A scene from the movie “Brokedown Palace” which is banned in Thailand
My first impressions of Thailand even before I came here weren’t that good. While I was traveling in Australia I saw the movie “Bangkok Hilton” starring Nicole Kidman. I don’t remember much of the movie, but what stands out is Kidman going through customs in Thailand carrying someone else’s bag. She is stopped and they find drugs in the bag. It made me paranoid about never ever going to Thailand. I was afraid that someone, maybe the police, would plant drugs in my bag and that I would spend the rest of my life in the notorious Bangkok Hilton. About two years later, I was backpacking across Asia. My itinerary included lengthy stops in many Asian countries. However, I had only allocated a short stay in Thailand. I was still paranoid. Of course I ended up staying much longer but that is another story.
For the past few months I have been visiting one of my former students in prison in Samut Prakan. He has been telling me about life in a prison in Thailand which you can read at ThaiPrisonLife.com. I was at first horrified when I saw my student being sentenced to three years in prison. I didn’t know how he would survive. Since I have been in Thailand I have read a number of autobiographies written by foreigners in Thai prisons. They all talked about merciless beatings, gang rape, sadistic guards, murder and a lot more. However, since I have been talking to my student, I have started to see a different kind of prison. I am not saying he is in a holiday camp as it is certainly a hard life. However, the Klong Dan Central Prison seems to be a model of a modern Thai prison. There are no daily beatings. The guards aren’t sadistic. There are no drugs in the prison. The food isn’t even that bad.
I guess things have changed for the better over the years. It is also possible that some of the foreign prisoners exaggerated about their treatment in order to sell more books. Although I have found it a fascinating experience writing these prison life blogs, I don’t think anything I have written here will propel a book to the top of the bestseller list. There are no dramatic incidents. His daily life is quite uneventful. I am not saying that these foreigners lied about everything. They were, after all, mainly locked up in high security prisons like Bang Kwan. I know I wouldn’t survive there. But they have painted a pictured that has tainted the Thai people and given the world an impression that all Thailand’s prisons are a hell on earth. They are what you make of them. In the outside world we have to understand and respect the Thai culture in order to survive. From what I have heard from my student, it is much the same inside. He said that many of the foreigners don’t respect the Thai way of doing things. They want everything done their way and their demands are often unreasonable. This often then leads to tension between the different nationalities and the guards that have to deal with it.
The following account is of an average day in a Thai prison. The interview was done over the period of four weeks.
You have been in prison for more than three months and you have probably settled into a routine by now. Can you give us an idea of what an average day is like? Also, let us know how things changed for you.
I was in that first cell for about 2-3 days. I was then moved to another cell. This one was very crowded. My old school friend, who is a trustee, suggested that I should try to transfer to his cell. To make the move, I had to bribe someone 10 packets of cigarettes. In prison, cigarettes are worth more than money and we use them to get things done. Once I arrived in the new cell, I then paid another five packets of cigarettes to the cell boss in order to have my own space on the floor. I don’t really have a lot of room. It is about the width of my shoulders and the length of my body. However, I suppose I am fortunate because about 30 people in my cell have to sleep on their side on the bare floor. My mother sent me a mat to sleep on. We aren’t allowed pillows. But, I have a pillowcase which I stuffed with spare clothes.
People start to wake up at about 5.30 a.m. I roll up my mat and put it in the center of the room. Other people who have any bedding do the same. Some people use the toilet in the cell but the cell boss doesn’t allow anyone to make a smell. Which is understandable. So, most people wait until they are let out to go to the toilets on the ground floor. At first I was really too embarrassed to use the toilets in the cell for the first week or so. I couldn’t go with everybody watching me. But, I got used to it. They say prison changes you. It really does. At about 6.30 a.m. the prison guards come to do the head count. We have to sit in rows in the cell and then count off one by one. At the moment, there are 53 prisoners in our cell which measures only 4 metres by 8 metres. Once the count has finished they let us out. Most people then rush down the stairs for the toilet and the showers. There is always a long queue. I take my time and wait for my friends. I always do everything with my group at the same time.
Most prisoners have to line up for the five minute shower. However, as I am now a trustee myself, I am allowed to use the water tub to take a bath. For this I splash water all over my body. Soap myself. Then rinse with more water. I then brush my teeth. A lot of the prisoners then go to the canteen to eat the government food. I don’t usually do this because it isn’t always that nice. Around the prison grounds there are places where you can buy food. For breakfast I sometimes have chicken and rice, or fish cakes or fried pork with rice. A plate of this costs about 25 baht. We use a flat plastic spoon to eat our food. It is the kind of Chinese spoon that is used to drink the noodle soup. We are not allowed forks for obvious reasons. After we finish eating we wash our own plates and spoons and keep them in a safe place for next time.
We are not allowed to touch money. We can buy coupons with money from our prison tab. It is like a kind of bank account inside the prison. We cannot set this up by ourselves. A relative on the outside has to do this for us and then pay money into it for us to use. If you don’t have any relations then you will have a really hard life. You need money to pay for nearly everything. There are quite a few people without any relations and I try to help as many as I can. These coupons are only valued for the day. Unlike outside you cannot get a refund. If I buy 100 baht of coupons I have to use them all up otherwise they are wasted.
This picture of the prison cell is scanned from a brochure. It gives you an idea about the size of the cell. Behind the photographer is the open toilet. The width of the cell is 4 metres. The length is about 8 metres. You probably can see about 5 metres in this picture. So, this shows more than half of the cell. However, you can only see enough sleeping mats for 23 people. This cell has over 50 people! This is a bit of a propaganda picture. There are in fact two rows in the middle which doesn’t give them much room to walk to the toilet. Also, no-one has comfortable beds and pillows like this. About 60% of the prisoners in his cell sleep on the bare floor. They also sleep on their side because there isn’t enough room. The only people that sleep on their back are prisoners who have bought extra space.
After breakfast, the new prisoners have to line up in the parade ground for the first month for the national anthem at 8 a.m. They also have to do army exercises. I don’t have to do this as I have a job in the office. When we hear the national anthem, we have to stand to attention wherever we are. Then, as soon as it is over, I then go to my work place. Before I forget, I should tell you how we are supposed to behave in front of the guards. In some ways it is a bit like at school. If a guard walks past us we should turn to the side and stop to allow him room. If we walk past a guard who is standing still, we should go up to him, give a short bow, and then walk on.
This morning, I was only at work for about fifteen minutes when my name was called to go to the visitor’s room. At the moment I have visitors about three or four times a week so I keep my prison uniform at the office just in case. Inside the prison we are allowed to wear our normal clothes. However, the visitor’s room is on the other side of the wall so we have to change first. It is the same if we have to go to court. This only takes a minute and then I head over to the control area by the front gate. There are two visitor rooms. At 8.30 a.m. we are let in for the first round of the day. There are thirteen rounds in the morning for male prisoners. You are only allowed one visitor per day. At that stage we don’t know who has come to visit us. Less than a minute later the relatives and friends of the prisoners come running up to the window. We get exactly 20 minutes to talk before the phone lines are cut. So, everyone is quick. Having visitors and receiving mail is the highlight of my day. It doesn’t happen every day so I look forward to when it does happen.
During the week I work in the records office. In the office there is one other prisoner who works with me. My grandfather knows a guard and he got me this job. I spend most of my day writing or typing up records, either for new prisoners or for prisoners who are transferring to other prisons. After the guards found out that I am fluent in English they made me the official translator. So, whenever a foreign prisoner comes to the prison for the first time, I am called to the control area to interview them. I have to ask them questions and then write down the answers in Thai. There are 30 prisoners from places like Singapore, Hong Kong, the Middle East and Africa. There are also two farang prisoners. One of them used to teach English in Northern Thailand. He said he recognized me because he used to use my Bangkok Post column with his students. Another of the foreign prisoners also recognized me. It is funny because I have never been recognized on the street before. But, as soon I go to prison they start recognizing me. In total there are 590 foreign prisoners. However, most of these are from neighbouring countries like Burma, Laos and Cambodia.
I spend most of my day around the office. Sometimes one of the foreign prisoners will come to me for help. Other times the guards will call for me over the loudspeakers to go and assist them with a foreign prisoner. So, I am kept busy. Now it is starting to be very hard work as some of the foreign prisoners are becoming annoying. They demand so much and don’t understand why things cannot be done straight away. They sometimes get angry with me but there is nothing can do. I am a prisoner too. At the moment they get some special privileges. But I heard one of the guards say that this might stop soon as they complain too much. We don’t really get a proper lunch break. I usually eat outside the office. Sometimes I go and buy food for myself but other times the guards give us their left over food. I am also a bit like an office boy because the guards get me to run errands for them.
I finish work at about 3 p.m. This is when we all go to take a shower. We also have our last meal for the day at that time. By 4 p.m. we have to line up on the second floor of our building. We line up with other people from our cell. This area is like a factory floor because some people work here during the day. We are then taken up to our cell where we are locked in. Another head count is then done to make sure that we are all there. About this time they turn on the television. This is either a karaoke song or a movie. It is usually turned on until about 9 p.m. Sometimes they are late turning it on. The thing I don’t like is that they don’t wait until the end of the movie before they switch it off. So we often don’t know what happens at the end. Everyone in the cell has to take turns standing guard during the night for one hour. If you don’t want to do it yourself, you can always bribe someone else to take your turn.
At the moment I am reading my Harry Potter book a lot. I have nearly finished it. Hopefully someone can send me the next book as you cannot buy books inside prison. I also sometimes play chess. At about 8.30 p.m. our cell boss tells everyone to go to sleep. However, I cannot get to sleep until after 9.30 p.m. It wasn’t easy sleeping at first because they keep the light on all night. We are locked in this cell for about 14 hours. Our cell has a window and I can look out at the road beyond the wall. Sometimes I can see a bus driving past. During the night I often dream of leaving the prison and catching that bus. But, I know that won’t happen for a long time.
At 6.30 a.m. we are let out and the day starts again. When I was a free person I always looked forward to the weekends. But, not so much in prison. At the weekend there isn’t much to do. We aren’t allowed visitors and we don’t go to work. We cannot hang around the cell. Everyone has to go down to the ground floor. In my section there are over 1,600 people. There isn’t a lot of space. It is also very noisy at the weekend. Some people play football and others play takraw. I sometimes play football but I often just watch. Some people gamble by playing “hi-lo” with tamarind seeds. But, this is against the rules. The other weekend a fight broke out between two of the football players. One of them nearly got killed. I guess that was the highlight of that day.