Pornchai Moontri was sent to Maine State Prison at the age of eighteen and has served the first 20 years of a 45-year sentence. Born in rural Thailand, he was brought to the United States at the age of eleven by his mother and American stepfather and endured years of abuse. His early life, as well as his crime, incarceration, and conversion to the Catholic faith, have been described in an autobiographical essay.
In the following piece, titled “Super Max,” Pornchai Moontri writes about his introduction to solitary confinement in Maine State Prison’s supermax unit. It includes a description of being forcibly “extracted” from his cell by a Correctional Emergency Response Team, or CERT–a scenario similar to the one caught on video here.
This account originally appeared on the blog Voices from the Cracks, maintained by Sophie Inchains, who describes it as “a project with the purpose of allowing prisoners to express themselves in the public sphere. We believe that visibility is key to undermining the systems that are created to oppress and silence the marginalized. This blog is not a celebration of crimes nor in anyway does it seek to invalidate the experience of victims, only recognize that prisoners are still human and need to be heard.”
The time I spent in a New England state prison’s Super Max unit is not easy to write about. It changed me more than I care to acknowledge or talk about. I spent three-and-one-half years in one stretch in Super Max. Of thirteen years in that prison system, more than half of it was spent in Super Max.
The first time I was sent to Super Max was kind of scary. I was sent there because I was accused by “confidential inmate informants” of planning to make a homemade bomb to try to blow up the prison. I was nineteen years old, and had been in prison only four months when I was sent to Super Max.
When I first saw the place, it looked really tough. It had rows and rows of razor wire around its perimeter, cameras at every turn, and three check points before you even get to the entrance. As I was getting out of the prison van at Super Max, I was met by six “SERT Team” guys in full riot gear. They told me what they expected of me: no quick movements; keep my head up and my eyes forward; no speaking at all unless I was asked a question. I was told that if I did not obey these rules perfectly upon command, as they put it, I would be dumped on my ass! They really knew how to make a guy feel welcomed.
Once inside, when I first stepped onto the pod, it was the smell that I noticed first. The smell of urine and fecal matter was so overwhelming, I thought I might get sick. I was taken to a cell, and locked in. My very first thought was that I didn’t want to touch anything. It was filthy. Then I knew that I would have to clean the place up before I could possibly live there, but I have nothing to clean with – no cleaning supplies at all. Before I could ask the corrections officer (c/o) for something to clean with, the guy in the cell next to me told me that it would be easier to just set off the fire sprinkler system to douse the cell. About ten minutes after the deluge began, the SERT Team was at my cell door to extract me from it.
I wrestled with four of them for a few minutes before they got me to the floor, and beat me like a dog. My arm was so twisted behind my back, I thought it would break. With a booted foot pressing my bare head to the concrete floor and another on my neck, my leg bent so far backward that my foot pressed against my butt, I was powerless.
Then I was placed in the black chair, chained and cuffed, and unable to move at all. After five hours in the black Chair, I was asked if I was calm now, and ready to be
taken back to my cell. I said something sarcastic and angry, and just spend longer in the chair. Unfortunately for me, that was not my last time in the black chair. I was brought back to it many times – usually for three or four hours at a stretch. I just didn’t seem to learn my lesson.
Finally, I was brought back to my cell, cleaned by the sprinkler system just as my neighbor said it would be. It got cleaned the hard way! That was my first day in Super Max.
The Super Max cell had nothing in it but a stainless steel toilet, a bunk, and a stainless steel table bolted to the wall. The window in the cell door was about twelve by sixteen inches. Any time I had to be moved or let out of the cell, I was placed in four-point restraints, hands and feet, and then stripped to be searched after every movement.
Every day there was the same monotony: breakfast at 0530 followed by forty-five minutes alone in the rec pen. That was like a big dog cage. I could take exactly eleven steps inside it and then back again. It was about five feet wide and eight feet long with chain link on all sides and above. It really was a cage. I could have a fifteen-minute shower five times a week, and one fifteen-minute telephone call per week. There was no use of a TV or radio.
Lunch was always at 11:30 and dinner at 4:30. Four times a day guards would come to count me at the same time every day. I would have to stand up or sit on the concrete bunk. I was allowed to look at three books per week. I would take any books that were big so they would last a long time. I read the Bible cover to cover twice. I read Stephen King books because they were big. I also read Shogun and any other large novel I could get. At O7OO every day, someone would come by with a tube of toothpaste, put a dab on my finger, and I would “brush” with that.
Super Max was so depressing and so solitary that prisoners would try to cut themselves deeply or hang themselves just to get out of there. Since this Super Max prison opened in 1992, there have been three inmate deaths there by suicide (one was a suspected homicide), and hundreds of prisoners were seriously injured. One prisoner was extracted from his cell so he could not harm himself, and then he died from the injuries he sustained while being extracted.
The longer a prisoner stayed in Super Max, the more anti-social he became. Inmates would do anything to try to break up their day and entertain themselves. Some played with their own urine and feces, and others used those as weapons, throwing them at the guards after calling their names to get their attention. Some of the more manipulative would talk other prisoners into acting up. I know today that we acted like animals because we were treated like animals.
I survived Super Max by doing as many as 1,500 push-ups a day, and venting as much of my anger, frustration, and energy as possible into physical fitness. In a way, this also worked against me. The more physically strong I became, the more I was treated like a dangerous animal. I knew that self-discipline was my only way to stay sane, so I lived a strict regimen of exercise for many years.
When I finally left Super Max for good, I had a lot of emotional problems. I was angry, depressed, often hostile, and anti-social. Then I was transferred to an adjacent state’s prison system where I had a new beginning. I found a lot of help here, and all the baggage of those long hard years left me in time. I never want to go back. I am 38 years old now, and haven’t seen freedom for almost 20 years. However, I have learned that freedom begins on the inside, not the inside of a prison but the inside of my own soul. It is there that I am free.