet away as an unconscious prisoner was loaded into it to be rushed to the hospital after a near fatal overdose of the illegal drug, fentanyl. How it makes its way behind prison walls, no one knows – except perhaps those who are dealing with it. By the time the first weekend of January was over, three other ambulances had to be called for emergency treatment for drug overdoses, and one was fatal.
The growing presence of illicit drugs in prison frustrates both hope and progress here. It is the reason why greeting cards are banned, and why other mail is severely restricted. It’s why visits are curtailed and take place in a climate of suspicion. Despite the presence of drug-sniffing dogs, and scanners, and prisoners facing a full body strip search after every contact with anyone from the outside, drugs come in here. They destroy all dignity, threaten safety, and create a domino effect of related problems in a prison underground that is fast becoming the mainstream of life here.
On the day after all the overdoses, a prisoner where I live was attacked and beaten. By the end of the day, the combatants were rounded up and taken for a time-out in the hole. Within hours, their bunks were filled by others from a list of 120 prisoners living in open recreation areas awaiting bed space in a medium security cell. Then their bunks out in the open were, in turn, filled instantly by others waiting somewhere else.
It is a bizarre and troubling statistic that in the 25 years from 1985 to 2010, the New Hampshire state population grew by 34 percent while its prison population grew by almost 600 percent with no commensurate increase in crime rate. I explored some of the reasons why in a September 2016 article for Spero News Forum, “The Shawshank Redemption and its Real-World Version.”
On Monday morning, January 9, a posted announcement informed us that all visits are canceled and the prison Visiting Room closed for the week until an investigation of the overdoses and the source of the drugs is completed. On Wednesday night, January 11, another prisoner where I live was attacked, beaten severely, and was hospitalized in a comatose state. The unit was placed on 24-hour total lock-down. For the first time in many years, Max and I were completely confined as the eight denizens of our cell suffered for a day in dreary silence.
By the end of that week, of the 96 prisoners in this one unit where Pornchai Moontri and I now live, three were hospitalized, six others were taken away in handcuffs to solitary confinement, and one other, succumbing to the stress, was admitted to the secure psychiatric unit. The very air crackles with tension.
POLITICS AND PUNISHMENT
Drugs, and the inevitable monetary debts that they incur, are almost always at the heart of weeks like this in prison. It would be cheap and easy, but not very accurate, to blame all this on the men and women who staff a prison and maintain control.
That would be unjust. A few abuse their power, but very few. They contribute to an unfortunate tone of distrust here just as do the minority of inmates who are abusive and defiant of all rules. But the vast majority of those who staff this prison are professional and decent people who want to do their jobs and go home safely at the end of the day. There is a much wider problem that often prevents that.
This prison, like many, is grossly understaffed and underfunded by state government. As a result, during those two January weeks inching toward perdition, I saw many of the corrections officers here enduring sixteen hour days working forced double shifts because the annual budget for adequate staffing, programs and improvements has repeatedly been cut. The outgoing governor, Maggie Hassan, a Democrat now starting her first term as a U.S. senator, has been in the news a lot advocating for adequate taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood, but I have never heard her make a pitch to fully fund the state’s prison system.
In the recent election cycle, with nearly 800,000 votes cast, Senator Maggie Hassan defeated the Republican incumbent, Senator Kelly Ayotte by a mere 743 votes in one of the most contentious and expensive Senate races in the state’s history. The $120 million price tag for that Senate race was described as “an extraordinary sum for such a small state” by the New York Times.
Back to the January road to perdition. After one of the worst nights of those two awful weeks, I stood in line at 800 AM to get a pass to go to work. The officer logging the passes had come in on the previous grueling day at 6:30 AM for his 7:00 AM shift. By 1:00 PM he was informed that the prison is not adequately staffed for the second shift so he would not be going home. He was here to handle the ambulance calls and fights until 11:00 PM, then was back writing passes at 7:00 AM the next morning. He looked exhausted. Since then, many others who came to work here at 7:00 AM were still here at 11:00 PM.
MAPPING A MAZE OF PRISON AGENDAS
At the same time all of this was happening here, a riot broke out in the Souza-Baranowski Maximum Security Prison in Shirley, Massachusetts just south of here. A cell block very much like the one we live in erupted in violence after a fight broke out between two prisoners. CBS News reported a three-and-a-half minute security video of what this looked like.
Of interest, back in 2003, the widely disgraced and vilified priest, Father John Geoghan, 68 years old, was beaten to death in the doorway of his cell in that same prison by a mentally deranged prisoner, Joseph Druce. An investigation at the time concluded that Geoghan was placed in maximum security because of a series of bogus and contrived disciplinary reports written by one corrupt guard who was subsequently dismissed. The people who work here are not like that. Most do the best they can with the tools given to them. The state of this prison is a political problem that only honest politics and adequate funding can solve.
There are better places in which to live in this prison, but for reasons, I do not know we are overlooked for them. There is an agenda behind all that, one that I could not even begin to understand because it is covert and unspoken. I don’t think it’s the same agenda as the one from the past that barred me from living in a better place. That’s the problem with prison. It’s driven by various – and sometimes nefarious – agendas.
I spent my first seven years here confined in a place with eight men per cell. In 2001 I was finally moved after requesting relocation to a unit with two per cell. Four years later, in 2005, following a series of articles published in The Wall Street Journal by Dorothy Rabinowitz about my trial and sentence, I was suddenly moved back to the eight-man cells. It happened when a Unit Manager, after a two-minute Classification Board hearing, read the articles and wrote on the official Classification form the words “inmate minimizes offense.” (See: Part I: The Trial of Father Gordon MacRae by Dorothy Rabinowitz, The Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2005; Part II: The Conviction of Father Gordon MacRae by Dorothy Rabinowitz, The Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2005).
The setback did not last long. Two months later I was suddenly moved back to the two-person cells when Dorothy Rabinowitz requested a tour of the prison and an interview with me in my cell. After that, I remained in that same place for a total of sixteen years until our most recent relocation that I described in “Not Quite a Zombie Apocalypse.”
I have 45 years left in the sentence imposed by Judge Arthur Brennan. This is where and how we live now. It is difficult to discern the point of it all. Ninety percent of the prisoners here will one day leave here to rejoin their families and communities. Clear-thinking logic would dictate that society would want them to leave prison better than they started. That cannot happen when restorative justice is set aside in favor of nothing more redemptive than mere punishment in perdition’s grip.
As for us, we have but one option left to map a prison agenda of our own. At the end of my post, “Consecration to Divine Mercy,” I wrote that Pornchai-Max and I have decided to make a daily offering of our lives here for each of the 33 Days in which readers enter into the journey toward such a consecration. Now you have a glimpse of what it is that we offer, and the life that we are consecrating. This is no joke. We are asked to surrender in trust the crosses we bear for the mission of Divine Mercy, and we are asked to do this even when all hell is breaking out around us.
It seems so surreal doing the daily readings in this setting for the journey of 33 Days to Merciful Love. On Day 14, not quite half way through this extraordinary book, Father Michael Gaitley has a subheading, “No More Thieves of Hope.” Just this side of the very gates of perdition, we have the task of disarming the thieves of hope through the charism of trust. So must you.
There are many sorts of prisons, and most of them are cruel. Whatever the humbling cross you bear, we will transform this world beginning within our own souls. A journey of Consecration to Divine Mercy beckons you to take refuge in the very wounded Heart of the Crucified Christ that summons you to trust.
Jesus, I trust in You.