Surviving a mission of self-worth

What happens when the value of an individual or a group is not acknowledged? What happens when the yearning to be understood is not met?

DAMIR SAGOLJ/REUTERS/FILE
AFTER A ROYAL DECREE, 2,700 WOMEN PRISONERS ARE RELEASED FROM BANG KWANG CENTRAL PRISON IN BANGKOK, THAILAND, DEC. 8, 2011.

For two years and 10 days, Prontip Mankong’s life was often distilled down to only the most primal instincts: Eat, sleep, survive. 

She was incarcerated in a Thai prison, lined up with other women like a box of matchsticks at night when they went to bed, and forced to take orders from an informant who thought herself the “mother of the prison.” Prisoners were strip-searched with impunity. 

“There’s no value” in the prisons, Ms. Prontip tells freelance writer Jacob Baynham in this week’s cover story. When women die, no one notices. “They just die.”

Now, months after Prontip was released from prison, there is something of value that remains with her from the experience. There are her notes.

She took them in secret, using stolen pens to write on stolen paper. She hopes that her diary will launch a movement for prison reform. She plans to write a book. Ironically, she may have an ally in the Thai royal family – the family she allegedly insulted, which resulted in her being sent to prison in the first place. A Thai princess is a strong advocate for improving prison conditions for women in Thailand.

Yet Prontip also took something more than scribbled pages from prison. She took a million small rebellions.

Each day, she says, she survived by giving herself a mission – something to learn or do, no matter how small. On one hand, it was a coping mechanism. 

Read the accounts of those who landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, and you’ll find they are filled not with accounts of the fear and horror that no doubt threatened to overwhelm them. Instead, they speak of the task they were assigned, almost as though the order had just come from their commanding officer: Take that position. Hold that point. Support that unit.

One of the many forms of courage is simply maintaining a singular focus when surrounded by unimaginable conditions. That can be done over a matter of hours or a matter of years. For Prontip, surviving prison was a different kind of warfare.

So often in society today, people on college campuses and at political rallies demand that others acknowledge their innate value. That impulse is a sign of progress. It shows that our aperture for compassion is widening. We are insisting that none be left out or unloved, and in that way we are moving toward a more humane world.

But what happens when the value of an individual or a group is not acknowledged? What happens when the yearning to be understood is not met? We caught a glimpse of that in the recent American presidential election, when voters on both sides felt slighted and attacked by the other.

By clawing back her own humanity, minute by minute, from a situation that repeatedly denied it, Prontip did something powerful. She declared and proved her own value herself. Her prison diary could lead to much-needed reforms. But it is the resolve she took from her prison life that has fueled her desire to do good. 

“Imprisonment,” she says, “can’t destroy our ideologies and spirit.”

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