I grew up in New England, just a few miles north of Boston, so the quirkiness of life here is familiar to me. For a visitor, however, nothing stands out in New England more than its peculiar accents, narrow streets, and extremes of weather. I put “accents” in the plural because there are actually several of them. Even in the City of Boston itself, there are subtle distinctions in the accents of various neighborhoods.
There’s a “Southie” accent, a North End accent, a Charlestown accent, and of course the famous Boston Brahmin accent of Beacon Hill. A linguist once told me that the Boston accents evolved from the period of the 1630s when Boston became the geographic and social center of New England Puritanism after the success of Plymouth Colony that I described in “The True Story of Thanksgiving.” Some think the Puritans came here just to one day make famous the phrase, “Pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd.”
There’s another subtle accent distinction on the North Shore (the “Nawth Shoah”) where I grew up, and still another if you head west out to the Berkshires. Venturing north to New Hampshire, where I am in prison, or west to Vermont or nor’east to Maine, you’ll hear other distinct variations on the basic New England accent.
I’ve lived for long periods of time in other places -four years in Baltimore, Maryland, six years in New Mexico, and shorter stints in other parts of the U.S. and Canada. But my roots are in Boston, and every time I’ve been away and then returned, the New England accents assail my ears and remind me that I’m home.
New England dialects all sound the same to a foreigner -meaning anyone outside of a hundred mile radius from Boston. Most people from “elsewheah” find New England accents “chahming,” if not strange. Their view of the weather is far less so. I spoke to my brother-in-law, John, yesterday and he has clearly had enough of winter. The city streets around Boston are known for their narrowness, and were never meant to handle the traffic that now navigates them. This winter has increasingly narrowed those streets, and it worsened by the week as storm after storm dumped more snow than I’ve seen in decades. In the month of January alone, Boston saw 50 inches of snow in 31 days.
By mid-February there was simply no place left to put snow, and the streets were looking more like footpaths. All New England is imprisoned in snow. March is finally here, and with it, the spring of hope. Spring doesn’t actually begin until the spring equinox in three weeks/ but today is considered “meteorological spring” in New England when the thaw typically begins a rapid pace. We could still have more snow – a lot more – but it won’t last.
WINTER INSIDE THE WALLS
As the streets narrowed in Boston and points north, the entire outside world diminished for the prisoners of New England. I can’t put into words how welcome the signs of spring are for prisoners. People outside of here refer to winter as “a snowy winter,” or “a cold winter.” There’s another adjective that better captures its reality for prisoners. This was “a confining winter,” one of the most confining I have seen.
I’ve spent many winters – this is my 17th – staring out my cell window at the ballfield door that I described in “Field of Dreams,” one of my first posts on These Stone Walls. It’s the door to the real outside – not just the outside of asphalt and steel contained within towering prison walls and razor wire and guard towers – but to the only place outside where prisoners here can walk and see trees.
We cannot touch those trees for they’re beyond the multiple 20-foot fences and spirals of razor wire surrounding the field and keeping me in – and you out. There’s never any doubt of where we are, even in that field. Still, it’s the closest thing to a walk in the woods that a prisoner here will ever see, and after this relentless winter, I can hardly wait to see it again.
But as I sit here writing this at the end of February, the ballfield door is gone. It’s still there, of course. It’s just gone from my sight, hidden behind mounds of snow of a height I’ve not seen in many years. Over the next few weeks, the door will slowly emerge from its winter tomb. Though it won’t open for us for another ten weeks or so, even its slow unveiling brings hope and a longing to be free of this confounding confinement.
Winter always brings out the worst in prison and in prisoners. As I described in “The Books of Winter’s Long Night,” and “Prison Blues to Poetic Muse,” cabin fever began to set in around mid-January, and for those who don’t manage to keep busy, unrelenting depression usually follows. Making the confinement a lot worse, a cold virus swept through here like a wildfire. I had it for six weeks, and it cast an unhappy pall over this overcrowded place entombed in its dreary winter.
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
Prisons in movies and TV shows are always depicted as dark, corrupt, and brutal places. Back in the 1980s, Robert Redford starred in the prison film, “Brubaker.” Based on a true story, he portrayed the new warden of an especially brutal Southern prison who began his job by posing as a prisoner for his first month there. During that month, he learned first hand all the corruption and indignities that guards and prisoners visited upon each other. The riveting film co-starred Morgan Freeman who later co-starred with Timothy Robbins in another great prison film, 1994’s “The Shawshank Redemption.”
A number of TSW readers have asked me if “The Shawshank Redemption” was a realistic portrayal of prison life. Of course, the period it depicts is the 1940s so there are many differences. But in terms of the psychology of being in prison, “The Shawshank Redemption” is probably the best depiction.
One aspect of prison that it portrays painfully is the human need for friendship, and of how fragile it can be. Prison is a place where few people can be trusted, and an atmosphere that itself cannot be counted upon for stability. Prisoners here and in most prisons can be moved at a moment’s notice, for any reason or no reason whatsoever, never to see or hear from friends again.
In the sixteen years, five months, and nine days that I have thus far spent in prison, I have seen many friends leave – sometimes moved in the night to other prisons and sometimes paroled. The rules forbid any further contact by mail, telephone, or through third parties. When friends walk out the prison door, or are taken by force to other prisons, it is often the last I will see of them in this life. Even “The Shawshank Redemption” understated that aspect of prison life. It’s the most horrible aspect.
But the core of the film’s message was friendship, and its sheer necessity for the human soul. That is one of the greatest concerns I have for the future of the priesthood. I cannot help but see that the Catholic priesthood is in the middle of its own imprisoning winter. Will the even innocent but much needed friendships of Catholic priests become subject to the scrutiny of inquiring minds? Please don’t hesitate to befriend the priests you know. There is no force short of prayer itself more needed in the Roman Catholic priesthood.
How strange that this became ever more clear to me in prison. Human beings need friendship and social contacts to mirror their own humanity. Some of the most eccentric people I have ever met are in prison. I think a prolonged stay in such a place can rob a person of more than freedom. It takes away more than our windows onto the world. It can take away windows into ourselves, opportunities to see ourselves through the eyes of others in ways that improve upon our personhood.
This prison used to have what was commonly known here as “The Dog Program.” In one of the housing units, a select group of prisoners were recruited to take part in a training program for “Seeing Eye” and personal assistant dogs. About six dogs were housed along with their prisoner custodians on one pod so the trainers could collaborate.
For a lot of reasons, the program didn’t work out here, but it ran for a year with a lot of attention given to the humanizing presence of dogs in the prison. Here and there, we would all run into prisoners walking their dogs, and could see what an enormous responsibility it was in this environment.
One of the prisoner dog trainers used to bring his charge up to the prison library where the librarian always had a doggie treat ready. The dog was allowed to roam free for a few minutes to explore the library. Even the most intensely anti-social prisoners – and they are many – responded positively to the presence of dogs.
One day in the library after the dog and his handler left, we noticed a strong odor. I and a few other library workers walked up and down the stacks in search of its source. My friend, Pornchai was in the library that day helping us carry heavy bags of books to one of the locked-down units, so he took part in the search.
“Found it!” Pornchai yelled from across the Library. The visiting dog had left his calling card right in the middle of the aisle, and right smack in front of writer Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” series of books. Pornchai pointed to the label, “Left Behind” printed on the shelf just above the doggy deposit. “He was only following instructions!” Pornchai said in defense of the dog. Then he said, “I guess this is sort of a Post-Apocalyptic Poop!” We laughed and laughed – then we made Pornchai clean it up in payment for his bad joke.
Even in the worst of places, human nature will always seek and find a way to affirm itself, and to lighten dark places. The coming spring is itself an affirmation of life. Next Wednesday we begin Lent, a time to rid ourselves of the oppression of sin and of winter itself; a time to welcome spring and hope back into our lives.
In “The Shawshank Redemption,” Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) wrote a letter to his friend, Red (Morgan Freeman) just out of prison: “Hope is a good thing,” he wrote. “Maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
40 DAYS FOR LIFE
I want to propose a positive way for TSW readers to observe Lent this year. I mentioned “40 Days for Life” in my Civil Rights post, “The Last Full Measure of Devotion” in January. Starting on Ash Wednesday, March 9, “40 Days for Life” participants will engage in prayer and fasting, peaceful vigil, and community outreach in 247 cities in the United States, Canada, Australia, England, Ireland, Spain, Belize, Armenia and the nation of Georgia. The 40 Days Campaign director, Shawn Carney, offers some very hopeful stats:
Here’s a quick list of the blessings that God has provided through seven previous coordinated 40 Days for Life campaigns:
- 400,000 have joined to pray and fast for an end to abortion
- 13,000+ church congregations have participated in 40 Days for Life campaigns
- Reports document 3,599 lives that have been spared from abortion — and those are just the ones we know about
- 43 abortion workers have quit their jobs and walked away from the abortion industry
- Nine abortion facilities completely shut down following local 40 Days for Life campaigns
- Women and men have been spared from the effects of abortion, including a lifetime of regrets
- More than 1,200 news stories have been featured in radio shows, newspapers, magazines and TV programs
- Many people with past abortion experiences have begun post-abortion healing and recovery
- After 38 years of legalized abortion, people of faith are experiencing a renewed sense of HOPE!
I’m excited and am really looking forward to what God will do this spring … and I’m thrilled to have YOU as part of it!
Shawn Carney, Campaign Director, 40 Days for Life
Several prisoners here plan to join me and “40 Days for Life” in prayer and sacrifice. You could join us as well. It’s a pro-active way to observe Lent and affirm life. Please have a good look at “40 Days for Life,” and help by passing this link on to others. I have much hope for this movement, and, as Andy Dufresne says, hope is “maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
You can click here to find your city’s 40 Days site. Once there, you can scroll down for international locations.