Overcoming many obstacles, Pornchai Moontri, Alberto Ramos, and seven other prisoners receive their high school diplomas in a model prison education program.
“The beginning of Wisdom is the most sincere desire to learn.” (Wisdom of Solomon 6:17)
In two recent posts on These Stone Walls, I described some of what has gone terribly wrong with America’s enormous, ever-growing, and grossly expensive prison system.
“In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men” made a crystal clear connection between the diminishment of fatherhood and the growth of prisons in Western Culture. It’s especially evident in America which has more young men in prison than all 35 European nations combined. “Unchained Melody: Tunes from an 8-Track in an iPod World” continued that story about the sacrifice of young men to prisons from which some never fully emerge.
In America, a dark cloud is rising in a dismal and growing trend to embrace the privatization of prisons for profit. Charles Dickens and George Orwell working together could not have conceived a more devious plan to keep young men in the dark wood of error away from any hope for a future, and then profit from that. The darkest tenet of prisons for profit is that they require their host states to guarantee their prisons will remain at least 90% full.
In the midst of that debate, however, something is happening in the New Hampshire State Prison that has proven itself to be a lifeline for a growing number of young men determined to survive their own failures and emerge from the dark wood of error. Within these stone walls, this prison operates a special school district known as Granite State High School.
The program grants both a GED high school equivalency and a far more arduous path for prisoner-students determined to prove themselves equal to the challenge: a fully accredited high school diploma earned course by course, credit by credit, over the course of several years.
In the world in which most of you live, a high school diploma is a necessary stepping stone. In this world, it is a milestone, and perhaps the most visible evidence of rehabilitation. To earn a high school diploma in prison, a prisoner must first expand his own boundaries, stake them out, reclaim his life and his mind from the many dark forces of prison life, and stand firmly on his own two feet in resisting a gang-culture vying every day for control over young minds in prison.
Against all this, a student in prison must go to school every day, complete homework every day, pass exams, write papers, and be a full-time student while living in the chaos of prison life. He must do this semester after semester, motivated by little more than the desire to learn and the hope that there is a world beyond prison in which education is a tool for building a better life. It is a goal that for many prisoners exists only on faith. There is no more effective measurement of the emergence of a man from the dark wood of error than the sheer drive required to overcome all these obstacles to earn a high school diploma in a prison environment.
Two people you know of – one of whom you will get to know better today – have done just that. Pornchai Moontri and his friend (and mine), Alberto Ramos, have completed high school in prison and will graduate this month. Pornchai needs no introduction to readers of These Stone Walls. His own story about the special challenges he faces was told in a riveting guest post, “The Duty of a Knight: To Dream the Impossible Dream.” Father George David Byers also wrote of some of Pornchai’s special challenges and skills in a great September 10 post filled with stunning photos at Holy Souls Hermitage.
A MAN IN FULL
You’ve met Alberto Ramos as well. I mentioned him briefly in “Angelic Justice: Saint Michael the Archangel and the Scales of Hesed.” Alberto Ramos and I went to prison within six months of each other 18 years ago. The shocking part of this story is that Alberto turned 32 in prison last month.
At age 14, Alberto shot and killed a 19-year-old man in a drug and gang-related confrontation that spiraled out of control in a dark city alley in 1995. At the time, Alberto had already lived “on the streets” for two years since being thrown out of his single-parent home at age 12. At 14, Alberto was the youngest person in New Hampshire to be convicted of murder with an adult prison sentence – 25 years to life.
Because he was only 14, Alberto spent his first four years in relative solitary confinement in a county jail. When he turned 18 in 1998, he was transferred to the New Hampshire State Prison. It was there, one year later, that Alberto and I first met. He was 19 years old, and had already been in prison for five years. No one can tell the story of Alberto’s life up to that point better than Alberto himself. He did just that in an essay he gave me two years ago, and which I have kept for all this time. I have his permission to publish it here with the same title he gave it:
WHERE DID MY INNER CHILD GO? By Alberto Luis Ramos:
“My story is one like the rest, but I will let you decide that for yourself. Both my parents were born and raised on the beautiful Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. As for myself, I am a first generation mainland American born in Philadelphia, PA, the birthplace of our nation. At the end of the day, I can honestly say I do not have a place I call home. We moved so many times that I even hate being asked, ‘So, where are you from?’ I would rather not be asked. I’m not from anywhere.
“I only met my father once as a very young boy, and I have only a vague memory of him. He had other children with other mothers and I do not know my place in his family. It must have been last place. Today, I do not even know if he is still living.
“I know what my mother looks like, but I.do not know my mother at all. Some people think I became a man when my mother kicked me out of her home when I was 12. ‘It’s him or me,’ was the ultimatum her boyfriend gave her, and she needed him more than me. I was always running away from home anyway. This part of my life is nothing next to all the sh — I’ve seen and heard.
“Today I know that this is not when I became a man. Today I understand that the experience of being a boy alone on the street made me feel more like a child than ever, and today I know that all my anger and hostility just masked the fact that I was deeply hurt. My friend, Pornchai taught me this. Stripping away all the anger to get at the hurt was an ordeal, but we are friends because we traveled down the same road at the same time to face our hurt. I owe a lot to Pornchai.
“I heard of a book once, Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Well, everything I ever needed to know – or thought I needed to know – I learned on the streets. In a short time those streets took ownership of my life and took the place of my family and my home. By the age of 14 I wasn’t just in the gang culture of the streets. I was instructing my peers in the finer points of mere survival because I thought mere survival was all we can expect in this life. In my life on the streets, I settled for mere survival.
“I learned how to fight because I knew from instinct that kids on the street who know how to fight usually don’t have to fight. Violence was a daily reality in my life and world, and I could not escape from it. I could not be a child. I just didn’t know how.
“Then one night I was in an alley. It was June 28, 1995. I had gone two days without sleep while getting high. I was 14 years old and had a confrontation with a 19-year old in this dark alley. Three shots fired and an order of carelessness, and two lives were destroyed. My act took his life, and hurt many other people.
“I was 14 then. I am 32 now. The ensuing 18 years have been in adult prison, but that surely isn’t what defines being a man. I guess I cannot define when I became a man without naming the time I was a child. But that eludes me. I was never a child.”
THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM
I remember vividly the day Alberto and I met. He was 19 years old and five years in prison when he asked to audit a class – Introduction to Psychology – that was available to prisoners in a short-lived prison college program through a local community college back in 1999 – 2001. Halfway through the semester, the instructor had to drop the course. Because I had a degree in that field, I was asked by the prison programs director to take the class for the remainder of the semester. I was a prisoner teaching other prisoners, and it was foreign territory to me. I walked into a class full of prisoners to talk about behavior modification with less than 60 minutes notice to prepare. I hadn’t even seen the textbook.
Sitting in the front row, middle seat of that cramped classroom sat Alberto Ramos who rather liked the previous instructor and rather resented the sudden change. He wore his prison uniform, but like many young men facing years in prison both behind and before them, he also wore rage, and suspicion, and skepticism, and loss, and defiance. He wore the streets that sent him here. But behind all that – to borrow a worn-out phrase – he wore the audacity of hope.
Seventy percent of the young men coming into prison do not have a high school diploma. It is a failure of societal proportions in an age of no child left behind. The difference an education can make in the life of a prisoner is massive. Study after study has shown that earning a high school diploma in prison cuts recidivism rates by up to 50%.
Having arrived at the beginning of wisdom, it is that which carried Alberto from the dark wood of error to the point of becoming a man. If he cannot define that moment, I can offer only this. Alberto Ramos became a man when he embraced a future beyond his past; when he gave up the stagnation of the present to look down that road less traveled; when he set out in that direction knowing not where it leads, but went there anyway.
In “Fifty-Seven Times Around the Sun,” I described why we must never give up hope for another human being. There are miracles before us, and now we have met two of them. Alberto Ramos and Pornchai Moontri are not just men, they are men who conquered the lowest depths, and climbed the highest peaks. Despite all, they are men in full.
And they are educated men with much to offer the world which must one day release them from all the prisons they have known to live in their true home: a place called freedom.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
(Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude).