Inmates in Thai prisons are confined in their overcrowded cells for at least 14 hours a day. Each room was built to house only 25 prisoners sleeping on the floor with no furniture and only one open toilet in the corner. These days, due to an increase in drug addiction, cells now hold as many as 65 inmates. Floor space is at a premium and new prisoners are only given enough space to sleep on their side, wedged into a narrow space between two other prisoners. A trip to the toilet at night would awake everyone in the cell, where the lights are never turned off. If you have financial support from the outside, then you can “buy” extra space on the floor and a few other comforts such as a mat and an empty pillowcase which you can stuff with clothes.
Most Thai prisoners are set to work in the factories all day doing menial work. They are making furniture or other local products which are then sold for great profit. The prisoners are given a small amount of this profit for their effort. The argument is that they should be grateful that they are being taught a trade. Which, in many cases, can be life saving once they are released from the prison. One of the drawbacks of overcrowding, is that hardened criminals such as murderers, rapists and drug dealers are mixed in with the petty criminals and first time offenders such as drug addicts who may only be 18 years old. Once they leave prison, many of these prisoners have learned the wrong kind of trade and have picked up tips and contacts that will give them a criminal career for life.
Exercise in the Prison Yard
The only break from the tedium of the repetitive and predictable daily schedule are visits from relatives and friends. However, they are only allowed one visit per day and the meeting lasts less than twenty minutes. On busy days, the visits can be cut to less than 15 minutes. In the bigger prisons, each cell block will take turns to have visits so then there might only be an opportunity to have visits twice a week. At the weekend, the prison is closed and the boredom is increased tenfold as the prisoner don’t even have any work to do. A normal visit is not like something you might have seen in Hollywood movies. There is no contact. In older prisons, you are separated by about a meter with thick wire mesh on both sides. You then have to shout to be heard. With at least fifty prisoners and their relatives all shouting to be heard, you can imagine the noise.
These days, many prisons now use a telephone system. You are then separated this time with a thick perspex glass and wire mesh. Once your time is up, the phone lines are cut dead and there is no warning. The only farewell you can give is a wave or try to shout through the perspex. For prisoners that are well-behaved, there is a chance once or twice a year to have a “contact visit”. However, don’t make the mistake in thinking that this is a congenial visit between a husband and his wife that you sometimes hear about in American prisons. A “contact visit” in Thailand is more like an open day at the local prison for relatives to go and sit at tables on the football pitch and eat a meal together. Entertainment is also provided with singing on a temporary stage.
Guards Searching Prisoner’s Lockers
Panrit Daoruang, more popularly known as Gor, has been in prison now for two years for a drug possession charge. He has only one year left to serve now. Although Gor has been a model prisoner helping the guards to communicate with the foreign prisoners and working in the office, he only recently had the chance to have his first contact visit. This is because that for the last two years he has been awaiting the results of his appeal. If knew back then how long that would have taken then he probably wouldn’t have bothered. He wasn’t appealing the guilty verdict but the length of sentence. It was actually his lawyers idea. As his case wasn’t closed until recently, he wasn’t eligible for contact visits. He also didn’t benefit from the nationwide pardon announced on H.M. The King’s birthday late last year. Some people had their sentences reduced or were set free. But, Gor didn’t get anything out of it.
He also won’t get any time off for good behaviour as he has only just been graded. Once a prisoner’s case has been closed, he is given an “average grade”. Then, every six months this is reviewed and can either be increased or decreased depending on their behaviour. If he then gets enough points on his grade, he can apply for parole once he has served at least two thirds of his sentence. By the time Gor’s grade is high enough, it will be time for him to leave anyway. His only hope is that there will be another national pardon which might reduce his sentence or at least revoke the heavy fine that he received. Rumours are flying around the prison at the moment that there might be a pardon to mark the cremation ceremony for H.M. The King’s elder sister. Sometimes they do pardons in order to make merit for a person or an event.
Thai Boxing Instruction
Last month, Gor’s parents asked me if I would be interested to join them for a contact visit to see Gor inside the prison. I immediately said “yes”. Though, to be honest, my interest was more the opportunity to go inside the prison gates than it was to see Gor face to face. But, don’t tell him that. Going along for the visit was also his grandmother, brother and his young daughter, Nong Grace, who is now five years old. Since Gor has been in prison, Nong Grace has been brought up by her grandparents. She also spends about 2-3 hours per day during the week with me and I sometimes take her out at the weekend when I go out for site inspections at tourist attractions around the region. Her English is now very good. She likes English story books and watching English language cartoons on cable t.v.
Contact visits in Thai prisons are usually held over a period of about one week. You can book in advance to say which day you would like to go inside the prison. Gor’s parents booked us for the first day. We turned up over one hour early on the morning of our visit as there were literally hundreds of people and we knew it would take time to process everyone. Normally, only relatives are allowed in for these contact visits, but Gor’s mother told the prison officials that I was married to one of his relatives. All I then had to show was my passport. We were then also given the opportunity to buy coupons which we were told we could use to buy food once we were inside. They were very strict about what you could or couldn’t take inside the prison. Apart from money, we weren’t allowed to take things like mobile phones, cameras, food, books, or anything that could be used as a weapon. In fact, we weren’t allowed to take any bags and we had to make sure that our pockets were empty.
Once we had been processed, we were then taken in groups to the main prison gate. Here we had to show our application and identification. We then passed through metal detectors and were thoroughly searched. I guess they were a bit suspicious of my extra large shoes, so they told me to take them off so that they could do a proper search of them. Much to the amusement of the Thais. Most of them were wearing flop flops or sandals and passed through with little fuss. If you ever go to a contact visit, you also need to make sure that you are dressed in respectful clothing. This means no shorts and you must wear shirts that have sleeves. One person was turned away because her top was too revealing. She quickly went off to borrow a top from someone else.
The control area has double gates at both ends. The normal procedure is that the gates on either end cannot be opened at the same time. There were also two sections. One for pedestrian traffic and the other for vehicles. This is where the prison bus will park and load up several hundred prisoners onto the bus. The outer door is kept locked during the loading and all the prisoners are wearing prison uniforms and have heavy chains temporarily fixed to their ankles. In the old days, they used to have to take prisoners to the court in several buses as there were so many. However, they now have things such as “e-courts” where the prisoner stays at the prison. For some small hearings, the prisoner only has to state his name and to say he understands the charges. The prison, the courthouse and the police station are all linked up with video conferencing via the Internet. This means not everyone has to go to court. While we were being processed, a delivery vehicle had entered this area and was undergoing a search from top to bottom.
From the reception area at the front gates, we were then led down an avenue with brightly painted murals on the facing walls. They depicted scenes from the Buddha’s life and taught good ethics and morality. As the prisoners are escorted to the prison bus, I guess they look at these paintings detailing the horrors of drugs and alcohol and they regret their sins. Whether it makes them a better person in the future is open to debate. From here, we were taken taken to a large field. Although we were now inside the prison, there were still further walls and gates that separated us from each area, called “dan” in Thai. On one side of the field, tables and chairs had been set up. Near the entrance there were also tables where you could use coupons to buy food, drinks and snacks. At the far end, a large stage had been set up for the morning’s entertainment.
As we walked in, Gor spotted us and immediately came over to welcome our party. He respectfully greeted everyone with a traditional Thai wai and then hugged his mother and his young daughter. This was the first time in two years that anyone had been allowed to get up close to Gor. He then led us to a table that had been reserved for us. His father then went off to buy the food with the coupons. We bought more than what was needed for this meal together as Gor was allowed to take any leftovers back with him. I didn’t really have much to talk with him about as I visit the prison quite often. So, I let him catch up with his daughter while I studied the surroundings.
To the far right of where we were sitting, I could see two large white buildings. This was Dan 2, the area where Gor slept and spent most of his day. However, he said that he was often called to different areas to help with translating. The block on the right was where he spent 14 hours a day locked up in the cells with his fellow inmates. He said from his cell window he could see out onto the road and watch buses pass on the road below. On the ground floor is the area where they ate their meals. The second block, houses the workshops where the prisoners work during the day. There are three such areas in the prison and each is an exact mirror of each other. Dan 2 also has a small football pitch which they can play on when not muddy.
The place near where we were sitting, I could see through the wire fence prisoners lining up to visit the medical officer. These visits have to be booked a day in advance and you have to make sure that you are not ill at the weekend as they are closed to everything apart from serious illnesses. For most illnesses, the doctor will only prescribe paracetamol. For anything more serious, you can apply to be taken to the prison hospital in the grounds of Klong Prem Prison in Bangkok. But, it is not easy to get that transfer.
One thing I noted was how much the guards relied on the trustees. These are well behaved prisoners who have been recruited by the guards to help maintain order. After all, the guards are heavily outnumbered and they can only maintain order through good discipline and the trustee system. Gor is also a trustee as he works in the office. Trustees wear a dark blue uniform but they are not allowed any weapons. Even guards are not allowed guns inside the prison and can only use wooden truncheons. It is easy to spot who is a guard inside a prison as they are the only people allowed to wear long trousers. All prisoners, including the trustees have to wear shorts. For the normal prisoners, they don’t have to wear a uniform inside the prison. They just wear their normal clothes. If they are wearing jeans when they first come in, this is then cut short by the guards. I saw a lot of prisoners wearing green uniforms. I asked Gor about this and he said they they were people sentenced to 48 days after they failed a random drugs test. No wonder the prisons are so crowded if they send drug addicts to prison instead of drug rehab.
There were some trustees stationed at a gate near where we were sitting. There were four of them and one prison guard who was slouching on a chair with his feet up. As people came and went, the trustees would give them a thorough search before they were allowed to pass through the gate. Of course the guards themselves weren’t searched by the trustees. But, I saw them being searched by other guards when they entered or left the prison at the main gate. They also have lockers on the outside as they are not allowed to bring money or mobile phones inside. In fact, they have to make sure that their pockets are empty. There seemed to be a good relationship between guards and trustees. They were sometimes laughing together though they still had to be subservient and stand to attention if a guard walked past.
The contact visit lasted about two hours. We ate and chatted and watched the entertainment on stage. There was a prison band and some singers who were pretty good. There were also a couple of girls from Taiwan who sang us a song in Chinese. As is normal in Thai society, we were entertained by some female impersonators, or ladyboys as they are often called. They came around with home made flower garlands made from paper that we would could buy with coupons and then give to our favourite singers.
All too soon our time was up. All of the prisoners were called to one side of the field where they were counted several timers. They were then escorted off the field under the watchful eye of the trustees and guards. Gor told me later that they were then given a thorough search before going back to his block. Next came the turn of the trustees who were also counted. Finally, once all of the prisoners had been accounted for and had left, we were then allowed to leave in small groups. It had been an interesting visit for myself. An opportunity to see the inside of a prison. However, I think Gor got more out of this contact visit as he was able to eat a meal and chat with his family in an almost normal manner.