Finding Jesus in Klong Prem prison

December 7, 2008
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With thousands of lost souls, the Thai prison system provides an attractive converting ground for Christian missionaries from a wide variety of denominations

‘Teach ye all nations and baptize them,” Matthew 28, 18. Those are the Biblical words that have, for centuries, sent Christian missionaries out to all corners of the world to bring lost souls in to the arms of the Church.

However history has shown that many nations do not appreciate this gospel, but in these parts of the non-Christian world, religious-tolerant Thailand may be a missionary’s dream of sainthood come true.

Especially in prisons, where lost lambs struggling to find salvation are in need of the hands of the shepherd.

Former Corrections Department director-general Wanchai Roujanavong told Spectrum last July: “All religions teach you to be good. My aim is to make prisoners good. I have no objections to converting Buddhists; they can always return.”

This might not exactly be the sort of blessing missionaries look for; religious tolerance and religious understanding are two different things.

In general, corrections officials recognise the therapeutic value of religion. It is felt that spiritual involvement promotes self-discipline, concern for others and a peace-of-mind that helps authorities control behaviour. Studies claim lower recidivism rates for the faithful.

On the other hand, others view religion as a con game for early release or special privileges. Some view the pious as weak and needing a crutch to handle the prison routine. There is always a danger that piety will be resented.

Be that as it may, the 170,000-inmate Thai prison system has always welcomed religious activity and evangelical Baptists have been the most dynamic. They boast hundreds of baptisms and conversions each year.

RELIGIONS BEHIND BARS The pathway to conversion begins with daily entry permits to teach the Bible. Some religious groups are not so well accommodated. Their access is restricted to scheduled ceremonies or confined to 20-minute public visiting sessions. Some Christian groups are banned from entry.

Thailand is a Buddhist country and monks can be often seen entering Klong Prem jail en masse with their morning alms bowls. At the same time, sunrise chants from male inmates can be heard throughout the complex.

Voluntary Buddhist retreats are frequently given where inmates imitate the life of a monk for a week or two. This means special cells, irregular sleeping hours, no TV and no food after noon. Heads are not shaved and the diet is unrestricted. Instruction is managed by Corrections Department staff in full uniform.

About a half-dozen Muslim clerics from the Sattachon Orphanage Foundation (http://www.satthachon.org) enter the Klong Prem prisons every month or two for Friday noon prayers. The group told this writer that there were about 200 female and 400 male Muslim prisoners at the Klong Prem complex and most were from Central Thailand.

When asked if they do any preaching or converting one of them said: “No, the Koran is too difficult and is best handled in a classroom atmosphere.”

Prisons and religion have had close relationships since ancient times. The Catholic Church provided sanctuary for many a convict looking to take refuge from corporal or capital punishment.

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHERS The one clergyman who seems to have the skeleton key to the Thai prison system is evangelist Baptist Pastor Soonthorn Soonthorntarawong, who runs a nation-wide ministry attending to some 5,000 inmates.

“Our work is confined to prison interiors where we conduct Bible and vocational programmes. We cater to all nationalities with Bible instruction in Burmese, Chinese, Thai and English,” Pastor Soonthorn said.

The ministry seldom gives gifts or cash. “However, we might allow donations to those who cannot afford the essentials. Gifts could be construed as buying a following,” Pastor Soonthorn said.

“I do not focus on religion. I focus on life. The Department of Corrections is not happy to teach religion inside. We do not ask the religion of inmates. Besides, we deal with very few Christians. The Bible teaches you to be good not to be a Christian.”

Another Baptist missionary group with prison access is the Rev Charles Holmes and his wife Lourdes. They keep a low profile and declined to be interviewed.

However, in a brief telephone chat, Rev Holmes said he has a ministry of 1,000 and it all grew from a single US embassy contact some 26 years ago. “We teach the Bible,” he said. “Prisoners need a change. And Jesus Christ is the only one that can do that.”

A familiar figure in prison circles is Father Oliver Morin SJ, a French Jesuit priest with a lifetime experience catering to prisons and refugee centres in Asia. He operates from Xavier Hall, a Catholic Jesuit centre near the Victory Monument in Bangkok (http://www.sjthailand.org).

Father Oliver works only with non-Thais who are far less likely to have visitors. His team of five limits themselves to 20-minute sessions of five prisoners per day. This amounts to about 100 country-wide in a month.

Each is presented with a package of prison essentials. The Corrections Department does not furnish staples. Items like uniforms, blankets, soap, toothpaste, shampoo and towels must be paid for by the inmates. Only food is free.

Father Oliver only enters prisons for ceremonies. He is not concerned about the religion of his flock. “Our ministry does not teach the Bible. We want to reach the poorest prisoners. Pain is the same regardless of religion. All are children of God,” he said.

BAPTISING THE PRISONERS Pastor Soonthorn is well institutionalised, as director of the Bangkok-based Christian Prison Ministry of Thailand. His operation features a halfway house to help released convicts adjust to their new circumstances. He is assisted by a permanent staff of 10 and some 50 volunteers.

The halfway house will be completed this month and the complex will include a church, workrooms, cafeteria and a dormitory of 52 beds. Most facilities are air-conditioned. The ministry has its own website at (http://www.thaiprisonministsry.com) and a newsletter.

Pastor Soonthorn boasts 300-400 baptisms per year for his nation-wide prison flock of 5,000. Some Protestant groups have multiple baptisms so the water-emersion ritual does not necessarily mean a conversion.

Although there are no definitive statistics for Thai recidivism, Pastor Soonthorn claims to have solved the problem.

“If you train ex-convicts to be good Christians, they won’t go back. I guarantee,” he stated.

As well, the internet has abundant references to upcountry missionary activity that often goes on without the knowledge or approval of Bangkok. It is all up to the local prison governor.

One group from the SOS Mission Bible College of Stockholm boasted 25 baptisms in May 2008 at the Khon Kaen provincial prison. Their activities also extend outside prison boundaries. (See sidebar).

Another ad hoc Protestant group, called Team Isaan, is active in the Northeast, particularly at the Sawang Daen Din prison of Sakon Nakhon province where they claimed 22 baptisms in June of this year.

Some missionary groups are banned from prison entry altogether. Pastor Soonthorn listed them as: the Mormons, the Jehovah Witnesses and the Children of God. These groups can, however, operate from public visitor facilities.

COMFORTING THE WOMEN Indeed just about anyone can visit a prisoner. All you need is an ID and some cursory excuse. The inmate can always refuse but this is unlikely first time around.

At Klong Prem women’s prison several foreign ladies visit each week and take it as a social responsibility. Some have participated in other forms of community work but now find fulfillment in weekly 20-minute chats with a convict.

They concentrate on foreigners who speak English and acquire their names from embassies or church groups. A listing is also available from the Australian-based Foreign Prisoner Support Service: http://www.usp.com.au/fpss/.

These visitors say they are content to converse in generalities. One of them, Swiss-national Mrs Elisabeth Grimm, whose husband is with an NGO, said, “I do not discuss religion or the circumstances of arrest. My testimony is to visit, care and love.”

Of 5,000 women prisoners at Klong Prem, an estimated 300 receive visitors per day. During the annual open family visit last June less than 500 received guests. Official embassy visits are few and far between and cars with diplomatic plates are seldom seen in the car park.

One female prisoner at Klong Prem said about one-third of her cellmates get no visitors at all. Others guess the nation-wide statistic at 30-40%. No matter how you figure things, it would appear that the Thai prison system houses a large number of abandoned souls.

The New Testament has a word on the matter. The Lord, on behalf of His brotherhood with humanity, addresses the righteous on Judgement Day.

Matthew 25, 31: “Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you … I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your home, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.”