The 98-square-feet where Fr Gordon MacRae wrote These Stone Walls for seven years is now 24-square-feet, but it’s Advent, and time to decide where we lay our hope.
The U.S. presidential election is finally over, the dust storms are settling, and life goes on in a nation and world deeply divided in a culture war. I wrote a few posts about the chaotic process of selecting the American president this year. The most recent was “Wikileaks Found Catholics in the Basket of Deplorables.” TSW reader Dorothy Stein posted a comment on it in which she wrote:
“I am well aware of the calamity that has befallen you and others among our friends behind those stone walls. And yet here you are once again writing from the chaos with the same depth and clarity we have come to expect from you.”
Talk about pressure! The calamity and chaos to which Dorothy refers was the subject of our post, “Not Quite a Zombie Apocalypse” two weeks ago. It describes how the last month in this prison turned our world upside down just as the Year of Mercy was coming to a close.
Being forced to move from a place with two prisoners per cell to live in one with four times that number feels a lot like moving from the suburbs to the inner city. It has been over sixteen years since I’ve had to live in such conditions – over ten for our friend, Pornchai Moontri – and we are still adjusting.
It’s Saturday, my usual writing day, and I am still experimenting with how I can write in this chaos. “Just write about the chaos,” Pornchai said as he sat on the concrete floor pouring hot water into our morning coffee. “Maybe readers want to know how we live.” Maybe he’s right. Now that we’ve lived here – or tried to – for a few weeks, we thought you might be interested in the day-to-day challenges this change has brought.
It’s not all gloom and doom. Twenty-three years of wrongful imprisonment have taught me one very essential truth about prison. It is not where we live that really matters, but with whom. My friends, Pornchai-Max and Kewei Chen are here in the same cell with me along with five others. If there is hardship, and indeed there is, then at least we cope with it together.
In my recent article for Spero News, “The Shawshank Redemption and its real-World Version,” I described the experience of living eight to a cell for my first seven years in this prison:
“Viewers of The Shawshank Redemption always react to the prison brutality depicted in the film. Some of that has always been present in the background of prison life, and there is no adjusting to it. The most painful deprivation in any prison, however, is the absence of trust. That most basic foundation of human relations is crippled from the start in prison, but the longer term emotional toll is more subtle.”
Trust is so unbearably absent in prison that in the rare instance in which it is found, it really stands out. Prisoners sense it, gravitate to it, and once they see it working, they seek it out as a value – even in deprivation. Trust can be as contagious as treachery. There is a certain unspoken camaraderie among people who have grown to trust each other. In a place where treachery generally rules the day, trust acts like a beacon in a storm.
Almost immediately after we moved in, the friendship and trust he have built began to influence the other five men in this cell, and evolved into a spirit of cooperation in the cells around us. Everyone here is facing the same immediate crisis. We were all living in a place of relative calm then suddenly thrown together eight to a cell among strangers. It is not only the physical changes that require adjustment. Our entire psychology of day-to-day existence has changed.
IS THERE A HAND IN OUR LIVES OTHER THAN OUR OWN?
It seems so long ago now because so much has changed since then, but just four months ago I wrote “Seven Years Behind These Stone Walls.” It’s the strange story of how TSW came into being. On its face, it narrates an account of how a series of apparent accidents, ironies, and odd coincidences – both hopeful and sad – converged upon a single point that became These Stone Walls. The story leads me and many readers to see a Hand in this other than my own.
But in the seven years of writing these weekly posts, I have never had to write with the challenges I now face. Early on Tuesday morning, October 25, Pornchai and I gave a last quick sweep of the 98-square-feet of concrete and steel we had occupied for the last eight years. These Stone Walls was born within that prison cell, and we were leaving.
After spending a week discarding everything we could part with among our meager possessions, we carried all that was left in four trash bags each out of that cell to another place. I asked Pornchai-Max not to look back, and neither of us did.
I had a slip of paper in my pocket instructing me to occupy No. 2B (Bunk 2-bottom) in C-Pod Cell No. 6. Max was to occupy No. 3T (Bunk 3-Top) just a few feet away in the same cell. When we arrived, six others had converged upon that same destination, all looking forlorn and lost as their meager possessions were piled up on the concrete floor outside. No one would enter.
The empty cell looked and felt like a concrete tomb. Eight rusty bunk frames, stacked two high and all different, were propped against the cell walls allotting 27-inches of living space between them. The concrete walls and floor were dirty. Weeks, months, or years earlier, a past denizen had spilled coffee in the upper bunk where Max was to live, and just left it running down the wall.
The only other contents of that cell were two plastic chairs that were quickly confiscated as we were moving in, leaving only the concrete floor to sit on. The cell smelled like a long unattended hamster cage – minus a big squeaky exercise wheel in the middle. Most of those who were displaced had lived in the other place for many years, so this felt like starting over at rock bottom.
Once we get past the initial shock, we had some scrubbing to do, so everyone went on a search for cleaning supplies that were in short supply. We cleaned what we could with some water and a few of our own towels, and then started to move in. The big plastic foot lockers we had for years were gone. All the evidence of a life now had to be stored in a single rusty steel drawer welded to the bottom of each bunk.
IS LIFE A GLASS HALF EMPTY OR HALF FULL?
I had a couple of past issues of The Wall Street Journal that came in handy. I gave everyone a few pages to line the rusty steel drawers. With my rolled up two-inch thick vinyl-covered mattress thrown onto Bunk No. 2B, I pulled my two allotted sheets out of a bag and immediately smacked my head on the upper bunk just 27-inches above me. I have stopped counting after about 18 such smacks. Living in this vastly reduced space will take some getting used to.
The shell-shocked kid in the bunk above me was visibly nervous. He breathed a sigh of relief when he realized that the Vulcans seem to outnumber the Klingons among his new roommates. The one apparent Klingon asked the guards to let him move elsewhere the next day, and then we rescued our friend, Chen, from afar. He was relieved and elated at being able to move in with us. We also managed somehow to claw back two plastic chairs from somewhere.
So, on this Saturday morning I folded my two blankets onto the floor, and knelt upon them with my typewriter before me on the low metal bunk to commence a post written from different stone walls in the heart of the inner city. My life is now reduced to 24-square-feet in which to live, sleep, and write. This will be a challenge, but I am alive to write another day. We are making the best of this, and so are most of those around us.
The moving is not over. The word on the Street is that Max and I will be moving again to some other place in this prison system. Whether it will be in weeks or months or will even happen at all, we do not know.
But I do know one thing. Advent is upon us, and there is hope in this captive world, even amid these four gray walls and the 24-square-feet that are now the boundaries of my freedom. I have been given a very great gift: an attitude that still – even after 23 years – extends beyond this place that holds me captive.
We will do our best to rise toward the hope of Advent and the hoped-for liberation of all humankind that Christ brought into our world. At the end of this post, we have linked to a few of my Advent posts to help put you in a Spirit of hope. Can your vision pierce the present darkness? Where do you place your hope?
Recommended Advent Reading from Behind These Stone Walls:
- Advent of the Mother of God
- The First of the Four Last Things: An Advent Tale
- I’ve Seen the Fall of Man: Advent East of Eden
- Down the Nights and Down the Days: Advent for a Prisoner
- St Gabriel the Archangel: The Dawn from On High Broke Upon Us