Dirty work helps inmates clean their conscience

February 11, 2012

Auan still wakes up behind bars, but he no longer feels the terrible confinement of being an inmate.

For more than a month, Auan, who has been in Klongprem Central Prison for nearly five years, has got out of bed with a fresh feeling, eagerly seizing a rare opportunity to get outside the walls and help dredge the city’s sewers.

The work is a part of state measures to prepare for floods in Bangkok later this year. But for Auan and the other inmates chosen to do this unpleasant but necessary job, the sewers give them the chance to recall their past misdeeds and plan for a brighter future when they are free.

“I can now comfort myself by thinking I’m not in jail,” said Auan, comparing his new daily routine to the weekdays of a company employee.

“I wake up to go to work in the morning and come back in the evening. The only difference is that I don’t sleep and get up at my house.”

Auan is among 50 out of more than 6,000 inmates of the prison who are allowed to take turns doing state work or public service from 9am to 3pm every day, except Sunday. His current job is to remove mud and waste from sewers at Soi Yothin Phatthana near a section of the Ram Intra-At Narong expressway.

“The dredging gives me a chance to review myself and past mistakes caused by my rash acts. I was a slave to anger then,” Auan said, without elaborating.

“If I had been more careful and sensible, I would have not ended up doing a job everyone dislikes.”

But the dredging reminds him of the future, too. Among criteria used to pick inmates for jobs outside the prison is that their jail terms must be nearly at an end. Auan has only nine months left until he can walk free again.

Usually, only prisoners whose remaining sentences are less than two years and are known as “good-class prisoners” are granted temporary leave from prison to work under guard, said Auan’s job supervisor Somchai Wongchalermroke, who also provides career training classes for inmates at Klongprem prison.

The inmates are trusted not to try to escape since they will soon be let free anyway.

They must also not be convicted of lese majeste or drug offences.

“We don’t choose drug inmates because their habits can sway them to use the jobs as a way to buy drugs,” Mr Somchai said.

Though officials carefully choose the inmates and instruct them to watch their behaviour while outside the prison, Mr Somchai, who has overseen the dredging job and other public service acts for 30 years, admits many passersby worry for their safety at the sight of the prisoners.

“So we work quietly and quickly in a bid to let people know we’re doing good things for society,” he said.

The effort has borne fruit as recently “many people have begun to smile at us. Some even give us food and water. So we’re less stressed and more proud of our work”, he said.

The sewers at Soi Yothin Phatthana where Auan is working are among 131 routes which the Corrections Department is hired by City Hall to clean.

Bangkok has spent 50 million baht on dredging 277 routes so that they have more room to hold floodwater, said Sanya Chenimit, chief of the city’s Drainage and Sewerage Department.

He expected the dredging would be completed by May.

Auan and the other inmates chosen to do the job will also get some wages as well as having their prison sentences reduced, depending on the number of days that they work.

One day of them working means one day can be taken off their sentence, Mr Somchai said.

Auan’s friend, Op, is of the same opinion when he was asked about the dredging work.

The former tattooist, who has one year left in jail, said the job helped him reflect on his past and the mistakes he made that he can never clean up.

But working outdoors amid the stench and dirty conditions also reminds him he has the chance to reform and so he relishes his approaching freedom.

“For three years I have not seen the world. I’m just happy when seeing electric trains outside,” Op said. “Now I am learning how beautiful freedom is.”

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