A new battle in spiritual warfare; a new catastrophe behind these stone walls. Hope was at the brink as a Patron Saint spoke to broken hearts: “Behold your Mother!”
“We fly to thy protection O holy Mother of God. Despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us from all danger, O ever glorious and blessed Virgin.” (Sub Tuum Praesiduum, 250 A.D.)
I usually try to shield readers from the darker realities of prison, but in 2016 I wrote a rare post entitled “Hebrews 13:3: Writing Just This Side of the Gates of Hell.” I presumed wrongly that most readers would not want to know about what really happens in the shadowy background behind These Stone Walls, but that post turned out to be among the most read and shared of the year. The wildly popular site, SpiritDaily.com featured that post, and sent readers to it by the thousands.
Of all the posts that I thought might get Spirit Daily’s attention that one came as a total surprise. It was an eye-opener for many about just how bad a few bad days in prison can be. We lived in another place then, under far more trying circumstances. Violence and treachery were daily events there, and the constant vigilance needed to cope with them took a mental and spiritual toll.
We were delivered from that place two years ago. I had been confined there for 23 years, and my friend, Pornchai Moontri was there for twelve years after having spent thirteen years in another prison, including seven in that prison’s solitary confinement. I described the relative freedom of the place to which we were moved, and our arduous path to get there, in “Pornchai Moontri at a Crossroads Behind These Stone Walls.”
We hoped this new place would be free of the drug culture and the violence and shady deals it spawns, but this is still prison. There has been less of it, for sure, but it is always lurking in the background. Complicating this, I was warned recently by a spiritually astute reader who told me of a troubling dream. In it, I became a target of the Evil One and the snares with which he engages in spiritual warfare.
There was a time when I may not have taken such a dream seriously. That time has long since passed. To tell you the story that I must convey to you now requires that I include our most recent round of spiritual battle that took us once again into darkness. Brace yourselves, for this account brought us to the very brink of ruin.
On Saturday, July 20, 2019, at 8:30 PM, Pornchai Moontri walked out of our cell, as he does every night at that time, for the trek outside and down eight flights of stairs for med-call. At that time, prisoners line up in the dark to enter an office two at a time for prescribed medications. You may recall that Pornchai takes meds at night to treat PTSD and to inhibit nightmares. But they could not prevent the nightmare about to unfold.
It was 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Concord, New Hampshire that night. The frayed nerves of an already unstable balance among prisoners had begun to unravel. I was on a telephone call on my GTL tablet up in our cell while Pornchai waited patiently in line for his medications down below. Fifteen minutes after he left the cell in which I now write this, someone walked in and handed me a scribbled note with four ominous words: “Pornchai is being lugged.”
THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE… MAYBE
“Being lugged” is prison-speak for being taken away in restraints to solitary confinement. If you know of Pornchai and his history, this had shocking reverberations. I quickly ended my call and went down below to find out what I could – which was not much. All I heard was a collection of muddled stories and conflicting accounts about a quick but brutal outburst of violence.
The initial story – the one told first and loudest – is too often the one that prevails. That story was that Pornchai violently assaulted two prisoners, sending one to the hospital. I was told that Pornchai may never be back. Two hours later, at 10:30 PM, officers showed up in our cell with bags. They asked me to pack all of Pornchai’s belongings and bring them down to the office for inventory – a sure sign that he may not be returning.
I cannot convey in words what that night was like. After thirteen years as Pornchai’s roommate – thirteen years of pulling him, in his own words, “out of a deep dark pit” and rebuilding a shattered life – all was wiped out in an instant. I was determined, however, to find out the real story and get at the truth. But in prison, “truth” is often clouded by dark agendas, gang ties, and identity politics at their worst.
Sunday brought another day of 100-degree heat. After a sleepless night pondering what could have happened, I approached the unit Sergeant at 7:00 AM. I knew that if he filled the empty bunk in my cell, as would usually happen, then Pornchai could never return. There was a lot at stake. Many had just labored for years to bring about the elusive restorative justice that Australian attorney Clare Farr described in these pages: “When Justice Came to Pornchai Moontri, Mercy Followed.”
I asked the Unit Sergeant if he would wait two days to reassign Pornchai’s bunk until we could discover exactly what took place. He said he would leave the bunk empty until Wednesday – three days away – while he investigates the story told by the two “victims.” Fortunately, he and other dedicated prison staff members did not immediately buy the story as told. Their knowledge and experience of Pornchai did not support what they were first told.
Meanwhile, over the next three days, Pornchai languished in intense heat and sleepless solitary confinement. He was unable to communicate or to learn anything at all. He kept running what happened through his mind, wondering what he could have done differently. As the hours in solitary stretched interminably, his hope began to fray.
The immensity of loss began to weigh heavily as he fought against despair. This was the setback of all setbacks for him. He knew and trusted that I would be working on it, but he also knew that prison imposes grave limitations. He began to pray, asking his Patron Saint, Maximilian Kolbe, for guidance and the preservation of hope. As time wore on, however, darkness enveloped him.
Pornchai could not know that the real story slowly unfolded as several more reliable witnesses were summoned to give statements. Then staff had the tedious job of reviewing camera footage and other evidence to corroborate them. This is what was learned:
As Pornchai stood in line that night, just as his turn to enter the door to retrieve his medications was coming up, two prisoners rushed up on either side of him and cut into the line in front of him. He politely asked them to go to the end of the line, telling them that this is unfair to him and to all the prisoners waiting in line. The two then turned on him in hostile confrontation.
Not knowing Pornchai at all, one claimed to be an “ex Golden Gloves boxer” and then threatened Pornchai to stay out of their way. The second wasn’t waiting for a reply. He delivered two violent blows to Pornchai’s face. In a split second, Pornchai’s instincts for self-defense – and they are formidable – kicked in. The man who delivered the blows was delivered to the ground while “Mr. Golden Gloves” ran away.
It turned out that the two of them had devised a plan to attempt to retrieve and sell their prescribed drugs to help pay off their mounting debts for contraband Street drugs. It’s a process common in prison – or at least attempting it is common. Their plan required that they provide cover for each other to distract the person dispensing the meds.
They would then tuck the medication capsule into a cheek, and then pretend they swallowed it only to retrieve it for sale once out of view of security staff. Carrying out this plan meant having to present themselves for meds at the same time, and that meant cutting in line.
NOW COMES A PATRON SAINT
The man who delivered the one-two punch into Pornchai’s face was taken to a hospital where he was found to have multiple injuries. As is protocol for such events in prison, the last man standing was presumed to be the aggressor and was taken away in restraints for a stint in solitary confinement. “Mr Golden Gloves” ran to his cell where he concocted a story about the out-of-control Asian who violently attacked them unprovoked. The truth slowly unfolded.
I commend the professionalism of officers here who did not jump to conclusions. It turned out that most of the real assailant’s injuries were the result of multiple other fights that he had been in. This is the stock in trade of the illicit drug scene in prison. But even after all of this became known by Monday night, I was still being told that Pornchai would not be returning.
So on that night, I did the only thing left to do. The one item of Pornchai’s that I had not packed, but held onto for safekeeping, was the St. Maximilian Rosary made for him by TSW reader Kathleen Riney in Texas. So once again facing a sleepless night, I spent it in prayer for Pornchai, asking his namesake, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, for his intercession.
As he always does, he reminded me early on Tuesday morning that I had neglected something. As I awoke at 5:00 AM after just an hour or two of fitful sleep, my first thought was that I should pray the Memorare. I imagined Saint Maximilian himself praying that same prayer in his final hours on the morning of August 14, 1941, when he did not starve to death fast enough to suit his captors.
“Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother. To you do I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in your mercy hear and answer me. Amen.”
As you know, Saint Maximilian was in that cell dying because he chose to sacrifice himself for the life of another prisoner. As I prayed the prayer, a thought came to me. I quickly rummaged through the “working on it” stack of paper in a corner of my tiny cell to find a copy of “Pornchai Moontri: Bangkok to Bangor, Survivor of the Night.”
Armed with that document, I made my way in the dark of early morning to the offices down below, the scene of the “crime.” At 6:45 AM, the Unit Lieutenant arrived for his shift. A fair and “by the book” man, I asked for a few minutes. In his office, I gave him the copy of that post and challenged him: “Before you decide the fate of someone under your authority, I believe you should at least know the person and what has gone on in his life.” He said he would read it.
I learned later that Pornchai, after his third fitful night in solitary confinement also awoke at 5:00 AM, and he also asked for guidance from his patron saint who also reminded him to pray the Memorare. Sitting on the concrete floor in the dark, he did the best he could going solely on memory. “You know what is in my heart, Blessed Mother,” he prayed, “and thanks to Saint Maximilian I know what is in yours.”
Three hours past, then his cell door opened. In walked Lieutenant Brown, the rolled-up article still in his hand. “Mr. Moontri,” he said. “The investigation has cleared you of culpability in this matter. After all you have been through, it is time you had a break. I’ll try to have you out of here this afternoon.”
“Where am I going?” Pornchai asked. “Back where you belong,” the Lieutenant said.
I returned from work that afternoon to a traumatized but much relieved roommate sitting on his upper bunk surrounded by plastic bags filled with the sum total of his worldly possessions. It was a while before he could speak. For the next hour, we both recounted those three days and nights from our own perspective. The saddest moment was when Pornchai told me that from the tiny window in his solitary confinement cell he could see up over a wall to the very top of the door of the cell that we live in. It only deepened his sadness and sense of loss.
After showering and sleeping – neither of which he was able to do in solitary confinement – Pornchai was up early the next morning waiting for Lieutenant Brown’s arrival down below. He asked the Lieutenant what has happened to the young man who punched him. “He is now where you were,” said the Lieutenant, “but he finally told the whole truth.” Pornchai asked if that man could be allowed to come back.
“He needs a time out for a month or two because of his behavior,” said the Lieutenant, “Why are you asking?” “Maybe I could work with him; maybe I could show him a better way,” said Pornchai. “Why?” asked the surprised Lieutenant. “It’s what someone did for me. It’s what our Mother would want from me,” said Pornchai. “It’s what I want from myself.”
AN IMPORTANT NOTE TO READERS FROM FATHER GORDON MACRAE:
We invite readers who want to receive Father Gordon MacRae’s posts to subscribe or re-subscribe at the link below. We will no longer be sending out notifications via gmail. You will instead receive a weekly reminder from These Stone Walls.
Also, in honor of Saint Maximilian Kolbe who points us always to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a special These Stone Walls Facebook Page is being launched on August 14. Please visit, “like” and follow this page set up by our friend, Esther. You may also like these related posts from These Stone Walls:
- The Man in the Mirror Nine Years Later
- Saint Michael the Archangel and the Art of War
- Saint Maximilian Kolbe and the Gift of Noble Defiance
- The Paradox of Suffering: An Invitation from St. Maximilian Kolbe