W. Paul Jones, a Roman Catholic priest and family brother in the Trappist order, here recounts his unlikely relationship with Clayton Fountain, a multiple murderer who was condemned to live out his days in solitary confinement. Fountain’s life and his remarkable religious conversion are the subject of Jones’s gripping new book.
My new book, A Different Kind of Cell: The Story of a Murderer Who Became a Monk, is an attempt to share with as wide a readership as possible the pilgrimage that I was on for years with a man regarded as the most dangerous person in the entire federal prison system, Clayton A. Fountain. Clayton’s downward spiral began in a deadly fight with his sergeant in Vietnam, followed by an escape involving a SWAT team and incarceration at Leavenworth prison. In the book I describe how, despite heightened security in each new prison, this man only became increasingly incorrigible — until, even in solitary confinement in the highest security prison of the nation, he killed four more persons in succession. By that time prison authorities had more than enough and declared him totally beyond their ability to control. They constructed an underground steel and concrete cell just for him, where he would remain in total segregation and isolation for the rest of his life.
My background — one that couldn’t be more different than Clayton’s — is academic; I have taught at Yale, Princeton, and Saint Paul School of Theology. Born and raised a Protestant, I am now a Roman Catholic priest and a Family Brother of Assumption Abbey (Trappist). I was thus amazed to find myself gradually becoming not only Clayton Fountain’s spiritual director but also, in time, his companion and friend on an amazing spiritual pilgrimage.
As I reflect back on my relationship with Clayton, I find myself pondering the issue of the death penalty in graphic new ways. Had present federal law been in effect at the time, Clayton would have been executed long ago, sealing his reputation as the most deadly of murderers. Instead — I became convinced — he underwent a process of genuine conversion, one that made him a new person — gentle and caring, committed to studying for the priesthood, even though he knew the prison would be his only “parish.”
I decided to write this story in order to pose for others the same conundrum that I encountered through my dealings with Clayton. If Clayton’s transformation was authentic, then I have to believe that no one is beyond God’s divine mercy. As he himself stated, “If I can be forgiven, then no one is beyond the forgiveness of God.” It follows that to execute anyone, no matter how heinous his or her crimes, is to take on ourselves the role of God — declaring that there are persons who are beyond God’s power to change. It is with this conundrum that my monastery also struggled, and in doing so the monks came to accept Clayton fully as a Family Brother. His name is on a cross in our cemetery, where one day I too will be buried.
What others are saying about this book:
“Clayton Fountain was regarded as a ruthless killer beyond anyone’s power to save. Yet in the stillness of his solitary confinement — entombed alive in a cell of concrete and steel — God was at work redeeming and remaking Clayton Fountain. I am grateful to Father Paul for ministering so compassionately to a man precious only to God — and for sharing his remarkable story with the world.”
— Martin Sheen, actor
“Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century once liberated a murderer being led to execution. ‘I will kill him myself,’ Bernard promised; he took the man to Clairvaux and made him a monk. Bernard meant that through the process of monastic conversion the man’s false self, which had expressed itself in violence, would die and his true self emerge and thrive in peace. W. Paul Jones tells a twentieth-century version of that story. Through Jones’s sensitive, gripping prose the reader follows the conversion of Clayton A. Fountain from chaos to clarity.”
— Fr. Mark Scott, Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky
“No one is beyond the mercy of God. No one. The message of this book is that to kill anyone on the assumption that their redemption is impossible is to take the place of God.”
— Sr. Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking