Long holiday weekends were once depressing behind These Stone Walls but in a pandemic lockdown they spawned the Coronavirus Corn Hole Special Olympics. Guess who won!
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: A decade ago when These Stone Walls was a new blog, I wrote a popular post entitled “Holidays in the Hoosegow: Thanksgiving with Some Not so Just Desserts.” For those who might not remember it, a part of the title came from a great character actor, Walter Brennan, who used the word, “Hoosegow” in one of my favorite John Wayne movies, Rio Bravo (1959).
The word evolved to refer to a prison in the slang of the Old West. It came from the Spanish word, juzgado, meaning jail or court proceeding. My Hoosegow post was about a long weekend in prison when all outside access and freedom of movement was shut down for days on end. We used to dread those days.
The first of my two short posts below is a short story with a memorable character. The second is a reprint from an article of mine first published in the May 2020 edition of the South Side Story, a journal for distribution among prisoners (so you won’t find it online). Please feel free to read them separately over the course of the week.
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THE CONQUISTADOR & THE FIRST PANDEMIC GAMES
Memorial Day in the United States was first observed on May 30, 1868, on the order of General John Alexander Logan for the purpose of decorating the graves of the American Civil War dead. It was observed on May 30 until 1971 when most states changed to a newly established federal schedule of Monday holiday observances.
And now, in 2020, it is but a shadow of its former life thanks to a pandemic lockdown from which we are only slowly emerging. Social distancing and isolation in an overcrowded prison already in a state of perpetual lockdown is quite different from what you experience.
Once it became clear that all activities here will cease operations – including all visits, programs, religious services, education, most employment, library and recreational access – some ingenuity was needed to keep an already alienated population from descending into chaos.
So in stepped the current prison administrator, Warden Michelle Edmark, with a dubious plan. She asked some of the experienced woodcraft workers here to design and build six “Corn Hole” stations for each of the medium custody prison units. Each unit was a wooden platform, 48 x 24 inches, with legs on one end to elevate it 30-degrees off the ground. A 6-inch hole was cut into the higher end. The photo above shows Pornchai Moontri, Jeremy Jennings, Oliver Hooper, and Mike Martel hard at work on the project.
Pornchai showed me the design his crew came up with. Each unit would be placed 28-feet away from its mate. Contestants would then toss one-pound sewn cloth sacks of dried corn the 28-foot distance with a goal of getting them through the hole. “Give me a break!” I scoffed. “No one is going to want to play this.” The prisoners here grew up with computer screens and video games. I believed the Corn Hole plan would bomb.
Three sets of two Corn Hole units each were set up on one of the asphalt-covered courts out in the prison yard of each of the housing units here. In the one we live in, most of the 288 prisoners had already been subjected to weeks locked into the unit with no access or activity beyond its walls.
Younger prisoners approached the Corn Hole stations cautiously at first, wondering what their friends would think of them if they actually tried it. A few did, and discovered that landing the one-pound sack in a six-inch hole 28 feet away was not as easy as it looked.
Then the local news carried a segment about the Boston Red Sox having postponed Spring Training due to Covid-19. One of the Red Sox pitchers had set up something remarkably identical to one of our Corn Hole units in his yard and was filmed trying to land his fast balls through the hole. That’s all it took. By the next day, competition for the World Series of Corn Hole was on!
This went on for weeks, with teams practicing all day long. Pornchai Moontri explained the game to me. Each player was given four one-pound red or black cloth-covered bags. The woodworking crew carefully measured out the dried corn for each and sewed them meticulously. A player gets one point for landing his sack on the platform 28-feet away. However a player from the opposing team can steal the point by knocking the sack off the platform with one of his own. Getting the sack through the hole is much more difficult, and is worth three points.
One Sunday afternoon, Pornchai dragged me out there to give him some practice. Having showed me all the secret maneuvers for landing the bag in or near the hole, my first throw caught the corner of my shirt and went straight up. I had to push Pornchai out of the way so he wouldn’t get smacked with the one-pound sack on its way back down. My second throw landing nicely on the platform, but it was the platform for the game underway next to us.
By then, news that I had condescended to Corn Hole spread through the entire building. Picture the South Unit as a giant motel with four floors, each with a long railed walkway. Along the levels of walkways are doors to individual pods each housing 24 men in small 60-square-foot cells along its interior perimeter. From our vantage point in the courtyard down below, men were pouring out of these doors like the mobs at Caesar’s Circus Maximus of Ancient Rome. To raucous cheers, I actually managed to score a few points.
By the long Memorial Day weekend, a Corn Hole Tournament was underway with single players vying for wins in two-out-of-three game sessions. Mornings were spent in practice. One by one over the weekend, players were eliminated from the afternoon tournament games. In the end, only two finalists were left: Pornchai Moontri and one of our friends, Jeff. The competition rose to a frenzy. Dozens of chairs lined the court for spectators while a hundred others watched from the walkways above.
Since I was a roommate of one of the contestants, I had a box seat just feet away. The tension was brutal. Pornchai lost the first game and won the second. The third ended in a tie (no pun intended) So now we were in Corn Hole Overtime Play and I was at the edge of my seat in the heat of nerve-wracking competition. The contenders were both good – really good. Every throw resulted in a chorus of cheers or groans from the multitude.
Each game was for 21 points. In the final play-off game, Pornchai was losing 20 to 16. Jeff was one point away from the championship when Pornchai, with a single throw, eliminated every sack Jeff had positioned around the hole on the platform, and then tossed another high in the air. It went through the hole 28 feet away without even touching the wood for a decisive win. Pornchai Moontri was crowned the First (and hopefully last) Pandemic Corn Hole Conquistador.
Beaming with pride, I wondered which would actually look worse on a resume: winning the Pandemic Corn Hole Championship, or losing it.
Editor’s Note: Don’t miss these inspiring related posts.
- At Play in the Field of the Lord
- Pornchai Moontri: A Legion of Angels Triumphant
- What Do John Wayne and Pornchai Moontri Have in Common?
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THE COST OF AN ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE
- (The following article by Fr. Gordon MacRae is reprinted from the May 2020 issue of The South Side Story)
After a short stint in the Receiving Unit, I was one of a dozen new prisoners to arrive in Hancock Building (pictured above) on October 6, 1994. This was before some readers of The South Side Story were even born. As I approached the imposing and notorious H-Building with my meager possessions in a plastic trash bag, I was surprised to see dozens of frames and bunks piled outside the front door. From that day on, cells that previously housed six men each in Hancock were now to house eight.
I was assigned to Echo-Pod, Cell 4. You can actually see it in the photo above (first window on the left in the second row of windows from the top). The Residents living behind that window had just learned that another set of bunks and two more men were being added to each cell. As I carried my heavy steel bunk up to Hancock’s top floor and onto Echo pod, they were understandably not at all happy about it. I remember thinking, “I sure hope I won’t be here long.”
It didn’t take me long to find a job that would get me out of the unit for a few hours each day. I was employed in the Engraving Room in the North Yard Industries Sign Shop. I hoped that having a job might help me move on to a better place. After a year or so, I wrote a few formal Inmate Request Slips asking to be considered for a move to the North or South Units. I never got them back, and never got to move.
So after a few years, I added volunteer work to my Engraving Room job. From 2000 until 2003 I taught several courses in psychology for “Capital Branch,” an experimental program for college credit sponsored within the prison walls by the New Hampshire Community College System. Many Residents from North and South passed through my classes, and I envied them a bit. But I was never able to move.
In 2005 and 2006 I wrote a few more Inmate Request Slips asking for a chance at better housing. I never got any of those requests back. By the end of 2006, I became resigned that I am stuck in Hancock for the entirety of my 67 years as a guest of the State. In all those years, I had not a single Disciplinary Report, was never without a job outside of the unit – often working double shifts – and continued volunteer work in several capacities.
None of it changed where and how I was living. The only thing that slowly changed was my attitude about it. Where I was living was no longer my choice. How I was living was the only choice I had left.
On July 19, 2017, after an unprecedented 23 years in Hancock Building, I was summoned from the prison Law Library (where I work as the Law Clerk) and handed three plastic bags. “This is your chance,” said an officer in the Hancock hallway. “Go pack and head to South at the 1:00 movement.” My head was spinning. After 23 years in Hancock, I had an hour to unravel myself from it and move.
Pornchai Moontri, my friend and roommate of the previous ten years, was also called out of work from the Recreation Department to move. We rushed to stuff everything we owned into trash bags, and at 1:00 PM he helped me pushed a cart loaded with our belongings out the Hancock front door and up the ramp toward South. It struck me only then that I had never actually even seen the South unit. As the gate slid open, we stepped into the MCS yard. After 23 years with too much “inside,” I was in awe of the “outside.”
I was assigned to 3-Bravo on the top floor. A number of our friends there saw me coming and came down to help me. I ended up not carrying a single thing up all those flights. At the top, outside the pod door of 3-Bravo, I felt like a liberated POW as I took in a stunning view over the walls into the woods and hills beyond.
After my arrival in South, I was told that a community meeting was being held down in the yard. Pornchai and I decided to attend. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced in the previous 23 years There was talk about measures of respect between, and among staff and residents. They spoke of protecting the flowers from marauding handball players, saving sunflower seeds for planting in the spring, and plans for an upcoming music concert walled-off yard.
I turned to Pornchai and said “I think we’re in Alexandria!” (It was a Walking Dead reference about living in a new place with people clueless about the ravages going on beyond its walls). Near the end of the meeting, Darryll Bifano [see “For Darryll Bifano, the Currency of Debt Is Mercy”] said that there are a couple of new Residents so I was asked if I had anything to add.
I told the 40-50 South Residents at the meeting that I just moved here after 23 years in Hancock (there was an audible gasp!), that there are no flowers there, and the last time this many people were outside it was because the SERT Team was inside tearing up everything we own. Everyone laughed, but it was a sort of nervous laugh.
The point of this is not to suggest that one prison unit is better than another. They are all different. Some are vastly different. I only mean to say that in the three years that I have lived in the South Unit since leaving H-Building, I have never for a moment lost the sense of value that I place on the environment that I am now in. It still prison, but it’s all relative in a way that some who have never experienced the alternatives may not fully comprehend.
I have been a board member of the RCC (Resident Communications Committee) for the last going on eight years. Lest you think that there are a multitude of perks enjoyed by its members, well.., it never got me out of Hancock. One day, in a meeting about fairness and housing with a previous Warden, he said something that struck home: “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”
I think about that a lot in South. Living here did not come cheap for me, so you might forgive my appreciation for seeing a long imprisonment transform into the potential for a community of shared goals. One day recently, I was climbing back up to 3-Bravo after attending a CAC meeting. A guy my age was on his way down. Seeing people emerge from the CAC meeting in the yard he said, “Look at all the ass-kissers.” The reality check of the previous 23 years gave me a very different perspective on this.
In Psych-101 that I taught all those years ago, I assigned a small but powerful book, Man’s Search for Meaning by psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, Viktor Frankl. He attributed his prison survival as a human being to one basic principle that I have long recommended and tried to practice: “The one freedom that can never be taken from you is the freedom to choose the person you are going to be in any set of circumstances.”
Doing that is just takes a lot less work where I live now. I hope it is at least as contagious as a coronavirus.
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Editor’s Note: Don’t miss these related posts about life in prison.
- Pornchai Moontri at a Crossroads Behind These Stone Walls
- Saint Maximilian Kolbe Led Us Into the Heart of Mary
- Unchained Melody: Tunes from an 8-Track in an iPod World