For warders, a high-risk, low-income job and little time for life beyond the walls

September 9, 2012

Puchana Hirunrat wakes up every morning with a big burden on his shoulders _ overseeing some 70 warders under his command and thousands of prisoners.

It is a tough job that has consumed almost all of his time for the past 16 years. Mr Puchana jokes that he’s been in prison for that length of time _ only as a warder rather than an inmate.

”We are virtually locked up behind the same walls,” he said.

Mr Puchana graduated from Ramkhamhaeng University’s faculty of political science over 16 years ago, and didn’t realise he would end up in this career.

Fellow graduates hoped to pursue careers as administrative officers in government offices and climb up to higher positions as governors.

He didn’t like the job at first either but over time, prison life came to consume him. Gradually he grew to love it and never left.

”It’s the kind of job where I can work at my best, with a clear vision of what is right and what is wrong,” said Mr Puchana.

He began his career doing paperwork at a local prison in the South but over time shifted into inner zones to supervise high-profile criminals. Over a year ago, he was moved inside Nakhon Si Thammarat prison to guard its high-profile prisoners, including drug warlords.

”It’s a tough job,” he said, as he and a handful of other warders have to guard inmates around the clock. Every day, he works shifts that last almost 12 hours each. The only time he can get out of the prison is in the evening, when he leaves for a drink of water and rests for an hour or so before returning to work.

Inside the prison, guards have to mingle with inmates, carrying batons with them and a lot of luck.

Mr Puchana said his colleagues often become exhausted and, considering the low salary, easily fall prey to drug dealers, who lure them into their networks.

At Nakhon Si Thammarat, at least 30 warders and 26 grade-A drug prisoners have been transferred elsewhere, although the prison has not confirmed that this was related to the drug trade. Warders still there have to look out for themselves as there is much distrust among colleagues.

”Stress has accumulated over time,” said Mr Puchana.

It was only last month that he was promoted to chief of the prisoner supervision unit. His successive promotions were partly due to the fact that former superiors were found to be involved in the drug trade.

”It’s really up to our mental strength. But working as a warder, you cannot be alone. You need a team to help you get through the day,” said Mr Puchana.

Nakhon Si Thammarat prison commander Surapon Kaewparadai said the prison is aware of the burdens faced by its employees. He said it would be helpful if the officers had technology to help their work.

”The challenge is how can we get good guys on the job, and how can we ensure that they will be able to maintain their strength in the long run? Like a car, you can’t keep driving it without stopping. It will overheat and break down,” said Mr Surapon.

Officers who have worked in the prison system for over 10 years receive a monthly salary of between 10,000 and 20,000 baht, plus 420 baht for overtime shifts and 2,000 baht in monthly ”risk payments”. An increase in pay would help boost officers’ morale, he said.

At present, the department estimates that each warder takes care of about 100 prisoners, greatly outnumbering the UN recommended ratio of one to three.

The department needs about 4,000 more warders, which it cannot recruit due to budget limits set by the government.

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