Fr Gordon MacRae was asked to journal for one day of his life in prison for posting on These Stone Walls. He left nothing out. This is NOT your Grandma’s soap opera!
Pornchai “Max” Moontri and I live in cell 04, cellblock 3B, on the top floor of a long building in a place called “MCS” (Medium Custody South). We consider ourselves fortunate to be here after 23 years in a far more confining and oppressive place. During the last fourteen months in that place, we lived in a more volatile environment with eight prisoners per cell. The story of our liberation was told in “Pornchai Moontri at a Crossroads Behind These Stone Walls.”
The building where we now live has multiple levels. We live on the top floor in a section called “13B,” but it’s actually the fourth floor. Down below on the ground floor are administration offices for unit security staff. From down there, the nearly 300 men in the four sections of this unit are managed around the clock in three shifts. The unit consists of 12 “pods,” each with 10 cells and another four prisoners living in overflow bunks in each of 12 common areas.
Our room (we cling to a remnant of freedom by not calling it our “cell”) might seem more like a tomb for some. It measures 6 x 10 feet, a total of sixty square feet. Nearly half of that space is taken up by a two-tiered concrete and iron bunk protruding from one wall. Within that 60 square feet is contained the sum total of the lives and possessions of two grown men.
We also have a window to the outside, the most important feature of every cell in every prison on the planet. Our window faces East. A heavy steel grate is bolted to the outside of the barred window so it isn’t easy to see out of it. With a little effort we can look out onto a forest-covered hill to see deer and wild turkey in the woods beyond all the chain link and razor wire. Hawks seem to be in constant motion circling above.
Our “room” door is not made of clanging bars. It’s a solid metal door with a small window in it. We are never locked in here – a factor that I much appreciate. It is so “unprison-like” that we have a key to our own cell door. We can lock out the barbarian hordes, but no one locks us in. This is due to a common lavatory with sinks and showers on each pod accessible to its residents day and night.
The philosophy of prison where we live now seems very different from what we have known. I am locked into the unit, but not a cell. This means that the limits of my movement have expanded about 500-fold. I can go outside into a huge walled prison yard anytime I want to, and the knowledge that I can go no further is lessened somewhat by the sheer size of the “free range” space outside.
The staff here are no less firm and resolute than anywhere else in prison, but they are civil and that took some getting used to as well. It is still a prison, however, just a somewhat more humane version of the one that had been our lot for too many years.
I was on the telephone with Father George David Byers at 0600 one morning this week. He asked me about the lay of the land here where we have now lived for six months. I described what I wrote above, and he suggested that I write about my typical day here. I can’t imagine anyone would find this interesting, but I picked this one day and I’ll try not to leave anything out.
BY THE DAWN’S EARLY LIGHT
It’s 5:30 AM. JJ Jennings is a big guy and one of our friends from just across the hall. I had asked him to awaken me at 0530 each morning so he is now tapping my shoulder trying to do just that. It registers somewhere deep below my psyche only as part of a dream unfolding down there.
I usually like dreams about being free from prison, but this one is holding me captive. I am walking along a lonely road carrying the remnants of my life in a trash bag slung over my shoulder. In my other hand, I am carrying an electric fan. Where’s Freud when we need him?
In the dream, a creepy reality enters my unconscious mind. “Where am I going?” I ask myself. “I have no place to go.” Not knowing that I am already asleep, my mind asks, “Where will I sleep tonight” Only in nightmares can freedom itself be the shame that binds you. I walked on with dismal foreboding.
Now, something in the bag on my shoulder is poking at me. There it is again. I awaken – for real this time – with JJ’s second insistent tap on my shoulder which now feels more like an impatient whack. “Get your fat ass up,” JJ whispers in the dark. His hulking frame is now backing out of the tiny room trying not to knock anything over.
“Look who’s talking!” I mutter as I throw off a blanket to face the cold morning. JJ and I and Pornchai “Max” Moontri insult each other at least once a day. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism. On this day, JJ just got in the first strike.
I plugged in an electric hot pot, folded my sheets and blanket to stow them away, then make breakfast instant coffee, crackers, and chunky peanut butter. I leave some for Pornchai-Max who is just now waking up and waiting for me to exit. The room is too small for both of us to be up and about at the same time, but we have a schedule down to the minute. At 0605 I take my coffee outside so he can get up and get ready for work.
At 0610 outside the cell, I told Pornchai that if I found out I was dying and had six months to live, I would move in with JJ. “It wouldn’t make me live longer,” I said, “but it would sure make it SEEM longer!” JJ just came out to see what we are laughing about.
A word about JJ: He and his roommate, Tim Potter, have helped us a lot since we have been here. Skilled in woodcraft, JJ works with Pornchai in the woodworking shop. We have been walking with JJ through a rough period in these months. His mother, age 65, was on her way to visit him two months ago when a truck crossed the center line and struck her head on at high speed. She was crushed inside her totaled car, and no one thought she could possibly survive.
TSW reader, Helen, put this prayer request out on a Catholic prayer site, and thousands offered prayers for JJ’s Mom. After a month in ICU and eight operations, she was moved to a rehab center. Yesterday she took her first steps with a walker. JJ is elated, and thanks everyone for the prayers. I told him that after giving birth to him, all other trials must seem pretty much downhill. Now we are all snorting with laughter again.
At 0615, I went outside onto a walkway high above the prison yard. Two telephones are bolted to an outside wall there. I then suffered through a rough telephone call with my friend, Father George David Byers in North Carolina.
Perhaps I phrased that poorly. Talking with Father George was not the “rough” part – though he does have his moments. It was -5 degrees Fahrenheit with a biting wind in Concord, NH that morning. On the phone outside, frostbite was nipping at my fingers. The gloves we buy cost $1.00, and worth just that.
This was when Father George suggested writing about the days of our lives. He didn’t mean the soap opera – though there is no shortage of them playing out in prison. Most priests sent to prison are forced to live in hiding. My experience had such a beginning but transcended it. Ryan MacDonald documented it in “Case History III: The Imprisonment.”
By 0700 our phone call was over and I went back inside to warm up before leaving for work. At 0710 I walked with Pornchai and JJ across the prison complex toward the gym where they work out for an hour before work. I parted ways with them to climb the six flights of outside stairs to the top of the law and recreation library. Max and I each earn $2.00 per day in our jobs. I wrote of mine in “Cry Freedom: A Prisoner Unlocks Doors from the Inside.”
I work there in two shifts, from 07:15 to 11:00 and from 11:30 to 1430 (2:30 PM). I’ll describe the day’s work below. By 11:00 I leave for a lunch break, but I am rarely able to get to my unit and then to the dining hall on time. Lunch here isn’t much to write about anyway. I returned to my room to mix a protein drink from the commissary. Just add water and shake! For $1.12 it has 24 grams of protein, 8 grams of fiber, and only 2 grams of sugar and 100% of most vitamins.
By 11:30 I am back at work. Do you remember Jeff from my post “A Harvest Moon Before Christ the King”? If you come back here to revisit just one other link, make it that one. A few days after Christmas, Jeff was suddenly moved to another unit. There was no agenda beyond random selection in a bureaucracy that needed his bunk for someone else.
The move and separation were painful and traumatic for Jeff. Worse, he was moved back into the sphere of influence of the same predator who had fostered and rekindled his addiction. Such things happen too often here, and sometimes a large part of my day is spent trying to work behind-the-scenes solutions in a hostile environment in which I am just another prisoner.
This is the biggest challenge I face each day. I have come to understand in a personal way what Jesus meant when he said, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
While trying to cope with this discouragement, Jeff lapsed into despair again and had a setback. I have been quietly working to get him moved back because it would be best for him, but in the meantime, there has been no shortage of surprises. On his own, Jeff applied for and was accepted, for a rare job in the prison library. Such jobs are usually hard to get. So after a separation of several weeks, Jeff is now working with me each day.
We spent much of this day filling book requests for about sixty prisoners who have managed to get themselves sent to “the hole” for more serious misconduct such as assaults and other disruptions. They are locked alone in isolation for 23 hours a day with one hour in an outside cage. Most will be in the hole anywhere from a few weeks to a year or longer. It is self-inflicted but these are not men known for self-control.
After two hours of pulling books, checking them out, and wrapping them for their individual recipients, Jeff, and our friend, Joseph L carry the heavy bags down the 48 stairs and across the prison complex to the maximum security unit. They both come back relieved that they didn’t have to stay there.
IN THE COMPANY OF WOLVES
At 2:30 PM (1430 prison time) Pornchai Moontri and I both leave our respective jobs. He works for the Recreation Department as the designated safety trainer for the prison crafts and woodworking shop. It’s a job he loves. I leave the Library at the same time, and we often meet on the climb back up the ramps and stairs toward MCS.
For the next hour, Pornchai and JJ meet to review plans for some woodworking projects they want to try. I usually end up spending most of that hour on another telephone call when I can get a phone, or listening to a steady stream of prisoners who want help with anything from parole applications to responding to disciplinary hearings that they think were unfair. I cannot be their advocate, but I try to give them the tools to advocate for themselves.
At 3:45 PM is the main meal of the day. Today it was four “Happy Meal” fish sticks, a scoop of instant potatoes, and a scoop of very overcooked green beans. Dessert was a small package of cookies imported (or deported) from Honduras. We have 20 minutes to eat, but it only took five. A new Warden over the last year has tried, with some success, to improve prison food, but the less said about this meal, the better.
After dinner is the evening prisoner count and daily Mail Call. Usually, about half the mail for this pod of 24 is for me and Pornchai Moontri so we endure the daily ritual of groans and catcalls as our names are called again and again. I spend an hour reading mail and my daily copy of The Wall Street Journal looking for ideas to write about.
After dark, the sound of prison changes. The dark side of the force awakens and the prison underworld emerges. There are too many discarded young men in prison, and 80% of them have little or nothing to do all day.
Thanks to legislative cuts, the gutting of jobs and programs, prisons are becoming human warehouses. For the remains of the day, the sounds from down below in the dark are best described as the howling of wolves and the lament of the hopeless.
I like to walk the stairs at night, especially in winter when it is cold. The cold means that fewer are gathered to lurk outside on the walkways and stairs which, for adolescents all across America, often spells trouble. I follow the outside walkway from the top level “B” section where I live, across “C” and “D,” and then down the 48 stairs to the pavement below. From there I take the walkways connecting the sections back to “A” where I ascend another 48 stairs to the top. I try to do this 10 to 20 times a night with a goal of 1,000 stairs daily.
I’m not at all inhibited by the aimless throngs that wander at night. Just the opposite. Most have done at least one stint in “the hole” and I am the last person on Earth they want to offend. I stop occasionally but not to get mugged or anything. I stop to talk or even listen to a new rap some prisoners have been working on. Some are pretty good. Most are awful.
I stay out until about 8:30 PM, and then climb the stairs one last time to end the day. On this day, our friend Joseph L. who wrote “Against a Brick Wall” – has made some food for me and Pornchai because dinner just didn’t last long.
By 9:00 I am in the shower, and at 10:00 PM I lay down on my bunk for the first time since 0530 this morning. I pray the Liturgy of the Hours and confess that I am sometimes asleep before I finish… JJ’s tap is coming soon enough.
Thus ends day number 8,518 in prison. No matter who you are; no matter where you are, or what cross you carry, do good whenever and wherever you can. This is not for the survival of the recipients of your good. It is for your own survival. It is the key to enduring any hardship.