Susan Aldous visiting prisoners at Bang Kwang
Over the past five years or so it has become “fashionable” amongst backpackers to go and visit complete strangers at the prisons in Thailand. The most popular destinations are Bang Kwang and Klong Prem in Bangkok. I think I first heard about these visits from an article written by Garth Hattan, an inmate at Bang Kwang. At that time, he was writing a regular column for the popular English language magazine called “Farang”. This is what he had to say about these surprise visits:
“From time to time some of we Western inmates here in Bangkwang Central Prison are blessed with unexpected visits from foreign travelers who have gotten our names from our embassies, billboards at guesthouses, word of mouth, or a website. Most of the guys here are receptive to these visits, since they provide an inviting diversion from the ceaseless monotony of prison life. Some, however, eventually feel reluctant to go out and meet these casual tourists because there are some who seem to view a visit to Bangkwang as simply another novel attraction on their itinerary of killing time while awaiting their trains, boats or buses to outlying destinations. I’ve experienced such encounters and felt a bit like a caged lion at times. I’m generally inclined to welcome visitors because, aside from satisfying the curiosity which has compelled them to drop by in the first place, it gives me the unique opportunity to deter others from making the same ignorant mistake I did and consequently finding themselves on this side of the bars.”
I do remember thinking, after reading that column, about going to visit him, but decided in the end that I would be too embarrassed to go and visit a complete stranger in a prison. Then, about two years ago, our Steve asked if I wanted to go with him to visit a prisoner at Bang Kwang. Again I hesitated. It would be easier for me to go with someone, but still I wasn’t sure about going to show morale support for a drug runner or murderer. After all, most of the prisoners at Bangk Kwang are serving a minimum of thirty years. Now, of course, I have been introduced to prison life by visiting Gor at Samut Prakan Central Prison. Through him, I then started to visit foreign prisoners. Most of these people were there for petty crimes like stealing or passport problems. I have now visited this prison over 50 times going to see Gor or one of the foreign prisoners. Although I now feel a lot more comfortable about visiting Thai prisons, I still have yet to go to any of the big ones in Bangkok. I just don’t know whether I could go toa maximum security prison.
One person who has no such qualms about visiting prisoners is Susan Aldous, an Australian who has spent the last couple of decades in Thailand. Due to her dedication to helping the inmates of Bang Kwan and other institutions, she gained herself the label of “Angel of Bang Kwang”. This then became the title of her fascinating autobiography of the same name which has recently been published by Maverick House. I am glad I bought her book at Asia Books. It gave me some good insights into why she visited prisons. And a surprise for me. What I didn’t know was that Susan often visited Garth Hatton at Bang Kwang. Despite the restrictions, they quickly fell in love. Everyone thought this romance was doomed to failure. However, after Garth was transferred to a prison in America, Susan followed him there a short while later. Three months later Garth was released from prison and then the two of them got married in what looked like a fairytale ending. However, things didn’t work out well. Garth re-offended and found himself being arrested by the police. They eventually got divorced and Susan returned to Thailand, the place she now calls home.
Susan Aldous in a Holding Cell in a Police Station
Although I enjoyed reading Susan’s book, I was still left with some unanswered questions. In particular, I still wasn’t sure whether I could ever feel right about going to visit foreigners at Bang Kwang Prison. So, I was really happy when she agreed to talk with me about her book. My main interest in this interview was her visits to the prison. However, much of her book is taken up with her younger life as a rebel and drug addict in Australia and her subsequent projects in institutions for women.
How did you feel the first time you visited a prison?
My first visit was to Bang Kwang Central Prison which is a maximum security prison housing men sentenced from 30 years up till death—before that, I’d been mainly visiting holding cells. I experienced mixed emotions naturally. A deep sympathy for those incarcerated, a sense of great incredulity at the length of the sentences, however the strongest forethought was astonishment over the lack of happiness or friendliness from the guards. I was used to Thai’s being extremely accommodating and these men and women were not. They were unhappy and sour. I came away with the resolve to make a difference to their lives and set a goal within a year to get each one of them smiling. I was later to discover they lived in squalid poverty and were suffering in their own prison of sorts.
While today one still experiences indifference on the authority’s part it is a much friendlier place. They do smile more and greet you amicably and this is due to many of the visitors being friendly to them and also the new educated guards coming up through the ranks. It is a different place for visitors than it was ten years or more ago.
Did you ever get comfortable visiting prisons? As you have been so often, do you go as far as calling it a second home?
I felt very at ease in prisons after a while. I lived down the road and passed by Bang Kwang every day several times, even on the weekends. At that time, I was also visiting daily, up to 2-3 rounds and participating in many activities within the other prisons and Corrections Department as well so it became a huge part of my life and some days I was dealing more with inmates, guards and families of inmates than I was at home, so perhaps, yes, I did almost live within the prison system. Currently, I do not. Since returning to Thailand, I have shifted my emphasis to assisting more of the Asian inmates left behind, and I generally visit three prisons between one to two times a week in total, some of my visits as few as annually or biannually. I have many other projects and they take my time.
Do you think you could survive a long prison sentence at Bang Kwang?
I don’t think you can really predict how you will do in any difficult situation, but most certainly the length of sentence would to me, be the hardest thing even over the conditions etc. if you locked me in the Hilton Hotel, cut me off from congenial company, and told me I’d have to stay there for 50 years, I imagine that insanity would be a great possibility.
There have been a number of books over the years depicting life in Thai prisons. Do they all paint an accurate picture or have some been exaggerated in order to sell more books?
I think some could seem exaggerated. But you have to remember that many were written years ago when things were extremely harsh and horrid. They were nearly or more than a decade of experiences boiled down into a paperback and in some ways can come off as being over the top. Things have changed, but even for myself if I was to collect and dwell on the horror stories of the past ten years I could write something as equally gory as some of these books. To me though the utmost horror of the entire affair is the sentencing and legal system and the slow painful way it drags out without any human care and this is not exaggerated, and in fact I feel this subject is not even fully covered and down played in many cases as it’s just too hard to really express it all fully.
You were visiting the prison before it became fashionable. What did they guards think of you during that first month?
They wondered why I was there, they often thought I was drug dealing, working as a spy, or undercover cop and the inmates thought the same thing, ha! It was the man the boy and the donkey so many times. On occasion it became wearisome having to fight the ones you were trying to help, whether they wore prison guard uniform or prison inmate uniform. Constancy of purpose won out in most cases though.
So, did their opinion of you change when they realized that you were genuinely trying to help the prisoners?
Yes, actions spoke louder than words and they also realized that I was genuinely interested in them and their families too. Sadly there were some, who’d never change no matter what you did.
Is it in their own interest for them to help you help the prisoners? If so, in what way?
Initially it was more work for them, a risk in case I was to report on conditions or bad behavior etc, but after a while they started to get involved and even were very helpful. Some naturally wrote my projects off as their own to win points and to gain promotions. In some ways it was to the prison’s advantage as care-giving projects certainly do help project a humane image.
Today I cannot and do not do the numerous projects that I did years ago. Security and current prison attitudes dictate this as well as my time constraints and abilities. Instead I do a few a year within Bang Kwang via the hospital and then smaller ones through inmates, so it’s not such a big deal and is easier to work that way with the new administration.
What do the prison guards really think about complete strangers visiting the prisoners?
I think they’d rather not have to deal with them.
Are backpacker visitors doing more harm than good?
Bang Kwang will barely let in visitors at present who are not related. Backpackers were often seen as a nuisance by the guards, noisy, rude and outspokenly voicing their disgust at times. This did not go over well. However, many were kind and the inmates were certainly thankful for the time away from inside life. It was a mixed bag. If they came nicely dressed, were polite and also kind and non-judgmental to inmates, they provided a great service. I always felt that it was tremendous that they took time to reach out to someone in need
Is Bang Kwang and other prisons in danger of becoming a tourist attraction?
It was…not any more, at least with the new administration at Bang Kwang. It’s closing down to non-official outsiders, harder to get into and we have no idea how long this will go on for. Other prisons are easier to access, but involve longer waits, shorter visits and not always easy to find your way around. I do not see it as being as fashionable as it was some years ago.
When you go to visit a prisoner, does it matter to you what crime he has committed?
I do not agree with crime obviously, and I think it’s important for all of us to admit to our own our mistakes, attitudes or crimes if we are going to grow or change. However, the men and women inside have been sentenced, given judgment by society and now it’s my turn to come in and help treat folk as human beings. I treat a street murderer with as much care as I would a murderous arms dealer. I treat a drug dealer with as much respect as I would a pharmaceutical salesman. I believe in redemption and you cannot lift someone up if you are looking down on them, you have to be on the same level looking eye to eye, heart to heart. At times they are my teachers.
Some people argue that these people committed a crime against society and that they deserve whatever punishment that they receive. And that they shouldn’t expect any sympathy from us. What do you say?
We need to contain dangerous criminals for the good of society, but we also need to care for people and treat folk the way we would want them to act. We must set the example, and if we do that, we can then expect accountability and behavioral changes.
You are described as a devout Christian. Do you see this as your duty to help others, or would you be doing this anyway?
I wouldn’t have been alive to help anyone, if I’d not have had my turn about. With that said, I would encourage anyone of any religious persuasion or not to love and help others, it’s the best drug of choice and makes life purposeful and we should all feel compelled to be a part of the solution rather than the problem.
Helping Inmates of Bang Kwang with Eyesight Problems
I am not sure if I could personally go and visit a complete stranger at Bang Kwang. Nor am I sure if I would feel right about supporting someone who has been convicted of drug trafficking or a sex offence.
And I would respect that as your convictions, but sometimes it’s good to look behind what folk have done and see why or what was in their background and then make an educated judgment as to whether they should be visited or not—and some folks are actually innocent. There are some inmates whom I would not visit again, not just because of their crime either but because of their character and attitudes. As for myself, I go by the edict that the healthy do not need a doctor.
How would you persuade me to go?
I wouldn’t, it’s not for everyone, it’s not even good for some would be visitors as they cannot handle it emotionally and come out worse for it. I would just be an example and hopefully you would want to at least be open to see why I do go and why many others do as well. My goal is to activate folk to work towards something positive, anything, whatever they feel called to, to make society better, to show love and care for those in need. We can start at home, in our office or on the street it does not always need to be in a prison.
Apart from helping the prisoner, do you think I would personally gain anything from this visit?
It would depend on your attitude when going in and your openness to the one you were meeting and it would depend on whom you met and the actual experience. Some visitors come out exhausted, angry and feel emotionally drained; they never want to go back. Others come out devastated over the situation and are genuinely surprised to meet an inmate who is ‘good folk’. They in turn continue a friendship from a distance via mail and this brings them happiness. Others, carry the conviction that they can be a serious helper at ground zero to one in need and through that I think you or anyone else would feel a lot better about life, self and towards those whom society judges as ‘bad’. It’s like perfume; you cannot pour it on others without spilling a few drops on yourself.
How did the visits change you?
I went to make a difference and it changed me. It made a huge difference to me. I could no longer ignore that these situations existed and I was already a full time volunteer. It opened my life, my heart and my mind to a new world. I learnt patience, love and consistency; I learnt to give even when it hurt. I learnt to handle difficult folk, situations and disappointment. I experienced great joy and friendship.
What do you talk about to a complete stranger?
Them, I talk about them. I talk about me, my life, what I do, but mostly I want to know about them, what makes them tick, showing genuine outgoing concern and love touches lives. I laugh, I joke, and I enquire. Just like I would anyone else I met in any social situation. Current events, politics, music, sport, life!
Are there any subjects that we shouldn’t talk about with them?
That would vary from person to person just like in general society. Perhaps your latest sexscapade or babbling about yourself and your problems would be inappropriate as would hours of negative diatribes about the unfairness of the legal system; they know that already I think.
How often do you visit Bang Kwang these days?
About once a week or two at most and then some weeks not at all. Additionally, sometimes special projects take me back to those big yellow doors…
Some people think it is strange that you visit prisoners in Thailand. They say that you wouldn’t visit prisoners in your home country. I wouldn’t dream of visiting prisons in America or Australia. Why is Thailand different? And would you personally visit prisoners in other countries?
I first visited a prison in Melbourne years ago when I was 16-years-old; it has since been closed down due to the horrid conditions. I have visited in the USA and write to death row inmates there as well, I also visited Panama too when I was passing through for a few days, id’ go to any prison, I just happen to live in Thailand. Why would I not want to go to other prisons?
What is the project that is taking up most of your time at the moment?
At present its humanized health care projects through reform, visiting patients, and women’s issues, HIV and sex worker issues, teaching officials and then inmate work. As well as writing two more books.
What are future plans?
Recently a gentleman in Japan, via his blog asked me the same thing; this is how I answered him.
On the personal front: I want to see my daughter grow up and find her niche in life. She is incredibly talented and writes amazingly well, so maybe that’s her thing. Who knows, but we are on one amazing journey to find out.
Take a real holiday.
I love to study, so most likely will do some more of that when the right doors open.
Take a real holiday.
I would like to establish a more stable financial base.
Take a real holiday.
Dare I say it? Perhaps even fall in love again.
Take a real holiday…it’d be nice to even be able to conceptualize what a real holiday looks like at least.
Take a real holiday! Did I already say that?
Improve my Thai and perhaps even learn how to spell in English. The first, being a more achievable goal and then take a holiday.
Work wise: I want to continue working towards seeing the death penalty abolished and working standardized prisoner exchange treaties globally in place. Also, fair treatment for the incarcerated, mentally ill and whoever suffers due to lack of love and justice!
Yeah, yeah, I know I sound like Miss Congeniality’s Sandra Bullock’s antithesis. And with such goals in mind, there goes the holiday! Better to wear out than rust out at least.
Currently, I am having a part in creating two new books. One is giving a voice to Thailand’s Ladyboys and the second is the story of a male sex worker, which all play into some of my outreach programs. This has been extremely interesting and a real learning curve for me, more to come I am sure.
I just want to keep on doing what I am doing, and keep on loving it as much as I do and I am very open to whatever form it all may take as time moves along.
I am satisfied enough to be content and dissatisfied enough to keep on reaching out to accomplish more.
Something that I really love about my life is that no matter what horrid things, difficulties or obstacles happen, I can always eventually reframe them and use them to empathize with those who are in need of encouragement or answers.
I look forward to the future with great hope and expectancy.
Is your daughter now following in your footsteps?
She is not, but at times she goes with me to prisons or the shelter, she certainly counsels her friends and even strangers in a manner which she surely has imbibed from being around me. She is her own person and as a teenager is finding her way.