In prison a broken typewriter can end a writer’s voice; an injury can end access to the outside world; such were the missiles of October behind These Stone Walls.
I can’t remember what post it was, but I told you this story before, and I beg your forgiveness for telling it again. It’s a true story about something that happened at a Sunday Mass thirty years ago. It was October, 1984, and allergy season in New Hampshire had peaked.
I was proclaiming the Gospel at 9:30 AM Mass, the parish’s largest, filled with young families. Just as I finished reading, I lost my voice. My larynx constricted and not a squeak would come out. I had to skip a homily I spent many hours preparing. Nearly choking and unable to speak, I beckoned a lector to the microphone to lead the recitation of the Nicene Creed and pray the parish Intercessions.
At the time of the Offertory Prayer Over the Gifts at the Altar, I held out the paten with the unconsecrated host. Just then, my voice returned. So I told my parishioners that I was very sorry, but I had to skip the homily because I had completely lost my voice. The entire congregation, staring at their J.S. Paluch Missalettes, chanted in unison, “Blessed be God Forever!”
A hidden message or just Catholics on autopilot? I never knew. I thought of that story two weeks ago when one of the things I have long feared might happen DID happen. I was just typing the last page of my October 8 post, “Prisoners of Summer,” when my faithful old Smith-Corona typewriter choked, sputtered, and died.
I saw my life flash before my eyes. Well … I at least saw my life as a writer flash before my eyes. In prison, I cannot just pop over to Best Buy for something to replace a broken typewriter. In fact, I cannot replace it at all. This prison banned typewriters with rudimentary word processing capability years ago and mine was “grandfathered” for as long as it lasts.
You may recall from my post, “These Stone Walls Turns Five Years Old” in August that when TSW began I had to handwrite my first several posts. A month before the idea of TSW began in 2009, my typewriter’s printer motor burned out. I had to seek approval to ship the typewriter to a Smith-Corona vendor for a new motor.
In this sense, a “new” motor likely means one scavenged from the parts of some other abandoned machine. This typewriter and its parts have not been manufactured in decades. That repair job cost substantially more than I paid for this machine when it was first sold to prisoners in 1995. The repair took less than sixty minutes. The bureaucratic process of shipping the typewriter out of this prison and back in again took just under five months.
The “new” motor lasted five years of heavy use so I can’t complain. Last week, some friends – the great people who make TSW work – contacted the Smith-Corona vendor and he has another motor. That was great news. Then we wrote to the Prison warden for approval to ship the machine and let it back into the prison once repaired.
That took a week. Finally, I carried my irreplaceable typewriter – having completed all the triplicate paperwork – to the prison Property Department for shipping. When that will actually happen, I do not know. I’ll keep you posted.
WRITTEN ON THE FLY
Once the sense of panic – followed by loss, followed by a sense of futility – all subsided, I wondered how I might write for TSW in the interim. That will take some creativity. I have never had a habit of planning out my posts in advance. There are never any rough drafts. I just sit in front of my typewriter, wonder what I might write about, pray for some guidance, and then start typing.
The prison library where I work has two typewriters that are very heavily used by prisoners doing legal or school work. I could get ten minutes here and there with one, typing a few paragraphs at a time, but it’s a tedious way to write.
In fact last week’s post, “Dangerous Liaisons” was typed in just that way over several days. I hope it didn’t show. I have never tried to write out my posts, or, years ago, my homilies for that matter. The “ten minutes here and there” approach to writing in the absence of my typewriter is a challenge, but I’ll do my best.
Even before my typewriter had its senior moment, I had invited a few guest writers to consider a post for These Stone Walls lest you tire of hearing only from me. So this week I prodded them to step up sooner rather than later. Two are writers we haven’t heard from before on TSW, though they are well known. Two others are familiar to us all.
I know you’ll give them our appreciation, comment if you can, and share their voices on social media. I will still have posts of my own – like this one – cobbled together as best I can until TSW’s archaic typewriter returns from its field trip. I’m assured that this time, it won’t take five months to ship and return. Maybe one; perhaps two.
A REBELLION AT WOUNDED KNEE
The more frustrating part of losing my typewriter was that the loss came just as I had more time to write. I mentioned near the end of “Prisoners of Summer” that the prison Ball Field closed for the winter a week after that was posted. I missed that entire last week in the Ball Field, stranded inside with a twisted and swollen left knee.
I have no idea what caused it. A friend of mine had knee replacement surgery in August and I remarked in a telephone call to her that I have never had any problem whatsoever with my knees. The very next morning, I twisted my knee severely. It seemed to happen all by itself, and I have been singing a-patella ever since!
I knew my swollen knee needed an X-Ray, and the only way to bring that about is to arise at 6:00 AM, fill out a co-pay form to pay for medical care, then another form describing what is wrong, then stand ready at the cell door for movement to 7:00 AM “Sick Call.”
The early morning “Sick Call” is the sole opportunity for medical attention for 1,500 prisoners. I had all the requisite paperwork in place only to hear the dreaded announcement, “Sick Call Is Cancelled Today.” So the next morning I arose again at 6:00 AM, and repeated the process only to hear the same announcement. Then I gave up, deciding that I needed sleep more than I needed an X-Ray.
So I hobbled around as best I could for the last two weeks. The knee is no worse, and only slightly better. The swelling has subsided so it no longer looks like I have one human knee and one hippopotamus knee. The worst downside is that any injury like this for a prisoner only serves to lock him even more deeply inside.
I read an article someone sent me recently about all the attention now being given to America’s grossly overcrowded prison system. The article suggested that to imagine what prison is like, just go lock yourself in your bathroom, then imagine you will have to remain there for ten or twenty years.
When I read that part of the article to our friend, Pornchai-Maximilian, he pointed out that this might sound like the lap of luxury to most of the prisoners here. The better analogy would be to go outside into your neighborhood, walk six or seven blocks out of your comfort zone, then find someone you barely know – maybe even someone you have never met. Now invite that person over to your house, and lock both of you in your bathroom. Then imagine you will have to remain there for the next ten or twenty years. That’s prison!
A newer reader from North Texas recently sent a small card to me bearing no return address, signature, or name. The message was along the lines that Jesus, John the Baptist, Saint Paul, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, and other saints were in prison and they never complained. They just prayed. The suggestion was that I should shut up and do the same. I’m not so sure how that reader might explain the lament of Psalm 22 cried out from the Cross: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
I hope readers see TSW as something a little more meaningful than merely a litany of complaints about being unjustly in prison. We humans are gifted with a conscience, not only as individuals, but as a culture. It’s a duty of conscience to inform the culture about the nature of America’s prisons and about the truth of this criminal justice system which, by every measure, is seriously broken.
There is a new media venture determined to do just that. It’s called The Marshall Project, named in honor of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Newsweek reported on the project in an April 2014 article by Zack Schonfeld entitled, “How a Journalism Project No One Had Heard of Stole Time’s Columnist Bill Keller.”
I was interviewed at the New Hampshire prison two weeks ago by a journalist from The Marshall Project which wants to make criminal justice reform and the American prison system a part of the national debate ahead of the 2016 presidential campaign. I recommend this endeavor to TSW readers, and suggest that you sign up for a free e-mail notification of The Marshall Project’s start-up coming very soon.
Meanwhile, I’ll hobble over to a library typewriter every chance I get to continue writing. My knee hurts and my typewriter’s broken. But these were not the only missiles of October in prison. They are just the only ones I can write about. In spite of them, there are some amazing things happening behind and beyond These Stone Walls, and I’m looking forward to telling you about them.
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.”