Letters to and from someone in prison can meet frustrating obstacles, but a weekly blog post from inside these stone walls can require the patience of Job.
“The truth is like a lion. No one has to defend it. Just set it free, and it will defend itself.” St. Augustine
Catholic writer, Felix Carroll has set free the truth, and it roared like a lion earlier this month when he published a powerful article about our friend, Pornchai Moontri. “Mercy – Inside Those Stone Walls” was posted January 16 at the website of the International Shrine of Divine Mercy.
The article was the result of a lengthy interview with Pornchai that took place at this prison many months ago. We knew the article was coming, but had no idea when. As 2012 gave way to 2013, Pornchai had more or less forgotten about it. I only learned of it when I made a telephone call from prison on January 16 to hear about that week’s TSW post, “What Dreams May Come: Azazel and the Pursuit of Justice.” Felix Carroll’s article was read to me via telephone, and then I told Pornchai about it.
On the next day, January 17, a copy of the article was printed and mailed to Pornchai in prison. Because Monday the 21st was a holiday, he did not actually get to see it until January 22, almost a full week after it was published and thousands of others had already read it. There’s a sense of feeling left behind when this happens. Knowing that good writers like Felix Carroll are out there writing such terrific articles is a great blessing. Being the last to be able to actually see them, however, can easily turn that blessing into a sometimes unbearable wait.
The whole world has instant access to what we write in prison and to what is written about us, but we have to wait a week to finally see it and respond. That week can feel like an eternity. It isn’t ego. Believe me on this, if anyone in prison for twenty years has an ego needing to be fed by accolades, it would have died of starvation long ago.
No, it isn’t about ego. It’s about hope. Felix Carroll is a gifted writer, and he captured masterfully the chasm between tragedy and hope that separates Pornchai’s past from his present and future. If you haven’t read “Mercy – Inside Those Stone Walls,” I urge you to do so, and to comment on it and send a link to others. This is something that could be especially helpful to Pornchai going forward. When a story attracts lots of notice and comments, writers and their media are more inclined to see the importance of stories like Pornchai’s. Like the lion in that great quote by Saint Augustine at the start of this post, the truth about Pornchai’s life can defend itself if someone sets it free. Felix Carroll did just that.
As a prisoner with no on-line access at all, my TSW posts are written in a prison cell on the highest tech device available to me – a circa 1980 electric Smith Corona typewriter. Like me, it shows its age and limits, but also like me it still plods along in near total denial of them.
Engaging the world from behind prison walls can be a hazardous experience for both writers and readers. If you’ve sent me a letter or Christmas card, but never received a reply, then read on. If you were kind enough to send a check to me in prison but it hasn’t been acknowledged yet, you deserve an explanation. If you posted a comment or asked a question of me on TSW, but it hasn’t been answered yet, I beg your patience. If you’re the sort of person who roots for the underdog, then this post is for you.
I want to tell you about the sometimes harrowing process through which prisoners send and receive mail, and also tell you why we had no weekly post on January 9th. We almost didn’t have one on the 16th as well. Whether it’s answering mail or creating a weekly blog post, writing from behind these stone walls can be an ordeal.
The whole point of blogging is to publish what you write and be heard. Most blogs have a lively exchange of comments and discussion in which readers can enter a dialogue of sorts with the blog’s writer, but in the arena of Catholic bloggers, I am clearly the underdog. In a sense, when you comment on one of my posts you are communicating with a blind man. I cannot see my own blog posts, or any of your comments, until some kind and helpful friends print them and send them to me via snail mail. And you know it’s not called “snail mail” for nothing. That slow and tedious form of communication is further limited by the realities of prison. When you type a post or message, you send it along with a mere click of your mouse. When I type anything, I must put it in an unsealed envelope in a mailbox for review by prison guards, and it passes through many hands before going postal.
It’s the nature of prisons everywhere that mail must be carefully searched for contraband. That means that when I receive a letter, the postage stamp, back flap of the envelope, and sometimes even the return address have been removed. Many of the Christmas cards I received were from people whose name and address were on the back flap of the envelopes which is torn off before I receive it. This means that I often cannot identify the sender or return address. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to include your name and address in the body of a letter, and observe the rules for prisoner mail described on TSW’s “Contact” page.
The “Contact” page also describes how best to help with expenses. When kind readers have sent checks directly to me in prison, this is much appreciated, but sometimes I am not even aware of it until a month later unless the sender has mentioned the check and amount in the body of a card or letter. Checks are removed from mail before it reaches me, and sent for deposit in my prisoner account. Often, I am not aware of the check until I receive a monthly statement. Because I cannot see the actual check, and the return address is also torn from the envelope it was in, I sometimes know who sent the check, but have no way to know the senders’ address to write and thank them. So please forgive me, and the world I live in, if your mail or gift to me has not yet been acknowledged.
And if you have received any mail from me lately, you might have noticed that the stamps now sold to us in the prison commissary have the words “Freedom,” “Justice,” and “Liberty” imprinted on them. It’s one of the ironies of communicating from prison.
TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY, “COUGH, COUGH”
Sometimes a perfect storm of prison obstacles converges to make posting on These Stone Walls impossible. We had one such perfect storm weeks ago. First came the flu epidemic I mentioned near the end of my post, “Les Miserables” last week. I’m not sure what strain this flu was, but it was awful, and at this writing it’s been lingering for weeks.
I actually managed to get a flu shot this year, an ordeal in itself. Early one morning, someone announced “Last call for flu shots” on the prison P.A. system. Like most such things here, I had no idea what happened to the first or second call, but there wasn’t one. A few days later, after I spent each morning in full uniform, ID tag showing, hovering at the door just in case the “last call for flu shots” was repeated, it was. I made my way through all the locked and slamming prison doors to get a flu shot.
Then I got the flu. As Christmas approached, half the men where I live were sick with the flu, but I thought I might be spared. Three days before Christmas, our friend Pornchai came down with it, and spent much of that week with a fever, chills, very sore throat, headache, and relentless coughing. Lots of prisoners were coughing all night long. It was miserable, but we did our best to take care of a few older prisoners I feared might not survive it. In the cellblock where I live, we have an 82-year-old man who just finished his first year in prison, and a 70-year old with Parkinson’s disease and stomach cancer. Both came down with the flu just after Christmas, and both are still slowly recovering.
At the end of December, despite my hard-won flu shot, I awoke with most of the symptoms. I skipped the sore throat, but like most such things, the flu virus went straight for my lungs. I coughed relentlessly day and night, and after several days of it every cough felt as though a cannon ball had broadsided my ribcage.
You might have noticed that we had no post for January 9, and it wasn’t just because of the flu. As miserable as I felt, I did write one, though it was a battle to finish it. After every few sentences, I had to pause to brace my sore ribs for another fit of coughing. I finally finished it on December 30, the absolute deadline to have it in the mail to be sent for scanning.
To post anything on These Stone Walls, I am first at the mercy of two postal systems, the prison’s and the U.S. Government’s. I try to mail each post by Sunday night to be sure it arrives in time to be scanned on the following Friday. Each Saturday afternoon, I call with my own copy of the post in hand to go through it via telephone and correct any scanning errors. Then a friend attaches it to an e-mail to Australia for final editing, the addition of links and formatting, and Vincenzo’s terrific graphics.
But when I called on January 5th to edit the post I mailed six days earlier, it had not arrived. This has happened once or twice before and usually throws me into a panic. By the following Monday – 8 days after mailing – it still had not arrived. When that happens, our only options are a TSW re-run, or skip a week of posting on TSW.
It wasn’t even intentional on his part, but Father George David Byers came to the rescue with a January 8th Holy Souls Hermitage post with a video clip of Pornchai’s now famous graduation speech. To this very day, we have no idea what became of my January 9 post. It has simply disappeared.
But I’m glad you haven’t. That great quote from Saint Augustine at the beginning of this post is made manifest behind These Stone Walls only because you know the truth when you see it, and by disseminating it further, you set it free. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Now go wash your hands. That flu-bug is still creeping around inside these stone walls.
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