Standing at my cell door a few weeks ago, my friend, Skooter – with a “k,” please – was punching buttons on my calculator trying to figure out a vexing math problem. Every time he punched in all the figures, he got a different answer. I was typing a TSW post, oblivious to his growing frustration until I heard the inevitable loud “$%t&!” that I hear a thousand times a day. Skooter’s expletive echoed off these stone walls.
Then he looked up from the calculator, waiting for my usual response. “Fifty-cents!”, I said, assessing my traditional, but futile, foul language fine described in “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas 17 Times.” At fifty cents for each “colorful metaphor,” the prisoners around me have racked up a bill that could stimulate the U.S. economy. Skooter still remembers that day when I exploded with an expletive of my own during my “Descent into Lent” last year. No one ever pays the 50-cent fine, of course, but Skooter says it’s helped clean up his vocabulary.
Long time readers of These Stone Walls will remember Skooter. The special challenges he faced in prison – and in life – were told in “The Tale of a Prisoner” last year, and it’s a necessary prelude to this post. Please do read his story – again, if you’ve read it before. It’s by no means unique among prisoners, but it’s at the bottom end of awful. Life has been a steep climb for Skooter, and once upon a time he just gave up on it. They gave up on each other.
“Oops!”, said Skooter after his outburst last week. “I’ve got to stop swearing so much!” “Yeah,” I said. “I think you owe the foul-language-fund more than this year’s prison budget cut!” “I’ll stop swearing,” Skooter said. “Besides, educated people aren’t supposed to swear!” It’s hard to convey how nice it was to hear that from Skooter. The continuation of Skooter’s story after “The Tale of a Prisoner” is something wonderful to behold, and it has just commenced its Chapter Two.
Last week, Skooter reached a milestone that will have an immense impact on the rest of his life. Despite all the obstacles of a life in ruins, despite being hampered by learning disabilities, despite a sometimes almost non-existent self-esteem, and despite the challenges of prison itself – Skooter has earned his high school diploma at the age of 24.
I can’t overstate the immensity of that accomplishment for Skooter. It did not come easily. After I wrote “The Tale of a Prisoner” last year, Pornchai and I challenged Skooter to finish high school. Education just wasn’t a natural draw for Skooter, and there were lots of obstacles and issues that always tempted him to put it aside. Because he was young, poor, and without connections, Skooter was approached by all the usual prison gangs trying to recruit him for membership. Skooter stood his ground, and we stood ours. Skooter remained his own man.
Then there were the mornings when life just felt pointlessly futile. After we pushed Skooter to enroll in classes in the prison education program, he slept through his first day, never even getting out of bed. There was constant pushing by Pornchai and me against the relentless tide of prison depression and apathy to which Skooter succumbed day after day. After a week of it, Skooter surrendered. He never missed another day of school – not a single class. He never received a single disciplinary report during his entire time in this cellblock with us. In his previous unit, Skooter averaged four or five a month.
LEADING A HORSE TO WATER
This prison has its own accredited secondary school called “Granite State High School,” and its curriculum is as challenging as any high school anywhere. Skooter came back after his first week of school fuming that his teacher “just hates me.” He learned, however, that there’s a difference between being disliked and being challenged, and Skooter was being challenged. She ended up being an exemplary teacher. She refused to accept excuses and the “poor me” attitude that was always holding Skooter back. In the end, she became his favorite teacher. She deserves applause even though I cannot print her name.
In a post last year, “In the Land of Nod, East of Eden,” I described my reluctant praise of a prison system far over-burdened and under-funded, but still struggling to at least provide an opportunity for prisoners to learn and change. I’m “reluctant” because prisoners are not supposed to write positive things about the system that keeps them locked up. Still, I can’t overlook the importance of this prison’s education and self-improvement programs, and the dedication of those who staff them.
This prison’s “Corrections Special School District” operates both Granite State High School and the Career and Technical Education Center inside prison walls. Study after study has shown that education is the single most important factor in preventing recidivism and a return to prison. Since 2005, Granite State High School within the prison has awarded 43 high school diplomas to prisoners, and another 519 prisoners earned their GED high school equivalency here. That is just phenomenal, and the wisest long term investment society could possibly make. As U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger once wrote:
“We must accept the reality that to confine offenders behind walls without trying to change them is an expensive folly with short-term benefits – winning battles while losing the war.”
THE GIFT OF KNOWLEDGE
Day after day for the last year, Pornchai worked with Skooter on math, I coached him in science and history, and another prisoner, Jay, taught him to read by devoting an hour a day – every day. But the star of “The Tale of a Prisoner Retold” is Skooter himself. He deserves an Oscar for “Best Performance Despite Life’s Cruelest Blows!” Skooter is one of the heroes behind these stone walls.
Skooter is gone now. While I was writing this post, he was moved by prison officials to a minimum security unit outside the prison walls. From there he will go to a prison half-way house where prisoners without families and roots may earn their way back to society. On the morning he left, Skooter came to our cell. “You changed everything,” he told me and Pornchai. “You gave me a chance and showed me a better way and pushed me to take it. I’ll never forget it.”
Skooter walked out the door that day carrying two plastic trash bags containing the sum total of his possessions. The mountain he must climb still has some peaks yet to be conquered. Prison rules allow for no further contact, by mail or otherwise, with anyone Skooter knew here. He is on his own.
When Skooter got to the door, he put his bags down, turned and waved. We’ll remember Skooter’s smile for a long, long time. And his resolve to claw his way back from the abyss life brought him to, is simply unforgettable.
Skooter is gone now, gone from our sight, but not from our souls. Let’s hope and pray the Lord has made for him a straighter, smoother path. Skooter has earned his blessings and our respect. He is, after all, an educated man.
Skooter was gone but an hour when some clueless new kid showed up at our cell door. “They’re tellin’ me I have to finish school,” he sputtered indignantly. “$%t&!”
WOOD CARVINGS FROM EAST OF EDEN
In my last post of April, I promised TSW readers some information on how to obtain one of Pornchai’s now famous wood carvings. He has been working on a beautiful mantle clock and a keepsake box – both hand carved in the prison HobbyCraft shop. Pornchai has donated a few of each to TSW to make available to readers and to help us cover expenses. You may request one or both by sending an email message to TheseStoneWalls@hotmail.com.
The mantle clock is carved from poplar with oak and other exotic wood laminates. It’s available to TSW readers for $64 including shipping. We have only four available, so we expect these to go quickly. The hand-carved clock housing is about 14 ½ inches in length, 7 inches tall, and 2 inches wide. Here is a photo:
Pornchai’s keepsake box is hand-carved from oak and inlaid black walnut, and lined with felt at the inside bottom. Each has The Praying Hands engraved on the cover. The box is 8 inches long, by 3 ½ inches high, and 4 inches in width. We have eight available to TSW readers for $40 including shipping. Here is a photo: