Bonds of true friendship forged in prison are rare, but essential for the sake of spiritual and emotional survival. This is a day in the life of one such bond.
Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Michael P. Ciresi, author of “Coming Home to the Catholic Faith I left Behind.”
“Did I ever tell you the one about the priest and his mother . . .?” And so on it goes again as my friend, G (known to most of you as Father G) goes into his never ending redirect of jokes, one-liners and puns. Within seconds, his roommate, Ponch, my other dear friend, rolls over on his upper bunk, takes off his headphones, and with a sheepish grin joins in the banter: “Hey Hank,” – not my name, but a prison moniker Ponch stuck me with – “Did you hear the one about the boy and the tractor? You can tell this one to your sons when you call them tonight.” The barrage of groaners goes on, and within minutes I am laughing so hard tears flow and my sides ache. Thanks to these two friends of mine, another dark day in prison has been put in its place.
I read Father G’s September article, “The Shawshank Redemption and the Crime of Innocence” about the forces that must be overcome in prison, and I agree that one of them is the absence of trust that pervades everything here. I never saw it coming that I could forge such bonds of trust and friendship in prison, but it has been a primary source of my survival. It also amazes me that our friendship brought me back to faith, and through our shared faith this bond grows stronger every day. You may have read my and Ponch’s guest posts about all this. Ponch’s was, “I Come to the Catholic Church for Healing and Hope,” and mine was “Coming Home to the Catholic Faith I Left Behind.” Without a doubt, faith is the common denominator that binds us.
In a place that time and most of the outside world have forgotten, it is a great comfort to know we are remembered and cared for through our faith and the friends we’ve found in our darkest days. When life here seems overwhelming and precarious, and I can’t reach my twin sons Michael and Steven, I can always rely on my new family, G and Ponch. Support from friends, family members, and others who care for us goes a long way in helping us to get by in times of trouble, and there is no shortage of such times in prison. A support system provides us with emotional sustenance, aid, and information when we are in need. Since returning to my faith I have started to feel cared about and valued by others with a new sense of belonging. This is what keeps us going every day even in our toughest times, and we have many.
It’s the little things we do as friends that help us get through our emotional highs and lows. I can always count on a rousing game of Yahtzee (Ponch is a master at Yahtzee) or a card game. Or our discussions on sports, politics or religion and there is the always reliable pranks that we pull on each other. Don’t get me wrong, you might be saying, “Heck, sounds like prison life is a fun time vacation the way you describe it!” Well, dear reader it definitely is not. It is a minute by minute gut wrenching siege of let downs and degradation. If not for some of the bonds with friends like G, Ponch and others who have shown me how to deal with prison life, I would have never found a way to trust in my faith in God to lead me to the correct path to freedom. I am not speaking of the freedom of the outside world and all that have forgotten us, but the freedom of knowing we are still part of God’s family. God has somehow brought us together so that we may support each other in such difficult times.
Last week I had my faith tested once again. Because I am an active participant in the Family Connections Center (FCC), a program for incarcerated fathers to stay in contact with their children, I receive a video visit with my two sons, Michael and Steven, every two weeks via Skype. During these visits I get a half hour each to see and talk with my sons as though I were at home with them. On this day the staff member tried to reach my children through Skype with no response. It became apparent that something was amiss and I would not be able to visit with my sons. Unfortunately, as it happened there was a miscommunication and I would not be able to talk with my sons. I was distraught and very disappointed.
Usually when I have a bad situation arise I go and speak with G and Ponch and they will listen and offer advice. But because I was in a different part of the prison, it wasn’t time for movement across the yard back to our cell block. I was stuck with my blues. I then sulked out of the room and saw one of my other friends, Evenor Pineda who was waiting for his turn for a Skype video visit with his children. I have come to know Evenor, whom everyone calls “E,” through a multitude of programs that both of us have participated in and also help facilitate. Because of these programs and getting to know each other we have a close bond and a mutual respect for each other. Evenor is also a friend of Father G and Pornchai-Maximilian.
With genuine concern, Evenor asked me what happened with my video visit. I briefly told him of why I couldn’t visit with my sons and I quickly exited into another room to hide my emotional disappointment. As my eyes welled up and I buried my head in my hands, I felt a hand grab my shoulder and an arm across my back as Evenor’s concerned voice said, “It will be alright Mike. I know this has happened a couple of time before. Let’s talk about it and come up with some solutions.” Evenor then spent half an hour letting me vent and offering up some useful ideas to my dilemma.
During our conversation the FCC counselor came in and offered Evenor the extra time on Skype that I wasn’t able to use to talk with his children. Without skipping a beat Evenor stated, “No, I believe they’re finishing up dinner so I will just wait for my regular time.” This act of respect and genuine concern for my issue showed me again what true friends I have. Because of his help and support I was able to rectify the situation with my family in a positive manner and schedule a make up visit within a few days.
I’m proud to add that Evenor Pineda and Pornchai-Maximilian earned their high school diplomas together in prison. TSW readers have all seen the now famous photo from their 2012 graduation. That’s Evenor Pineda on the far left holding his diploma. Father G plans to write about him soon.
AFTER THE RAIN
Because of the degrading environment we live in, we routinely are front row participants to violence, humiliation, thefts and the over zealous prison guard that sometimes can’t differentiate a simple act of kindness from a real security threat. Here’s an example that happened to Max, known as Ponch by most of the other prisoners.
Our friend Ponch was recently a victim of one of these misunderstandings. While finishing his work cleaning up the weight room, Ponch noticed a letter on the floor near one of the benches. He instinctively picked this letter up believing it was dropped by someone who lived on the pod next to ours. Upon coming back to the unit he went over to the pod door to see if he could find out who dropped it. He was observed by a guard and summoned over and was asked him what he was doing. Ponch, thinking he was doing the right thing gave the letter to the guard. The guard took the note and told him that it was a violation of rules and policy, but that he knew it was an innocent action and there would be no further action. Two days later Ponch was called to an office and informed that he had received a disciplinary report for this action even though the officer knew it was done without malicious intent, and even though he was told there would be no further action.
This innocent act cost Ponch dearly. He was removed from several of the things he had worked so hard to attain, one of them being the thing he most loved, woodworking in the Hobby Craft center where he excelled at producing wood crafts which he routinely donated to charitable auctions rather than sell in the prison store. It was a devastating loss not only for Ponch but for the people who benefited from his woodworking talents.
On the day of my failed visit with my sons, I crossed the prison yard alone to my unit and pod. I could hear the faint jingle of the Cross and Miraculous Medal on my neck chain. These symbols of faith reminded me of just how fortunate I have been since I was guided back to the Church. I have gained more insight and knowledge from my friends in prison than from all the associates I had during most of my life outside these walls. Because of the relationship with my friends and Jesus I have learned to pay it forward every chance I can. This brings me to the final story of this article.
Upon returning back to my cell block I went immediately to Father G and Ponch’s cell to tell them of my missed visit and the act of kindness shown to me by Evenor. As I entered, I noticed Father G sitting on his concrete stump looking forlorn and not his usual upbeat witty self. I also noticed right away the missing tap-tap sound of his typewriter. I cannot recall a day in my last almost six years in prison that I did not see Father G tapping away. I asked about his typewriter and he told me that the motor had burned out and he had to ship it out to get repaired. This is no small task where we are. Father G told me that the last time this happened it took five months to get the machine back.
So I asked if there were anything I could do to help since he is my friend and he is always ready to help everyone else. Then Ponch had an idea! “Tell him you want to write a guest article” he whispered. I couldn’t think of a better way to pay it forward, and G took me up on the offer right away. So I wrote this, and sent it to a friend to type it for posting on These Stone Walls.
As Father G wrote not long ago, these were not the only discouragements of prison in recent months. They are just the only ones we can write about. Discouragement hurts, and it always disappoints, but, in this company, on this road less traveled, it never lingers. Through the gift of great friends in an awful place, I have learned the meaning of something freeing and wondrous: trust!
Jesus, I trust in You.
(Editor’s Note: Michael Ciresi recently joined Father G and Pornchai-Maximilian in Total Consecration to Mary after completing the “33 Days to Morning Glory” retreat in prison.)
To the readers of These Stone Walls from Ryan A. MacDonald: Readers have been especially generous and kind in responding to our appeal for assistance with legal costs at the Federal level. It has come to my attention that State officials have filed objections to Father MacRae’s appeal in the Federal courts, and these objections required lengthy and highly detailed responses from the attorney’s representing Father MacRae. One such exchange cost $15,000 that seriously depleted available funds as the appeal continues. So, to compensate, we have raised the bar in our fundraising effort. I know that Father MacRae is most appreciative to all who have aided this effort, and that he would much prefer that many people do a little instead of just a few doing a lot. Let us hope that this could be an undertaking of the whole church. For information on how to assist, please see my post “News Alert: New Federal Appeal Filed in Father Gordon MacRae Case.”