Your friends behind These Stone Walls have been relocated to new environments with unforeseen consequences and some challenges ahead, including a painful parting.
Late in the summer of 2016, I was asked by the Editor of Spero News to write an article commemorating the 22nd anniversary of the release of the great prison film, The Shawshank Redemption. Spero News Editor Martin Barillas knew that the movie was released in theatres 22 years earlier in September 1994.
What he didn’t know was that its release was also the same day I was sent to prison. It was Friday, September 23, 1994. So in my spare time between posts for These Stone Walls, I labored to write “The Shawshank Redemption and its Real-World Version.” It was a review of the film, but it also paralleled the plight of its central character, Andy Dufresne, with my own.
If you are among the few who have not seen this memorable film, Andy Dufresne was the innocent defendant-turned-convict who emerged from the pen of Stephen King in his novella, Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption. It was first published in Different Seasons (Penguin Books) where on its Contents page, it was given a three-word summary: “Hope Springs Eternal.”
Does it? We’ll get back to that. My article contrasted our two prisons – the Maine State Prison that held Andy Dufresne and the New Hampshire State Prison that still holds me. Andy is a fictional character, of course, but he and I have lived parallel lives for going on 23 years. I do not just know him. I am him.
“The Shawshank Redemption and its Real-World Version” contrasts the prison life of Andy and his friend, Red (portrayed in the film by the great Morgan Freeman) with my own imprisonment with Pornchai Moontri, who was also held in the Maine State Prison. Here’s an excerpt:
“Also like Andy Dufresne, I found friendship in prison, one that was the mirror image of Andy’s friendship with Red. Friends and trust are both rare commodities in prison, but like shoots growing from cracks in the urban concrete, the human need for companions defeats all obstacles. Bonds of connection in this place happen on their own terms.”
From the outset, as both Andy Dufresne and I arrived in our respective prisons in 1994, the most debilitating deprivation we faced was the complete and frightening absence of trust. Trust in this setting is so rarely found that its absence can cripple a human spirit and snuff out any hope for redemption.
Life in an American prison might be especially demoralizing and spiritually crippling for a Catholic priest. We tend not to have the same hostile cynicism and dark demeanor shared by most other prisoners. One of the first lessons learned by most here is to trust no one. Exploitation and betrayal lurk at every turn. For most prisoners, no one can be counted on.
I was just not very good at the “trust no one” motif. Over time, prisoners I came to know were always telling me that I am simply too trusting and too optimistic to survive here. There was something about me that left me vulnerable and I didn’t even know it. I was blind to it until I read of it in words placed in the mind of Andy’s friend, Red, by the pen of Stephen King:
“[Andy] had something that most of the other prisoners, myself included, seemed to lack. Call it a sense of equanimity, or a feeling of inner peace, maybe even a constant and unwavering faith that someday the long nightmare would end. Whatever you want to call it, Andy Dufresne always seemed to have his act together. There was none of that sullen desperation about him that seems to afflict most lifers after awhile, you could never smell hopelessness on him.”
The Shawshank Redemption was a masterful portrayal of how that absence of hopelessness in one man can become like fertile soil in a crack in the prison concrete. From it, Andy Dufresne’s profoundly meaningful friendship with Red emerged, and became the centerpiece of Stephen King’s remarkable prison story.
Our story is no less remarkable. Most TSW readers know of Pornchai Moontri, of his brutal years of solitary confinement in the Maine State Prison’s “Supermax,” of his transfer to New Hampshire where we became friends, and of his Divine Mercy conversion. It’s a story best told in a book by Felix Carroll entitled Loved, Lost, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversions.
If you wish to read or reread its chapter entitled “Pornchai Moontri,” Felix Carroll and Marian Press gave us permission to reproduce it at Mercy to the Max. It’s well worth the effort even if only for the photo of Pornchai at age five on the back of a water buffalo in Thailand.
After ten years as cell mates in a safer, saner part of this prison, Pornchai himself once described the contagion of hope that grew from the crack in his armor: “I woke up one day with a future when up to then all I ever had was a past.”
Just a month after I wrote “The Shawshank Redemption and its Real-World Version,” Pornchai and I became swept up in a mass relocation of 120 prisoners here at the end of October, 2016. We were moved from a place of relative calm to the eight-man cells that I thought I left behind 16 years earlier.
The reality of prison became more difficult, more chaotic and unpredictable. I described this move and its consequences for us in one of the most widely-read posts ever on These Stone Walls: “Hebrews 13:3: Writing Just This Side of the Gates of Hell.”
Words could not describe how demoralizing and disappointing it was to land back in a hostile and volatile environment. The only saving grace, as I wrote at the time, was that Pornchai-Max was also moved to the same place, and once we became established for just a day or two, we were able to rescue our young Chinese friend, Kewei Chen, who had been cast among strangers.
When I went to another eight-man cell to get Chen, I found him distraught, overcome with anxiety, and covered in an outbreak of stress-induced hives. He cried when I told him to pack his things and come with me because he is moving in with us. This all took place in the last two weeks of October 2016.
We were told that Pornchai and I were on a list to be moved again to a far better place in just a matter of days. So we did not “move in.” We just lived out of trash bags (the prison version of a suitcase) that held our belongings. Day after day we expected another move to happen, but it didn’t happen. As the days turned to weeks and months, we did not press the issue because we did not want to again leave Chen stranded.
When Chen finally left us for deportation to China (see “Stone Walls Cannot Repel Our Sadness or Contain Our Joy”), we were both glad and sad to see him leave, but now we were free to press for our own departure from the overcrowded and unlivable turmoil from which we gave him shelter.
I had to inquire carefully about assurances that had previously been made to us. Here, as in The Shawshank Redemption, we live in a system that places no value on human companionship. As many more months wore on, Pornchai and I feared that we may never see a better place, or, worse, that one of us may be moved and the other not.
The heartbreaks we fear can sometimes seem like self-fulfilling prophecies. On Tuesday, July 18 at 1:30 PM, I was summoned from my job in the prison library and told that I must return to my unit. When I arrived, I was handed trash bags and told to pack quickly and be ready to move to the “South” unit in an hour.
I convinced the officer to also call Pornchai out of work. After eleven years, I did not want him to return and simply find me inexplicably gone. This was a tough time for us. There was no opportunity to process anything, to deal with the deeply-felt anxiety of separation and loss. We loaded everything I own – which isn’t much – onto a push cart.
Pornchai pushed the cart and made me carry my typewriter which he sees as sort of our instrument of communication with the outside world. “If it breaks,” he said, “we’re doomed!” After a long walk across the prison yard and up a series of ramps, we proceeded past a high wall and were admitted through a sliding gate to Medium Custody South. It’s a place in this prison I had never before seen in the 23 years I have been here.
I felt a little like Dorothy Gale stepping out of Kansas into the Land of Oz. After 23 years trapped inside in overcrowded oppression, this new place promised freedom of movement and unfettered access to a huge walled outside area like a park. I was told that I could come and go as I pleased. Wow!
Pornchai had also never seen this place. As we pushed the cart toward the main building, an officer stepped out and told me where to go. It was a climb up eight flights of stairs – 48 in all – to the top floor of what looks like a giant motel. After 23 years in a dungeon, the notion of stepping into the free and open air at any time of day or night was staggering. My first thought was that Pornchai will love it here.
Then the other shoe dropped when the officer who assigned my quarters stepped out again. He told Pornchai that he had been on a list to also come there on the next day, but something unknown happened to change that, and now he is slated to be moved somewhere else. I asked the officer if this could be changed. He said only “I’ll see what I can do.”
I watched as Pornchai departed with the empty cart to return alone to the awful place I thought we had both left behind. I slept not a wink that night in an overflow bunk out in the open day room where I would await cell space with some stranger in this new place. I was starting over, and deeply sad for Pornchai.
The next morning in the prison Library, someone told me that Pornchai was packing his things in Hancock Building. From a top floor across the prison complex, I watched from a silent distance as he pushed his cart up the same series of ramps. If he turned left at the top, then the officer from the day before was able to alter the outcome. I prayed for Pornchai to turn left.
But he turned right and was gone from my sight. He had no idea that I was watching, but even from that distance I could see and feel his despondence. No one ever moves between those two places. Pornchai was lost to me.
Except for the following Sunday morning at Mass. That was the one hour in the week in which I would see him, but we would have only moments to speak. Last week in “Saint Maximilian Kolbe and the Gift of Noble Defiance,” I told readers that Pornchai and I were moved – me to one place and he to another. I prayed for a happier ending that now seemed impossible. In Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption, Red said of the sudden absence of Andy:
“You become accustomed to someone who is a part of your life. The place where you live is that much more drab and empty for his absence.”
Another week came and went, and another Sunday we met at Mass. After Communion, I asked our Patron Saint, Maximilian Kolbe, to guide us through this maze of prison. I prayed that Pornchai would be placed under the mantle of the Immaculate, and not lose hope. I showed him the Memorare prayer, and as I held it in front of me we prayed it silently:
“Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, we fly unto you, O Virgin of virgins, our Mother. To you do we come, before you do we stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not our petitions, but in your mercy hear and answer us. Amen.”
The next day, Monday, I heard that Pornchai was moved into a permanent cell with a new room mate in the place where they had put him. I felt in my heart that we had lost this latest assault in the spiritual warfare that strains and oppresses our hope. Trust is hard won here, and trust in Divine Mercy – which often seems so elusive – is harder won still.
But this is what makes turning this next page so improbable, so unexpected and seemingly miraculous. Such things simply never happen here. Three days after praying the Memorare that Sunday at Mass, with two full weeks having passed since our parting, I returned to my new quarters to find Pornchai Moontri living once again in the bunk above me. I cannot explain the how or why of it, and neither can he.
I can only tell you that this was the result of a bizarre and unlikely series of behind-the-scenes events, with just the right people in just the right places at just the right times doing just the right things. Over a two day period, Pornchai found himself living in three different places until – through no effort of our own – he landed with me.
But there are other reasons – urgent reasons – why this story and its outcome shook the earth under our feet. In months to come, I will tell you the rest of a story that will leave you breathless about all that we have endured and all that the amazing grace of Divine Mercy has brought into being. Stephen King was right in his description of The Shawshank Redemption “Hope Springs Eternal.”
“But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, ‘Go stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.’” (Acts of the Apostles 5:19-20)
Editor’s Note: For more inspiration about the plight of our friends behind These Stone Walls, you may like the following:
- At Play in the Field of the Lord
- I Come to the Catholic Church for Healing and Hope
- Coming Home to the Catholic Faith I Left Behind
- Knock and the Door Will Open: Divine Mercy in Bangkok Thailand