In Western Culture, young men spend their twenties building a life. What happens when their life-building years are spent incarcerated? From prison to homelessness.
It’s not easy to describe the scene from where I write. There are so many barriers to see through and look beyond. From the concrete stump where I sit to write in this prison cell, I can look to my right where, two feet away, is a small barred window. Today it frames a landscape of drifting snow along a high prison wall, icicles hanging from its spirals of razor wire. I once wrote of a less dismal scene outside that window in a summer, “The Birds and the Bees Behind These Stone Walls.” Don’t get your hopes up. It’s just about birds and bees.
The scene to my left is more of a challenge to describe. Eight feet from where I sit is a solid steel cell door with a small observation window and a knee high food slot. Under current rules, all cell doors must be fully open from 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM – The better to see us with, my Dear! I have long since become resigned to the lack of privacy and solitude that rule entails. But it’s the scene beyond the door that I want to describe.
It’s a space under a stairwell leading to the upper tiers of cells. A huge plastic laundry cart is parked just there. It’s on big wheels for its daily trip through the snow drifts to the prison laundry. I’ve grown deaf to the daily chorus of “THUD, THUD, THUD” as laundry bags fly into it from every direction each night before 10:00 PM lockdown.
Parked right next to it under the stairs is a wheelchair used by Chris Yensen, the man in the cell next to mine. Chris, age 67 and in his 45th year in prison, was partially paralyzed by a spinal cord injury some years ago. When I first came to prison in 1994, I spent a few months in solitary confinement. It was maddening with nothing to read beyond the satanic verses scribbled upon every inch of the walls of that tomb.
Chris was in another cell along that solitary confinement tier twenty years ago. One day, when rolling past, he flung a tattered paperback book through the food slot in my door. It was The Sands of Time by Sidney Sheldon. Ironic title! I read it five times because I never saw another book in the time I was there. Chris and Sidney Sheldon saved my sanity.
Back to my view. Beyond Chris’s parked wheelchair, I can see through an 8-inch space between the stairs for fifty feet across the cell block to the thick security-glass well with its heavy slamming door that contains us. I can see further still for 20 feet beyond the glass, past an observation station where our keepers have a fish tank view of four such blocks each containing 96 men. Beyond even that, I can see into Delta Block to a tiny section of window, half a postage stamp from this vantage point.
FRAMED IN PRISON
Framed within that half postage stamp over the last three years, my friend, Jesse, could see across that long, dim distance into the cell from where I write. Over time he had developed a sign language of sorts, a language learned by many prisoners to convey, from a distance, the basics of human interaction. It’s a language of necessity.
Over time as I sat to write, I could feel the eyes upon me from a world away, and look up to receive a message. A pantomime of spooning food from his left hand to his mouth conveyed, “Meet me for dinner in the chow hall.” When followed by tugging at the lapel of his shirt, it meant, “Bring Ponch!” (as in, “Bring a Thai!” It took awhile to translate that one). The rapid succession of joining thumb to forefinger meant “I need to talk with you.” A gesture of praying hands meant “Meet me in the Chapel for Mass.” I’ll spare you the sign for “Save me a seat!”
This was the language of a man with nothing else, no one else, trapped in prison on his way to find a family and the infrastructure of a life at age 19. I wrote of Jesse in “What if the Prodigal Son Had No Father to Return to?” It included some artwork that he drew while watching me write from across all that distance one day.
In his years in prison, Jesse never had a visit, or placed a phone call, or had a single piece of mail from the outside world, except toward the end from a few TSW readers. Despite this absence of a window to the outside, he worked hard to rise up from the depths into which life had thrown him. Then, on January 21 at the age of 27, Jesse left prison having maxed out his sentence. He never sought earlier parole because he never had a home to parole to.
As I sit here to write, I still look to my left now and then out of habit. The tiny frame where Jesse once stood is empty now. Like one of those portraits in a Harry Potter book, the person in the picture has gone somewhere else.
On the morning of January 21, Jesse placed his few life’s possessions in a trash bag and waited to be called to process his papers and be escorted to the prison door. On that morning, he was nowhere in sight. At 8:30 that morning, I had to push my friend, Chris, in his wheelchair to the medical unit for an appointment on my way to work in the prison library. On the way, another friend of Jesse’s told me that he would not come outside to see me because saying goodbye was just too painful.
Ninety minutes later, Jesse was foiled in that plan. For reasons unknown the library had to close at 10:00 AM, and so did the Recreation Department where Pornchai Maximilian works. On my way across the prison yard on that sub-freezing day, I ran into Pornchai and we walked back to our cell together. We approached the building where we live just as Jesse emerged carrying his trash bag over his shoulder. We had only a minute.
THE ROOT OF JESSE
On the Second Sunday of Advent last December, Jesse, Pornchai, Michael Ciresi, Michael Martinez, Anthony Begin, and I filled a row in the prison chapel. Mike Ciresi was the reader that day. During the First Reading from Isaiah, Jesse suddenly looked up when he heard his name. He opened his J.S. Paluch Missalette to see it in print:
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” (Isaiah 11:1)
On the way back after Mass, I explained that Isaiah was referring to King David, the son of Jesse in the Old Testament from whose ancestral line would come Joseph, the husband of Mary, the Mother of Christ. I told Jesse that in that story, there may be a message for him. He, too, might find a new branch leading him to some new life, taking an unforeseen path, despite his absence of roots.
Months later as Pornchai and I stood outside to foil his plan to evade our goodbye, I reminded Jesse of this, and asked him to trust. I gave him a blessing, and Pornchai and I both told him that we will miss him, but we do not want him to look back. I told him that he has one task in life from this point on and it is to preserve his freedom. I said he must never again be divided from that task.
Then we watched him leave, one arm carrying his bag over his shoulder, the other wiping his eyes with his sleeve. He never looked back at us. Then he was gone from our sight – perhaps forever.
Prisoners are not permitted to give anything of value to another prisoner, but Jesse is free now, and no longer under such constraints. Pornchai and I made some sacrifices to make sure Jesse could survive his first two weeks in freedom. When he got to the rented room he obtained, a letter awaited him so he would not feel so totally along. Beyond that, Jesse has gone into silence and we can now only pray for him. Please help us do that.
Remember Skooter? I wrote of my friend, Skooter, in a few posts on These Stone Walls, most notably “In the Year of the Priest, the Tale of a Prisoner,” and “Pre-Apocalyptic Prison Paranoia.” Skooter walked out of prison in much the same way two years ago, and with most of the same challenges to coping and surviving that Jesse faced. Both disappeared into silence in the world beyond.
But on the day I am writing this, a young prisoner came into the prison library. When he saw my name he said, “You don’t know me, but I sure know you.” He told me that he was brought back “inside” on a new charge – part of the sad statistic of young men without roots, families, or other anchors in their lives, men who leave prison just as they arrived: aimless and homeless, broke, and sometimes broken.
In a post entitled, “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men” I wrote that of the 1,070 prisoners who left here in 2007, over 500 were back in prison by 2010. Skooter never came back, and the young man who approached me in the prison library told me why. “You kept Skooter out of prison,” he said. He explained that he and Skooter were neighbors in a run down rooming house when he left prison, and Skooter was barely making it, but said that the thought of my disappointment if he returned to prison always outweighed the lure of giving up.
That’s something. It’s a lot, actually, and I hope and pray it is true of Jesse as well. From the stump of a rootless life, Jesse at least found hope here, and he encountered Christ. A new shoot can arise from Jesse, and that hope is all the consolation I need.
Editor’s Note: In 2015, we’ll need to replace our aging publishing equipment. In your kindness, please take a moment to read the details and share the link on your social media accounts. Thank you for such a strong kickoff!