Visiting A Thai Prison

December 3, 2001

Thailand’s prison systems are notorious for their overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and Thai drug laws are strict and getting stricter all of the time. Even before I visited Bang Kwang Prison, when I saw someone stupid enough to be smoking something other than tobacco on the street, I literally ran in the other direction. The population in Thai prisons has doubled in the last three years and the use of amphetamines is on the rise. Sadly, even Nattawud Daoruang of ‘Talking To An Amazing Student’ (see back issues: has fallen into major problems.

My journey to Bang Kwang Prison began by selecting a name from the list of prisoners I found on the Internet. I then located the prison, determined the visiting hours, drove there, turned in my passport, received a visiting slip, and found myself waiting outside the prison gates with 60 Thais and four other foreigners. The guards milled around smoking under the no smoking signs. The air was heavy, not a smile to be seen. At 1:00 p.m. we were led into the visiting area. As we walked in, two groups of prisoners walked by us. Photography was not permitted.

The initial shock of seeing men’s legs shackled as they walked by threw me into a panic. I almost ran for it. I am glad I stayed because by staying I brightened someone’s day: an English-speaking prisoner for the last seven years.

Visitors then waited in a nice garden setting at long tables that faced a bared window and the prison walls. There was a one-metre gap and another bared window on the other side where the prisoners would later sit. As the inmates started arriving, the level of excitement and noise in the courtyard exploded and the heavy mood was miraculously lifted.

“Wow! You are here to see me?!” was the icebreaker between a delighted ‘Mr Z’ and me. He’d only had three visitors in the last year. Despite the fact that we’d just met, conversation flowed at top volume until 2:30 when visitors had to leave. ‘Mr Z’ said, “when you are in prison, every day is the same. There is no Christmas. There is no Monday. If you get a visitor, you get to come out here. It gives you something to look forward to.”

The food in the prison consists of “rice with fish heads. I didn’t eat for the first week I was here. Then I had to. I held my nose shut and dug in.” The thing he is looking to most when he gets out of prison is “not looking through bars anymore” and the thing he misses the most is his country. He has not seen any of his family in seven years and nor does he want them to see him sitting behind bars. He shares his 20x15-foot cell with 18 other inmates. The prison is at double capacity now.

When asked about personal safety, he said, “when you first come here, there are some fights. After awhile it calms down. You just have to accept how it is. You can’t fight it. It took me five years to digest my situation.” He was in the prison hospital at one point. The most dramatic part about it was watching fellow inmates die of AIDS in front of his eyes.

When asked if he needed anything from the prison store “coffee would be really great!” was the immediate answer. The bell went off. Time had flown by. The prisoners walked back into the building. Families left with tears in their eyes. I took my hands off of my side of the bared window and headed back to my life. And yes, I will be heading back to Bang Kwang Prison again. Somehow leaving was just as hard as going.

I arrived with a sense of dread and left with a sore throat from shouting to be heard and a refreshed sense of appreciation for my life. I also made a solemn oath to be the most upstanding citizen ever for the rest of my days. Yes, people in Thai prisons are typically there because they have broken the law. Foreign prisoners are a long way from home and there is no shortage of them. I couldn’t help but wish that everyone in Bangkwang had made different decisions in their lives.

Another thing worth noting is that seventeen people were executed in Bang Kwang Prison by machine-gun fire last year. Executions take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays: the schedule is up on the wall.

My advice: Only visit a Thai prison if you truly feel up to it. If you tell a prisoner you will do something like send a letter, visit again, or write an email, keep your word. And last but not least, definitely steer clear of all illegal activities while in Thailand. Visiting a Thai prison is not fun. Residing in one is obviously horrible.

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