Becoming a Cell Boss

April 19, 2007
By
Paknam prison

The old Paknam Prison in 1937. Due to overcrowding, a more modern and bigger prison was built outside the city in 1997. In that year there were 125,000 people in Thai prisons. By the time the new prison had been completed in 2001, Thailand had  244,000 prisoners. An overwhelming 66.46% of the prisoners were there for drug related cases.

You said before that you are a trustee. Is that still true and how are you treated differently?

I am not really the main kind of trustee like you think. These trustees wear a dark blue uniform and have power over the other prisoners. Some are well liked and very kind. Others are like sadists and enjoy the power they have over you. There are two kinds of trustees. The trustee with brains and the trustees with brawn. I am in the former group because I work in the office. The other trustees only have the job because of their muscles. I think anyone can be a trustee. I heard that some people are applying now for the job. I guess you could also bribe your way to being a trustee.

I think most of the guards know me now as I not only work in the office, but also around the prison. Whenever there is a problem with a foreign prisoner, the guards call me to go and help. This means I can walk from section to section by myself. Normally, prisoners are not allowed to do that. That is an advantage for me as I can then go and visit the doctor on any day I like. I can also go and pick up medicine for any of my friends that need something. Prisoners are also not allowed to take food or cigarettes up to the cell at the end of the day. But, I can usually do that if it is a kind guard that knows me.

Before the prisoners go up to the cell, they are searched. The way this normally happens, is that the prisoners are told to take off their shirt. Then the trustee on his left will search his shirt while the other one pats down his shorts. If a prisoner wants to smuggle some cigarettes up to his cell, what he normally does is fasten them to the inside of his left leg with a rubber band. The trustee who is patting down his shorts, is on his right hand side so he wouldn’t normally spot the cigarettes. However, once or twice a week they do strip searches. Each day we have different guards and some are stricter than others. The normal way for this is that five prisoners at a time are called to the front. They then have to take off their shirt, shorts and underwear and then turn around 360 degrees. The trustees then search the clothes while the guards watch. If any contraband is found, the prisoner is forced to lie down naked on his front and the guard then hits his backside with his wooden truncheon. Whilst I have been at this prison, the guards have never found any drugs so I guess the prison is drug free.

What usually happens next?

After they are searched, then everyone goes up to the cell. By this time it is about 3.30 p.m. Now I am the cell boss which is sort of good news, but it is also really bad news. I didn’t ask for this job. The old cell boss is now chained up in solitary confinement. Last week, there was an incident in our cell. It happened during the middle of the night and as I was sleeping I didn’t learn about it until the following morning. Normally these kinds of things don’t get reported if it happens to boys from Burma, Cambodia or Laos. They are never here longer than 90 days. But, this hilltribe boy knew someone who had been here for a while and he reported it for him. The cell boss didn’t actually have anything to do with this incident, but he is responsible for anything that happens. So, all of them have now been chained up and moved to a different section of the prison. The cell boss will probably wear leg irons for about three months. I doubt he will get his job back again.

I suppose the guard gave me the job as cell boss because he knows that I can be trusted and that I haven’t caused any problems in the past. But, it worries me that I will be responsible for anything one of the 50 prisoners in my cell does. Just yesterday an incident happened in our cell. During the night everyone has to take turns “standing guard” for an hour. I know this sounds a bit silly because we are in a locked cell, but we still have to stand guard. Anyway, last night, this one kid fell asleep during his watch. One of the patrolling guards saw him and he was punished with 20 squat jumps. I had to do 10 squat jumps. Of course, when we went back up to the cell, I punished him myself by getting him to do 50 more squats jumps. They have to understand that while I am cell boss, they will have to be on their best behaviour. I don’t want to be put in chains.

Paknam prison

The Old Paknam Prison in 1937

When we go up to the cell in the late afternoon, I tell the prisoners to first go and wash their feet in the toilet cubicle. There is a concrete tub of water here. Then I tell them to sit down in rows. When the guard comes each prisoner has to count off in turn. I put the foreign prisoners who cannot count in Thai near the front. I then count for them pointing to each one in turn. “Neung, song, sam, see…” Then, when everyone else has finished, I shout my number out last. Then everyone is free to do what they like. In my group of friends we have a kind of errand boy who works for us. In Thai we call our groups “baan” or “house” in English. Most houses have their own errand boy to do odd jobs. Most of these boys don’t have any relatives on the outside to help them so they don’t mind helping us. In return, we give them food and anything they need to be more comfortable. So, after we are in the cell, I tell him to prepare my bedding. He also washes my clothes. I know it sounds lazy, but at the same time he is doing me a favour, I am doing a favour for him too. That is how we survive in prison, by helping each other.

Now that I am the cell boss, people have to “pay” me packets of cigarettes or bottles of Coke for favours. When I first came I had to pay my cell boss 4 packets of cigarettes in order to have a space on the floor. Every cell is the same. I haven’t done this yet. I don’t really want to, but I think it might cause problems if I try to change things. For example, there isn’t enough room for everyone to sleep on their backs. How do I choose? The obvious way is for people to pay for extra space. Sometimes I don’t like being cell boss. But, it has advantages too. We are normally allowed to bath twice a day. The second time is at 3 p.m. before we come up to the cell. However, it is really hot now and everyone is already sweating again even before they go back to the cell. As I am the cell boss, I can take a bath in the toilet cubicle in the cell. I let the others in my house do the same. But only us. If everyone took a shower here then there would be a big mess and the guards will punish us. No-one complains as this is what the previous cell boss did. It is the same in the other cells.

I know you were having a difficult time when you first went to prison. Have things changed now?

Yes, I have relaxed more and settled down to a routine. It is the same thing every day in the same order. So, it is a bit like school. You could say I am comfortable now. I have read the book “Damage Done” by that foreigner. Prison here is nothing like that. We don’t eat cockroaches. There is no black hole. Guards don’t beat prisoners for no reason. In fact, most of them are very kind though also strict. They are just doing their job. If you try and break the rules you get punished. That Australian also talked about people taking drugs all the time. That is not true here at all. The most people do is take an overdose of cough medicine which makes them feel drunk. When I first came here I was really shy about going to the toilet in front of people and also the strip searches. But I got used to that now as it happens to everyone.  I suppose prison changes you in some ways. I am not sure how easy it will be living my old life again.

What are some of the most difficult things you have to face?

Every night seeing buses pass on the road below, knowing that I cannot leave this place. I miss my daughter and I am sorry I won’t be there when she starts Kindergarten in May. I also miss my girlfriend. At the start she came often to visit me. I still wrote to her every week even though she stopped coming for a long time. Then last month she came to say she was breaking up with me. I wasn’t angry with her. I understand, she is young and has her own life to lead. I told her that it is alright if she goes with other boys. But, I said that when I get out, I will go and court her again. She said she will come and visit but I don’t think she will. Tai, my ex-wife has come to visit me twice this year. She has also written to me three times. I don’t know whether I will get back with her, but she will always be a part of my life because of our daughter. As my ex-girlfriend has now quit from working in our online shop too, my ex-wife has agreed to start work there next month. Let’s see what happens.

I am used to the day to day life now. It is often boring but it is now part of my life. Weekends are not so fun as there is nothing to do. There is no work at the weekend and we just hang around outside. Holidays are the worst like the recent Songkran holiday. For five days in a row we had nothing at all to do. No work, no visitors, no letters from the postman. Some people tried to play water fights but there wasn’t really that much water. So, for five very long days we just sat around and talked, played chess, read cartoon books and watched others play football. I have also got a tattoo now. Don’t tell my mum as she will be really angry. She will say that it will make me look like a prisoner. But, I am a prisoner. Even after I leave, a piece of me will always be that person. I sometimes think about what my life will be like once I leave here. I honestly cannot say. I know I am luckier than most people as they will find it difficult to get a job. I don’t really like to think about it too much. I am just trying to live my life one day at a time. What I am concentrating on each night before I go to bed, is getting out of here and hugging my darling daughter. I miss her so much that it sometimes makes me cry. “Nong Grace, be good. Your father will be with you soon.”