Watch Tower at Klong Dan Prison, Samut Prakan
Last month I was telling you about the court case of one of my former students. He had been arrested last year for possession of drugs. The police found amphetamines pills on him. These are known locally as “yaa baa” or “crazy medicine”. The pills are not as strong as other drugs like heroin but they are addictive nevertheless. They were popular with truck drivers as it enabled them to stay awake all night. However, there were side affects which affected the brain and rational thinking. My former student first became addicted to “yaa baa” when he was 15. Many of his school friends at that time were also taking the drug. He tried to quit many times but it was very difficult.
After he was arrested in August last year he did in fact manage to turn his life around. For the year that he was out on bail, he managed to stay clean and was able to concentrate on his family and work. His court case was a few months ago. At that time we didn’t know what the judge would do. In many countries he would have just been given a warning or at the least community service. But, in Thailand, penalties for drugs are harsh. I have heard of sentences of 15 years just for a handful of pills. In the end I think he was lucky. I think the judge took into account that he had a regular job with a responsible position, had a family to support and that this was his first offence. He had also taken the advice of the judge and pleaded guilty. My former student was sentenced to three years in prison. His friend, who pleaded not guilty, was sentenced to six years.
Over the past month I have been visiting him regularly in order to interview him about his life in prison. This wasn’t easy for me to do. Prisoners are only allowed one visit per day and each visit is only 15-20 minutes long. I wasn’t allowed to take a recording device so I had to write all of his answers down longhand. Then when I returned home I typed it up. The first interview is now over and you can read it below. I took it to him this morning in order to check the details. This first story is about his first day in an adult prison.
What was going through your head when you left the courthouse on the prison bus? I was in complete shock. It felt like the world as I knew it was coming to an end. I had known for a year that this day would come but I tried to block it from my mind. I knew I would never see anything the same again. It was like a nightmare and I couldn’t wake up. I don’t remember driving through the city.
What happened when you first arrived at the prison? They took us to an area where we were told to take off all our clothes. We were then given a full body search by the prison guards. Not just the new prisoners but the older ones too that had been to the courthouse. I was then given some brown prison clothes. These were a simple shirt and shorts. Then all of the new prisoners were interviewed and a record made by some other people. I thought they were guards at first but I later found out that they were trustees. These are prisoners who have some power like the guards. They took down details like my name and address, occupation and the name of my parents. I was then fingerprinted. After this the trustees took us to an open area on the ground floor of one of the prison buildings. This is like a canteen. We were given brown rice and a kind of soup.
Where were you taken next? They took us up to our cell. For the first few days all of the new prisoners are kept together and then split up around the prison. We were taken to a cell that already looked full but I later found out was only half full. It was already early evening by this time and all of the prisoners had already been locked up in their cells. They were watching a movie on VCD. The cell boss told us where we could sleep on the floor. There was no mattress, no blankets and no pillows. The space we were allowed was marked by the blanket of a prisoner on either side. They had been here longer and had bought extra space so they were able to sleep on their backs. I was only allowed to sleep on my side. We slept head to foot. Meaning the feet of the prisoners on either side were near my head. I recognized one of the prisoners in the cell as a friend of my friend. We talked and watched t.v. for a while. Then at 9 p.m. the television in every cell was turned off and the cell boss told us to go to sleep. However, the light in the cell was kept on all night.
How was your first night?Really bad. I couldn’t sleep at all. I was worrying too much about what was going to happen next. It was also very hot and uncomfortable. The cell was very crowded and I couldn’t move. There were three fans in the ceiling but it wasn’t enough for all of us. I found it difficult sleeping on the bare floor and with no pillow. I also couldn’t turn over and had to stay on the same side all night. I was glad when morning came and people started to wake up. This then gave me more room. I found it difficult to stand up because I hurt all over. In one corner of the room there is a toilet for all of us to share. It is a Thai style toilet that you squat over. Around it there is a low wall so that all people can see is your head. It is kept clean and wasn’t really smelly.
What time did you leave the cell? You cannot really call it a cell like in American prisons. It is not a small room with bunk beds that you share with a couple other people. Imagine a big hall that has a partition every four metres. The partition is a low wall with green bars going the rest of the way to the ceiling. It is the same at the front where the doors are. There are 16 of these cells on each floor. Each area is about 4 metres by about 8 metres I think. The place where I am sleeping now has 50 people. That first night there were probably only 35 people in that small area. To answer your question, people start to get up at about 5.45 a.m. or so. However, we are now allowed out until 6.00 a.m.
What happened to you next? The cell boss told us to go down and take a shower. I was lucky as when I got down to the ground floor I met a friend from my old school. He is a trustee and he helped me that first day. He said I could take a bath with the other trustees. He also gave me a bowl and lent me some soap. The trustees have a big water tub and we scooped the water over our bodies. Some people did this naked but others, like me, kept on our boxer shorts. The other prisoners had to take a shower. This is like a long corridor with a wall either side. Each person is allowed five minutes in the shower. The water is turned on for 2.5 minutes for you to wet your entire body. Then it is turned off while you then soap yourself quickly. Then the water is turned back on for another 2.5 minutes for you to wash off the soap. You have to be quick because you don’t get a second chance.
When did they cut your hair? They cut my hair that first morning. I had breakfast that first morning with my friend. Other prisoners had to eat the government food which is not very nice at all. It is stale brown rice with some kind of curry. Sometimes the curry or soup is good, other times it is disgusting. They give you food three times a day. The last meal is about 3.00 p.m. However, if you have money, you can buy your own food in the prison shop. So, that first morning my friend bought me white rice and fried pork with basil. After I had finished eating, all the new prisoners had to line up for army like exercises. This is very difficult and exhausting. You have to do it for about two hours with a short break in the middle. All the new prisoners have to do it for the first month. I was lucky because after a short while my name was called to say that I had a visitor.
What was it like having visitors for the first time? That first day was very bad. My girlfriend, mother and brother came to see me. I cried a lot as I was so sad. At that time scared also because I didn’t know much about prison life. I wanted to touch my girlfriend but could not as there was glass and bars separating us. We could only speak to each other using a telephone. I spoke to my mother as well but we were only allowed 20 minutes altogether. It was hard saying goodbye but we weren’t allowed to stay after the phone line was cut. When I went back inside the prison, the exercises had finished. I then met up with a prison guard who is a friend of my grandfather. He told me that he would arrange work for me which will make life easier. He said if I worked then I didn’t have to do the daily exercises, which made me happy. That first day there wasn’t much else for me to do. So, I just hanged around. The time went very slowly. At about 4 p.m., we were all told to go back to our cells. We were then locked up in there for about 14 hours until the following morning. Then the day started again.