The Shawshank Redemption film was released in theatres just as I was led off to prison on September 23, 1994. Andy Dufresne and I went to prison in the same week, he at the fictional Shawshank State Prison set in Maine, and me one state over at the far more real New Hampshire State Prison in Concord.
In the years to follow its release, The Shawshank Redemption became one of American television’s great “Second Acts,” theatrical films that have endured far better on the small screen than they did in their first life at the cinema box office. The Shawshank Redemption is today one of the most replayed films in television history.
I have always been struck by the nation’s fascination with this fictional prison that first emerged from the mind and pen of Stephen King; The real thing seemed to resist most serious public inquiry until recently. Several years passed before I was able to see the film. When I finally did, I could never forget that one scene as a new arrival, Andy Dufresne stood naked in a shower, arms outstretched, to be unceremoniously doused with a delousing agent.
It seemed the moment that human dignity was officially checked at the prison door. The scene triggered a not-so-fond memory of my own arrival in prison twenty-three years ago. Andy Dufresne and I had a lot in common. We both arrived at that day of delousing with a life sentence, and no real hope of ever knowing freedom again. Upon arrival, we both endured jeers from in-house consumers of the local news.
For my part, the jeers rebuked my very public refusal to accept one of several proffered “plea deals.” This is about prison, however, and not justice or its absence, but the two are so inseparable in my imprisoned psyche that I cannot write without a mention of this elephant in my cell.
I refused a “plea deal,” put forth in writing, to serve no more than one-to-three years in prison in exchange for a plea of guilty. Then I refused another, reduced to one-to-two years. I would have been released from prison twenty-one years ago had I taken that deal, but for reasons of my own, I could not.
Andy and I also shared in common a misplaced hope that justice always works out in the end, and a nagging, never-relenting sense that we do not quite fit in at the place to which it has sent us. This could never be home. Andy got out eventually, though I must not dwell too long on how. After twenty-two years, I am still here.
I was twenty-nine years old when my crimes were thought to have been committed. I was forty-one when tried and sent to prison. For my audacity of hope for justice working, I was sentenced by the Honorable Arthur Brennan to consecutive terms more than 30 times the State’s proffered deal: a term of sixty-seven years. I am sixty-three today. As it stands, I will be one-hundred and eight when I next see freedom.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky in prison
As overtly tough as Shawshank seemed to movie viewers, Andy had one luxury for which I have always envied him. It was something unheard of in any New Hampshire prison. He had his own cell and a modicum of solitude. Stephen King’s cinematic prison where Andy was a guest was set in the 1950s.
Prison had changed a lot since then, even prisons in quaint New England landscapes where most other change is measured in small increments. In the decade before my 1994 delousing, the prison in New Hampshire underwent a radical change. It was mostly due to the early 1980s passage of a knee-jerk New Hampshire law called “Truth in Sentencing.”
Once passed, prisoners serving sixty-six percent of their sentence in prison before parole eligibility were now required to serve one-hundred percent. Truth in Sentencing is another elephant roaming the New Hampshire cellblocks, and no snapshot of life in this prison can justly omit it. Truth in Sentencing changed the fabric of both time and space in prison.
In the years since its passage, medium security prison cells built for one prisoner housed two. Then a new medium security building called the Hancock Unit was constructed on the Concord prison grounds with cells built to house four prisoners each. A few years later, bunks were added to expand those four-man cells to six.
When I arrived in Hancock in early 1995, I carried my meager belongings up several flights of stairs, and then had to carry up my bunk as well. The four-man cells, having increased to six, were now to house eight. The look of resentment on my new cellmates’ faces was disheartening as I dragged a heavy steel bunk into their already crowded space.
Over the next seven years, I was moved from one eight-man cell to another, in each place adjusting to life with seven other men in a space meant for four. I remember once reading about the great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Reflecting on his time in a Siberian prison, Dostoyevsky once wrote, though I paraphrase from memory:
“Above all else, I was entirely unprepared for the reality, the utter spiritual devastation, of day after day, for year upon year, of never, ever, not for a single moment, being alone with myself.”
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 relating is crippled from the start in prison, but the longer term emotional toll is more subtle. The absence of solitude is just as Dostoyevsky described it.
Imagine taking a long walk away from home, far beyond your comfort zone. Invite the first seven people you meet to come home with you. Now lock yourself in your bathroom with them, and face the reality that this is how you will be living for the foreseeable future.
After seven years was I able to move to a unit in the prison that houses two men per cell. It felt strange at first. Seven years in the absence of solitude exacted a psychological toll. Just sitting on my bunk without seven other men in my field of view required some internal adjustment to adapt.
In the years to follow, a dozen bunks were added to each of the dayroom and recreation areas. Then space used for rehabilitation programs was converted to dormitories for the ever growing overflow of prisoners. Confinement-sans-solitude crept like a virulent plague in the prodigious hills of New Hampshire.
There is, however, another perspective on this story about life in the absence of solitude. Also like Andy Dufresne, I found friendship in prison, one that was the mirror image of Andy’s friendship with Red. Friends and trust are both rare commodities in prison, but like shoots growing from cracks in the urban concrete, the human need for companions defeats all obstacles. Bonds of connection in this place happen on their own terms.
My friend, Pornchai Moontri had a very different prison experience. In the seven years in which I was deprived of solitude in a small space with seven other men, Pornchai was a prisoner in the neighboring state of Maine where he spent that same seven years in the utter cruelty of solitary confinement in a “supermax” prison.
Pornchai was brought to the United States from Thailand at age eleven. A series of traumatic events rendered him alone and homeless on the streets of Bangor, Maine at thirteen, and he went to prison at eighteen where he has resided since. Pornchai is now 43 years old, having spent well over half his life in prison. This man deemed out of control and unfit for the presence of other humans in Maine turned his life around with amazing results in New Hampshire.
Thrown together after my seven years in deprivation of solitude and Pornchai’s equal stint in solitary confinement, we lived with polar opposite prison anxieties. As the years passed in the ninety-six square feet in which we still dwell, Pornchai earned a high school diploma, completed two post-secondary diplomas with highest honors, pursued dozens of programs in restorative justice, violence prevention, and mediation, and experienced a radical and celebrated spiritual conversion.
Today, Pornchai Moontri serves as a mentor and tutor for other prisoners, wielding immense influence while helping to mend broken lives and misplaced dreams. The restoration of Pornchai has inspired others, and stands as a monument to the great tragedy of what is lost when strained budgets and overcrowding transform prison from a house of restorative justice into a warehouse of nothing more redemptive than mere punishment.
When Pornchai was twelve years old, a year before becoming a homeless teen in Bangor, Maine, he had a paper route. It is an ironic twist of fate that at just about the time Andy Dufresne and his friend, Red, sprang from the mind and pen of Stephen King, Pornchai was delivering the Bangor Daily News to his home.
Reflecting back on the reconstruction of his life, against daunting obstacles, Pornchai once told me, “I woke up one day with a future, when up to then all I ever had was a past.” One day, my friend’s sentence will come to an end, but the bonds of prison will not be removed.
On that same day, he will be placed in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to await deportation to Bangkok, Thailand, a land he has not seen for over thirty years. He will emerge from a plane unshackled, in a land of only vague memories, but no connections. And then... what?
Still, I revel in the very thought of my friend’s freedom, even into the dense fog of a future we cannot see. We dream of my joining him there in freedom some day. It’s only a dream, and by their very nature, dreams defy reality.
But I cannot help remembering those final words that Stephen King gave to Andy Dufresne’s friend, Red, as he finally emerged from Shawshank. We cling to those words as we cling to the preservation of life itself, while otherwise adrift upon an endless and sometimes raging sea:
“I am so excited I can hardly hold the pen in my trembling hand. I think it is the excitement that only a free man can feel, a free man starting a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.
I hope Andy is down there.
I hope I can make it across the border.
I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.
I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.
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Spero News columnist Gordon J. MacRae writes weekly at the award-winning blog, These Stone Walls. The life of Pornchai Moontri is chronicled by some accomplished writers at the Mercy to the Max website. It is because prisoners have no Internet access, I have never seen these sites.)