Like most prisons, Bang Kwang Central reeks of decay. But the fetidness of the “Bangkok Hilton”, as it is known by inmates, is more indicative of the soul of the place than the damp edifices that contain the men. Built in the 1930s to hold 3500, the maximum security prison in Thailand’s biggest city now houses about 8000 inmates, who have been sentenced to more than 25 years each, as well as hundreds awaiting the outcome of their pending appeals, or execution.
Leg irons provide a means of status identification: new inmates wear theirs for the first three months, whereas those on death row have their shackles permanently welded on. Fates are determined by will or whim — a royal birthday here, a public holiday there. The stroke of a monarch’s pen determines who shall live, die or be released. And in the interim both the panacea for and consequence of not knowing is insanity: the inmate’s survival guide.
At the time of his arrest for heroin trafficking, South African Alexander (Shani) Krebs was 34 years old. Initially condemned to death, his sentence was commuted to 100 then 40 years. He has not spent a nano-second in a democratic South Africa, having been arrested a day before the elections in 1994. Over the years he earned the tragic reputation of being the longest-serving farang, or foreigner, in Bang Kwang.
But on December 5 Thailand’s monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, benevolently issued an amnesty of sorts, courtesy of his birthday, to all farangs convicted of drug offences. In Thailand the seventh cycle, or 84th birthday, is a significant milestone for the monarchy and special celebrations are organised for the entire year.
For the foreign inmates it means that one-sixth of their sentences has been reduced. For prisoners incarcerated since 1994, like Krebs, it signals an early release. Although most of the 11 convicted South African drug mules in Thailand have been incarcerated for more than 15 years, it is unclear who else will be released with Krebs. And South Africa’s department of international relations and co-operation is not providing answers. What is certain, according to his family, is that Krebs will be released on April 22 — eerily, almost 18 years to the day of his arrest.
Arrested in Thailand
Meeting him in 2009, through a double layer of bars, wire and glass, was akin to staring at the portrait of Dorian Gray. His curly hair had remained youthfully long, his body ripped and his face — from a distance, at least — seemed protected from the ravages of age that cleave creases, folds and furrows into the rest of us. He was 49 years old.
Krebs wore a crisp white T-shirt and immaculately pressed blue trousers. He had been up most of the night, he said, copiously preparing notes for our first interview. He was charming and cheerful. He refused to divulge details of his incarceration — the agonising months in solitary confinement, the daily drudge of prison life, the creeping despair that all he might ever do in his life was time. He made no mention of the sweat-soaked bodies crammed into cells measuring six metres by four metres, forced to sleep spoon-like, or the pungency of the open sewerage system, or the cesspool of disease that is Bang Kwang.
Instead, he focused on “the positives”. He talked about how he had coached the prison soccer team, organised uniform sponsorship through friends in South Africa and successfully lobbied for sewage-free water. He quipped that he had a favourite patch of turf for tanning, which he called “Hollywood”.
He also spoke lovingly of his Swiss girlfriend, Elizabeth Kramer Grimm, with whom he had enjoyed the intimacy of exactly one “contact” visit during their three-year relationship. They met during one of her pilgrimages to Bangkok’s prisons as part of a Christian ministry and, she coyly confessed to me in 2009, the friendship had blossomed into love. Her family was based in Bangkok and she would make the 90-minute pilgrimage by Skytrain and ferry to visit him twice a week for an hour at a time. She brought him treats permitted by the prison; he painted portraits of her.
Their exchanges bore an intensity heightened through the absence of broader contexts, reference points and histories that usually mould relationships. She was his source of succour — his voice to and from a world from which he had been locked out. And she was determined, on his release, to eventually join him in South Africa.
Longevity had earned Krebs senior ranking in the inmate hierarchy, which meant that the junior inmates cooked and cleaned for him. And his entirely self-taught artistic prowess had further elevated his status. His portraits of subjects, which ranged from Madiba and Louis Armstrong to sultry nudes, had been his salvation, he said, as had his Jewish faith.
He spoke of imaginary art exhibition openings, poetry readings, books to write, projects to complete. When I asked why he did not use his art to document his experience behind bars, he said: “I live this reality every day. I don’t want my art to depict it but rather to transcend it.”
His story carried a familiar refrain: in Thailand on vacation, surrounded by the paradoxical fast foods of sex and drugs that are legally prohibited in Thailand but available on every street corner, with one proviso: “Don’t get caught!” He was holed up in a dodgy backpackers, where his travellers cheques were stolen, he said. He was stranded, desperate. A member of the Nigerian community living in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok offered him a way to make a quick, relatively low-risk buck. The next thing he knew, he was in Bang Kwang.
“Back in South Africa I was wild and living on the edge,” he said. “Being incarcerated probably saved my life.” Yet, when I inquired about his ailing mother, who was then 84 years old and whom he had not seen since 1994, his voice faltered and, face contorted by grief, he wept.
A 53-year-old Krebs should be home before the end of next month. He will return to a country he will barely recognise, to a family that has been waiting for his return for nearly two decades and to a life for which he is ill-prepared. Recent photographs reveal a face with which time has finally caught up: hair still long, body still ripped, but the face is gaunt, the expression hooded. And the eyes have aged, evoking the torment of a punishment that, many will argue, far exceeded his crime.