The twists and turns of prison mail, an Islamic cover-up in Rome, a field trip to Concord Hospital, these stories and more this week on These Stone Walls.
You had a better vantage point than I did to notice the recent redesign and update of These Stone Walls. At this writing, I am awaiting some printed screenshots so I’ll have an idea of what the changes look like and where everything can be found. The redesign became necessary because TSW appears differently on different devices. The sidebars are gone since they get cut off on smaller devices any way. If you access TSW at the Home Page, just click on “Posts” at the top of the page and then just scroll a bit. This is only our second major update in six years. I want to thank Suzanne Sadler, TSW’s very talented publisher in New South Wales, Australia without whom TSW could not exist.
I am also most grateful to Father George David Byers for his guest post written from Vatican City last week, “Pope Francis: The Mercy of Justice.” My absence is explained in the final segment of this post below, but Father Byers was especially kind to step in given that he also has his own blog to write for: Arise! Let us be going! In his newly commissioned Missionary of Mercy status, he put TSW readers first when I could not write.
The Church has a great gift in the priesthood of Father George, a fact not at all lost on the parishioners of Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Andrews, North Carolina. Before departing for Rome for his Ash Wednesday Commissioning as a Missionary of Mercy by Pope Francis, Father George’s parishioners presented him with a cake bearing the image of a mitre. Is something prophetic at work among Catholics in Andrews, N.C.? Pornchai-Max says that Father George is the best Missionary of Mercy he knows, since he’s the only Missionary of Mercy he knows! Father George responds saying that there might well be too much miserando for that kind of eligendo!
PRISON MAIL RULES
At the “CONTACT” page on These Stone Walls, we have tried to keep up with an accurate list of evolving rules and regulations for those who write to me. Now I am told of another rule to add. Your mail to me must have the sender’s name and return address on the envelope or it is destroyed without being opened and without my ever seeing it, or even knowing about it.
I believe this stems from a policy that prisoners cannot be contacted anonymously, and therefore both prisoners and prison officials must be able to determine the identity of the person sending mail. I was apprised that several items of mail were destroyed in recent months without being forwarded to me because there was no valid return address on the envelope. You need not put your name on the envelope, but it is required that there be an address in the event it needs to be “returned to sender.”
That said, your return address is also kept confidential. It is not recorded by prison officials unless there is a pressing security concern, and that has never been the case with any mail to me. Please, note that it is also a good idea to include your name and address in the body of a letter as well since I receive only the contents of mail without envelopes.
The mail situation appears to be in a state of flux. You may recall that late last year a total ban on greeting cards of any kind was imposed, but the ban now has a legal challenge. The New Hampshire office of the ACLU filed a lawsuit just days before Christmas, but the lawsuit is not on behalf of prisoners. It is on behalf of those who write to prisoners. The ACLU has concluded that your First Amendment rights, and not just mine, are infringed upon by the greeting card ban and some related rules. I’ll keep you posted – no pun intended – on the outcome.
I apologize to the many people who sent letters and gifts to me at Christmas and in the weeks to follow. I have been terribly slow at responding. One reason for this is that I can purchase only six Smith Corona typewriter ribbons per year by special order so I preserve them for TSW posts and other writing for publication. This means that I must hand write most letters. The other reason for my slowness in responding is described in the last segment of this post. So please be patient with me. Prison imposes many limits, and answering mail is one of them.
AN ISLAMIC COVER-UP IN ROME
Most in the news media seemed content to let this story fade quietly away last month, but it haunted me. A few weeks ago, Iran President Hassan Rouhani was in Rome to bolster economic ties with the Italian government in the wake of the lifting of U.S. economic sanctions against Iran. As a gesture of respect for Mr. Rouhani’s Shiite Islamic faith, Rome officials ordered a cover-up of several classical nude sculptures in Rome’s Capitoline Museum including one of Venus created in the Second Century B.C. Some in the Italian government were outraged that respect for another culture required a cover-up of their own.
It struck me as ironic that the governments of the West fail to demonstrate anything close to the same respect for Christianity, and it is most especially – and intentionally – denied to Catholicism. Consider the Little Sisters of the Poor in the United States and their legal struggle against the Obama Administration to preserve a right of conscience against a government-sponsored birth control mandate. As I wrote awhile back, “Accommodations in the Garden of Good and Evil” have a big price tag down the line as religious freedom is surrendered.
It seems that I was not the only one to notice the irony of the Rome cover-up. In his weekly column in The Wall Street Journal, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Daniel Henninger penned “The Humbling of the West” (Jan. 28, 2016). He reminded us that “the persecuted in Iran include Bahais, Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Jews,” and that persecution has cost the lives and freedoms of millions. Religious freedom is the hardest won and the first to be taken away.
If the states of the free World are to bow in humble submission to the religious sensitivities of the Iranian government, the citizens of the Free World have at the very least a duty not to become less free. In the name of religious freedom, we have a duty to expect and require accommodations to the rights and consciences of Christians.
That most basic lesson in the duty of freedom was most clearly articulated by, of all people, the elder Lady Grantham, the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey. Don’t laugh yet. It really came from the powerful pen of Downton creator Julian Fellowes, who placed it upon the lips of the Grande Dame (played by the great Maggie Smith). I was struck by what she said, and scrambled for a pen to write it down, but no need. Just a week later, it appeared on The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page (“Notable & Quotable: ‘Downton’” February 2, 2016):
“Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith): ‘For years I’ve watched governments take control of our lives. Their argument is always the same—fewer costs, greater efficiency. But the result is the same, too. Less control by the people, more control by the state until the individual’s own wishes count for nothing. That is what I consider my duty to resist. The point of a so-called great family is to protect our freedoms. That is why the barons made King John sign the Magna Carta…. Your great-grandchildren won’t thank you when the state is all-powerful because we didn’t fight.”
A FIELD TRIP TO CONCORD HOSPITAL
The other reason for my being slow in writing, and for the necessity of having Father George step in, was my recent field trip to Concord Hospital. A while back, I wrote a post entitled “On the Worst Day Ever, Who Wants to Write a Blog Post?” It described a series of attacks of biliary cholic (aka gallstones) that always seemed to strike on weekends when medical attention here is available on an emergency basis only. Each time the attacks occurred, they lasted three days then suddenly passed just hours before I could seek medical attention.
So nothing really happened for many months after a series of such attacks. If you’ve ever had gallstones, they tend to lodge in the biliary duct between the gallbladder and duodenum having the effect of what feels like taking a cannon ball to the abdomen. The bigger problem was that I do most of my writing for TSW on weekends, so several times I wrote TSW posts while in the middle of such attacks. I won’t tell you which posts they were because I dread hearing that I write best when I’m in agony.
Intervention was slow in coming. Back in September of last year, I was taken for an abdominal ultrasound which determined the presence of “many stones” and some dilation of the biliary duct. I was told that I would be scheduled for laparoscopic removal of the gallbladder “sometime soon.”
However, for security reasons prisoners are never permitted to know when such a field trip to an outside hospital might occur. So I waited … and waited. By the end of October, I got tired of being in a constant state of readiness, so I resigned myself to accept that this is just one of the things I cannot change.
On November 27, the day after Thanksgiving in the U.S., I was taken to Concord Hospital for a pre-surgical consult, only to discover that we were a month late. The consult date had been set October 27, but someone mistakenly wrote 11/27 on the prisoner transport order. In mid December, we tried again, and it was confirmed that I was scheduled for laparoscopic removal of the gallbladder. By that point, as I wrote in the “Hits and Misses of 2015,” I had pancreatitis and lots of inflammation in surrounding tissue. I felt awful, and for many months.
Another six weeks dragged on, then on January 26, I was taken for the procedure at Concord Hospital. That is a very different experience for a prisoner than it is for most people. At every step of the way, from surgery to recovery to post-op, prisoners are chained to a bed by the ankle with about a 16-inch range of motion and an armed guard just a few feet away assigned around the clock. It’s not a very pleasant experience, though the officers assigned were, for the most part, very professional. The physician, Dr. Joseph Meyer, is an extremely capable and gifted surgeon, and the staff at Concord Hospital is outstanding in every way.
But upon regaining consciousness in the recovery room, I was told that there were complications. Upon initiating the laparoscopic procedure with four incisions, it was discovered that there was extensive damage and general surgery had to be initiated. So now I have five incisions, including a nine-inch one across my upper abdomen and a total of twenty-four staples.
The next day, Dr. Meyer told me that my gallbladder was almost unrecognizable, very badly diseased, completely dead, and surrounded by a lot of badly inflamed tissue. He said the organ was packed with what had the appearance and consistency of “wet concrete,” and was toxic and making me very ill. I am glad to have it gone. However some work had to be done to also repair the biliary duct so the surgery was far longer and more extensive than planned.
The worst news was that I was told I would remain in the hospital for at least five more days followed by another five in the prison medical unit before I could resume my life. I cannot convey in words how distressing this was, but it’s also where all of you come in.
I could expect prison officials to hold my housing assignment for a few days, but not weeks. In a very overcrowded prison with long lists of prisoners awaiting cell space, that would be unheard of. I knew that after a few days my possessions would be packed up and stored, and I would later be assigned to some other part of the prison or even another prison upon release from the hospital. Sometimes, developments such as this mean never again seeing important friends in this life.
So there I was in post-op weighing this news, tethered to intravenous tubes, chained to a hospital bed around the clock, and on the verge of major losses. The actually physical pain seemed nothing at all next to this. One of the chains was too tight, and had dug deeply into my ankle causing a wound that hurt as much as the incisions, but none of that mattered.
A lot of you were praying for me. I know that now, and I can attribute what happened next only to the depth of your prayers. In fact, on the day I am typing this, I received a letter from Pierre Matthews, Pornchai Moontri’s Godfather who was blessed by an encounter with Saint Padre Pio at age 16 all those many years ago. He wrote that when he learned of my surgery he asked Padre Pio to intercede in his role as a Patron Saint of These Stone Walls. That is precisely what happened.
I was put on a morphine IV drip, but never once pushed the button. Exactly 48 hours after I emerged from surgery, the surgeon said that I “seem to have an amazing ability to heal,” and he saw no reason for me to stay longer. I was released late that afternoon. Upon arrival back at the prison late on that Friday – just three days after I left – I protested when the medical people assumed that I needed a week in the medical unit to recover.
By some unseen hand guiding the small events of that week, the prison physician was still there – unheard of late in the day on a Friday. When he learned of my protest he asked to see the surgical incisions. He marveled in disbelief that this major surgery was but 48 hours earlier, and said the wounds looked to be about ten days old. I needed no pain medications at all.
So he, too, released me. A ten to fourteen day hospital stay turned into less than three, and by Friday evening I was back in this cell to the complete surprise of Pornchai-Max who also had been told I would not be back for many days, if at all. But none of this has anything to do with anything inside of me. It was you. Thank you for your prayers which not only aided me in a remarkable bounce back, but in also evading yet another series of losses that might have radically changed my life.
On the morning of February 8, I was again taken to Concord Hospital for the removal of the twenty-four staples binding all of my incisions. I was warned that it might be painful, but I did not feel even a minor sting. Once again, Dr. Meyer said that my recovery was remarkably fast, and it was most unusual to be discharged just forty-eight hours after major surgery. Even the staples were removed a week earlier than planned. For my part, I’m just glad to have them. gone. They kept setting off all the prison metal detectors, and that one big scar – with eighteen of them – was starting to become a local tourist attraction!