The truth about life behind bars from a recently released former drug-addict
Gor is a young Thai man recently released from a provincial prison after serving a three-year term. He was an amphetamine (ya ba) addict but was found with enough pills to classify him as a distributer. Gor might have had a lighter sentence had he confessed to the court, but he chose to fight the case and lost. He also lost an appeal for a reduction to his sentence. Prison has taken three years from this man’s life and his continued addiction could have been even more costly.
Gor is unique in that he was gainfully employed before going to prison and was able to return to his old job on his release. More often released drug users return to criminal ways.
He was primarily a consumer of drugs, and during his lengthy time on bail he managed to cut down his dependency and was “clean” when he entered prison, but while there going “cold turkey” was his only option.
Q: You claim the police beat you to obtain a confession?
A: Yes, I was beaten, but the confession was later revoked in court by my not-guilty plea.
Q: What did the police do to you?
A: They know how to beat people without leaving any marks. My hand was twisted; I was kicked in the armpit and was pushed face-down to the floor like in the movies. However, it was the karate chop to the Adam’s apple that convinced me that they really meant business. I signed.
Q: Do you have any advice for amphetamine addicts?
A: Yes, kick the habit or you will end up in jail.
Q: It took three years of imprisonment to cure you of the addiction. Wasn’t there an easier way of doing it?
A: No, not for me, I had to learn the hard way.
Q: Do you recommend this for others?
A: No, for others it might not work. Many just don’t want to break the habit. For me, I don’t want to go back to prison, so I stay away from drugs. Others go back because they feel more comfortable inside. Outside they have no job, no place to sleep and constant anxiety. Prison is a home, the only real home some know. They have few options.
Q: How much ya ba were you using?
A: I was smoking up to 10 tablets per day.
Q: How could you afford it? Why did you use so much?
A: Seven years ago, when I started, pills were only 50 baht each. I needed more as time went by. The higher dosages tasted good and helped me in my work. Pills are now 200-300 baht each.
Q: The internet details horrific symptoms of amphetamine addiction – black teeth, dilated pupils, lack of sleep, weight loss and bad temper. The addicts I’ve met don’t show these symptoms and they don’t appear dangerous. What do you think?
A: They won’t acquire those symptoms unless they are at it for 10 years. They won’t get dangerous unless they run out of money.
Q: Do ya ba addicts have withdrawal symptoms?
A: Not really, but when coming off the drug, they tend to sleep and eat too much.
Q: I have written about a women’s prison and I understand it is pretty tame compared to the men’s. What goes on in a men’s prison?
A: Gambling and the fights it generates are the main problems. Inmates bet on anything, like the flip of a pack of cigarettes or who scores the next goal in a football game. Playing cards are often made from cardboard boxes.
Q: Do guards or trusties beat prisoners?
A: Beatings are infrequent, but when done they are for a good reason. If a guard is attacked a trusty [prisoner given special responsibilities because of good behaviour] usually comes to his defence. Trusties will engage in beatings if instructed by a guard.
Q: Do you have to get down on your knees when talking to prison guards?
A: We are supposed to but this is not always done, except for high ranking officials.
Q: Were there any drugs in there?
A: Very little. However, cough medicine was available. They do urine tests, but trusties get tipped off and inmates can cheat by drinking water.
Q: I understand convicts can brew their own moonshine.
A: Yes, you use fruit, sugar, water and a little bread for yeast. You seal the brew in a plastic bag for a few days. However, the resulting concoction is likely to contain fungus and make you sick.
Q: Did you undergo a drug therapy programme?
A: No, I was classified as a distributor, not as an addict, so there was no therapy.
Q: Did you undergo any vocational training?
A: No, I was a busy trusty and didn’t apply for any of those programmes.
Q: Do they do thorough prison searches?
A: Yes, but a major search is done only once a year, and they don’t find much of anything. It’s conducted by guards from other facilities. They search cells, lockers and work areas, but seldom look for buried items.
The warden knows in advance and issues warnings. He does not want the Corrections Department to find anything that would cause him to lose his job.
Q: How is prison food?
A: The food is okay by Thai standards.
Foreigners can buy more suitable food or even cooled bottled water if they have the money. We usually drink tap water.
Q: Do they separate inmates by the nature and severity of crime?
A: No, not in my prison. They were all mixed – murders, rapists and drug pushers.
Q: Was their any homosexual activity?
A: This goes on anywhere you can hide.
Q: You have 55 people in your cell and they spend 14 hours in there. What goes on at night?
A: The cell boss trusty can arrange anything. Sleeping positions can be switched and guards rarely come by during the evening.
Q: Can one choose sex partners from other cells?
A: Yes, cell rosters can be changed. You can get a willing boy for seven packs of cigarettes and a ladyboy for 10. Ladyboys were about 3-4% of the inmates. They use real make-up and style their compulsory short haircuts. They are not pretenders. Our ladyboys were recently segregated at night but were available for daytime tricks for a single pack or two. [Cigarettes are used for currency, with one pack worth 58 baht.]
Q: Is there any rape in the prison?
A: There is, but not as much as before. This can get inmates into trouble so they use persuasion. On the other hand, illegal immigrants are easy targets because they speak a different language and are held for only 48 days.
Q: Is there a penalty for infringements?
A: Yes, fighting is the most common offence and combatants are sent to a special punishment cell called kung soi.
Q: What is kung soi like?
A: They are locked up for 24 hours with no lights and no TV. A cell designed for six could have as many as 15. If the fighting was between two gangs, they put them all together, because in kung soi everyone becomes friends.
Q: Are prisoners shackled?
A: Yes, they are put in leg irons for bad behaviour but this should not last for more than a month.
Q: Do they have special cells for VIP prisoners?
A: Not in our provincial prison. These special prisoners would probably serve their time in Bangkok.
Q: What is your main complaint about the place?
A: Boredom, but sport on Sundays and television in the evening helped.
Q: What is cell TV like?
A: Television consists mostly of pirated and repetitive video CDs.
There is no TV news or sport, probably because they might stimulate fights and gambling. Also, no newspapers so we must keep up-to-date from visitors or new prisoners.
On the other hand, there appears to be no censorship of video CDs. Sex and violence are okay.
For example, we saw the James Bond film Royal Casino. If one prefers reading to TV, the sound level is high and the lighting substandard.
Q: What is the suicide rate?
A: There were lots of attempted suicides, but few were successful. Prisoners look for sympathy to relieve themselves of gambling debts.
Q: How do foreign prisoners behave?
A: They are always complaining because they cannot accept they are in Thailand and must do things the Thai way. On the other hand, foreigners are seldom involved in fights. We had over 100 foreigners, but few Europeans. Staff from European and North American embassies insist on transfers to Bangkok to make their monthly visits more convenient. Foreigners from third-world countries get embassy visits only by request.
Q: How was the health situation?
A: TB and Aids are the main concerns.
I had sputum tests for TB but only one chest X-ray in three years. Aids patients are separated at night, but walk around during the day. They’re not given any work and don’t mix with the other prisoners. Illegal tattooing is rampant, but the needles are presumably cleaned.
Q: What is the safety situation
A: Cells are lit through the night, but are completely dark if there’s a power failure. There are, however, only weak emergency lights outside. In my three years we had no fire drills and fortunately no fires.
Q: Was there any missionary activity at your prison?
A: There were mostly Muslim clerics inside. I didn’t see many Christian missionaries and was unaware of any baptisms.
Q: After three years in jail, what do you have to say about prison reform, or to the Corrections Department?
A: Correction officials give too much authority to the trusties. The guards are the officers and the trusties are the sergeants. On the whole, I think the Corrections Department is doing just fine. There is nothing they can do about overcrowding other than building new prisons.
Q: What were your best and worst experiences?
A: The first few days were terrible. The best was the day of release.
This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post and is reproduced here as a prison blog with permission of the author.