In prisons all over the world, the most crucial issue for prisoners is where one has to live, and with whom. Confined to an 8’ by 14’ cell with another human being can be a nightmare. Most of us have no say in the choice of “Bunkies,” as cell mates are called here. If a bunky is moved – even after two or three years with the same person – sometimes a total stranger is living in the cell within minutes.
Having a good roommate seems to be everyone’s goal, but I tried another approach years ago. Being a good roommate is a goal I have more control over. The result has been that in 10 years since being moved from the 8-man cells (see Field of Dreams), I have never had a roommate (we prefer to call our cells rooms) request a move.
The downside of that is that I have had some very dysfunctional roommates who have no wish to move elsewhere. My assigned roommates here have ranged in age from 19 to 67 or so, and have included men convicted of murder, rape, armed robbery, various drug crimes, and gang-related crimes. Everyone here knows all the details of why everyone else is here. Rumor and gossip fills in what the facts leave out.
My roommate of the last year was also a good friend for several years. It was the first time I have been assigned to live with someone I know well, so it feels more like living with a family member than a felon.
Pornchai (his name is Thai, and the “r” is silent, as in “Paunch-eye”) is 35 years old and has been in prison – for murder – since the age of 18.
He is a convert to the Catholic faith and currently a scholarship student in theology in the Catholic Distance University’s excellent Distance Learning Program for prisoners.
Pornchai caused a minor sensation last year when he wrote a very brief autobiographical sketch that ended up being published as “The Conversion Story of 2008” by The Catholic League. You can find “Pornchai’s Story” on this website in the Commentary section.
A year after publication, Pornchai still receives occasional mail about his life story. The most recent being a personal letter from Cardinal Kitbemchu, the Archbishop of Bangkok, and a note from Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. Oh, and there was also a letter from the late Father Richard John Neuhaus.
Pornchai takes fame in stride, though one letter had a profound impact. It was from a young man who wrote that he turned his life around, dropped out of his gang, swore off drugs, and returned to faith after reading “Pornchai’s Story” on-line.
Pornchai mistakenly credits me with some small role in his extraordinary life of late. He has fallen under the power of grace and cannot escape it now even if he tried. Now, he creates. Here is a photo of one of his creations, “The Olde Baldy” (named after me) which he carved piece by piece (over 600 of them) from scratch.
Feel free to leave comments for Pornchai below in the comments area.