The Central Women’s Correctional Institution is on the road to Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport and sits beside a larger facility housing men. The vast complex is nicknamed Klong Prem.
The women’s prison is rectangular in shape, some 300 metres by one kilometre and presently houses about 4,400. In the past the figure was quite larger.
Upon entering you feel you are in a public park. Trees are everywhere and flowers are blooming. There are no glaring advertising signs; no noises from motorised transport and no rubbish or litter. Prisoners stroll around freely doing chores, playing sports and practising music.
At night it is a different story. Inmates are confined to community cells for 12 hours and the crowding is so intense that they must sleep on their sides body to body. Nine hours are for sleeping and the remaining three for watching censored CD-driven television.
Most of the women at Klong Prem are in for the stimulant amphetamine (ya ba). While in prison, they must settle for coffee. Unlike their male counterparts, there are no cigarettes, no leg irons and no free condoms. There is also no Coca-Cola because all of Klong Prem belongs to Pepsi.
I recently made a lengthy series of 20-minute visits to an inmate at the women’s prison. The inmate in question is a young lady who has already completed one year of a two-year sentence for amphetamines. Answers were accumulated from the visits.
While the Klong Prem women’s warden was not available for an interview, the subject’s responses were checked with those of fellow visitors, prison staff and ex-convicts, both male and female.
Also, a number of books have been written on life in Thai prisons and they tend to be ghost-written tales of sex and sadism. I found the narratives useful but could not confirm their more exaggerated claims.
Q: What is life like in there? How limited is space? How can you adjust to sleeping on your side, with lights on, and body-to-body amongst 70 other women in the same room?
A: I was very depressed at first but gained comfort from others with far longer sentences. If they can cope so can I. As for sleeping body-to-body, you wake up during the night from the heat and the sweat but eventually get used to it.
Q: Do you have any complaints?
A: Yes, health services are slow. The CDs they use for TV are repetitive and the visiting time is often short of the promised 20 minutes.
Q: The guards, I understand are all female, but they do indeed carry clubs. Have you ever seen or heard on anyone being beaten?
A: Never. The clubs are for self-defence only.
Q: Are there lots of fights or arguments between inmates?
A: Yes, plenty. They begin when we leave our cell at 6.00 a.m. However, conflicts are usually confined to bickering and seldom result in serious injury.
Q: Are many of the fights over sexual rivalries?
A: Yes, but that is secondary. Most of the serious conflicts are between Thais and their immediate Asian neighbours.
Q: What about the rampant thievery that people talk about?
A: Yes, it is rampant. Many inmates do not have visitors or charities to buy them necessary personal items like sleeping materials and uniforms. Lockers are broken into and if you leave something lying around it will be gone. For that reason, I ask relatives to buy me two small tubes of tooth paste rather than a single large one.
Q: The Internet claims that trustee cell bosses are demanding bribes and securing favourable sleeping positions. Is that true?
A: That may be the case elsewhere but not where I am. In our cell everyone is equal.
Q: Are there rats and cockroaches?
A: Yes, but only outside the cells in lockers where leftovers are carelessly stored. As for the rats, we have hundreds of tame cats running around.
Q: What are your daily activities?
A: We do light assembly work, and have aerobic exercises. I have been to several Buddhist retreats and attended an extensive seminar on narcotics. Lately there has been little work to do so we catch upon our sleep.
Q: Have you received any vocational training?
A: No, not yet. I have not had a chance to participate because of uncertainties over a prison transfer.
Q: What do non-Buddhists do during the daily compulsory ten minutes of meditation?
A: They bow their heads in silent prayer.
Q: Does anyone complain about the total censorship of TV news reports. Did you know of the devastating cyclone that hit Burma?
A: Few complain about the lack of news. I had not heard of the cyclone but it is just as well. If our Burmese counterparts learned of this, they might get very upset.
Q: What kind of TV do you watch?
A: The CDs we view are short on sex and violence. We have Thai and foreign soaps, comedies, musicals and educational documentaries. They switch to terrestrial TV for religion on Monday and at other times can pick up major news about His Majesty the King.
Q: Is it true there is lesbianism going on in there?
A: Yes. Inmates are divided into Toms (male role) 20 percent, Dees (female role) 40 percent and Neutrals at another 40 percent. You spot the Toms by their tattoos and short haircuts. The Dees have light makeup and paint their fingernails. The Toms do not bother with the Neutrals.
Q: Where do they have their sex?
A: It is seldom in the home cell but rather in nooks and crannies throughout the complex. Fellow inmates turn a blind eye and if caught punishment is usually light.
Q: I assume you are a Dee or Neutral, right?
A: I am a Neutral because I can’t bother with my nails.
Q: What kind or punishments do they have?
A: The lightest is being forced to do calisthenics. Another is to be given dirty work like cleaning toilets and water drains. Sometimes visits are denied. More serious is the humiliation of being forced to sit outside in the sun for an afternoon. Caning has been abolished. The ultimate is the solitary confinement chamber called Kang Soi. This punishment is reserved for escape attempts, extreme violence or smuggling narcotics into the prison.
Q: Can you please describe Kang Soi?
A: It is a room 1.5 metres wide and 3.0 metres deep. The ceiling is a normal height. There is no fan, no lighting and no toilet. While daylight can enter, there is no outside view.
Q: Have you ever seen or talked to someone after doing a term in Kang Soi?
A: Yes, but it is not that bad. They are sometimes allowed out to water the flowers but are watched to insure they do not talk to anybody. Indeed, their skin is red and inflamed from insect bites and fungus infections. However, these victims complain more about the loneliness than the physical discomforts.
Q: Has anyone ever smuggled drugs into the prison?
A: Yes, a couple of months ago a prisoner concealed a small supply of stimulants in a body orifice and began passing them around. Officials were alerted when a couple of inmates started acting crazy. It caused a major disruption. Cells, lockers and even bodies were searched. Over a thousand urine tests were given. Later police came with sniffer dogs. The ring leaders won sessions in Kang Soi.
Q: Is it true that you must pay respect to the guards?
A: Yes, in passing a guard you must bow or wai (clasp palms). If you want to talk, you must get down on your knees. Under no circumstances can your head be higher than theirs.
Q: What is the safety situation? You mentioned fires and power outages.
A: Yes, we recently had a fire in a ceiling fan and the staff was onto it immediately. When power fails, emergency lights come on and they are quite adequate.
Q: Who handles routine maintenance at the facility?
A: The Toms do. We have Tom carpenters, plumbers and electricians. They can do anything.
Q: You talked about a recent suicide. Isn’t everyone afraid of ghosts?
A: No. There are enough monks in this place to keep the ghosts at bay.
Q: What have you learned from your full year of incarceration?
A: I have learned to love people other than myself.
This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post and is reproduced here as a prison blog with permission of the author.