A former inmate at Samut Prakan prison says that while sleeping head to foot with 60 other convicts and dealing with meal-time misery wasn’t fun, his time incarcerated wasn’t the nightmare he was expecting.
Let’s call him Stan. That’s not his real name, as this recently released prisoner doesn’t want to get into even deeper trouble than he was last December and January, when for a period of almost one month, he was incarcerated at Samut Prakan prison.
He also did not want to reveal his nationality, nor the crime he was convicted of.
Yes, the food was horrible, there was little to read and the mechanisms of the court system were slow. But inmates were able to spend a great deal of time outdoors, there was little antagonism between the prisoners and Stan did not witness any mistreatment of them.
“Overall, it was quite decent,” says Stan. “I don’t want to give Thai prisons a bad rap. All in all, the conditions were better than I expected.”
Stan had only one major grievance: the size of the cells. Given the lack of space, cellmates had no option but to sleep with the head of one prisoner flanked by two pairs of feet and his feet were in turn flanked by two heads. Packing them in like sardines in this manner was the only way so many men could be squeezed into one cell.
“Having 62 people in one cell, as was the case in my cell, was impossible. A friend of mine there told me that sometimes they had 70 in a room. I can’t imagine that. I would have loved to have been in a room with 50 people.
“Fortunately there wasn’t a lot of foot odour since nobody wore socks or shoes.
“We were packed in tight. I was right up against the toilet. But I was happy there as I could relieve myself at night without having to stumble over other prisoners. We would be pressed up against each other. We had days in which more people would come in, but fewer would go out, adding to the overcrowding.
“The lights stay on at night for security. You wear blinders. One inmate has to stay awake as a guard. I often volunteered to do that because I couldn’t sleep anyway.”
Stan described how one Cambodian prisoner that he usually slept next to kept trying to curl into the foetal position, and how he had to keep straightening out the man’s legs, as everyone needed to sleep in a straight position to keep from infringing on their neighbour’s space.
“That was the one thing I really had a problem with _ it’s a human-rights issue. It’s sleep deprivation. There’s no excuse for that,” says Stan, “But I know it’s not supposed to be like the Dusit resort either.”
For Stan, the worst time of day came at 4pm, when the inmates were confined to their communal cells until 6.45am.
The days were not as gruelling as is commonly believed, largely because they had the run of the compound during that time.
“They have a football pitch,” says Stan. “A lot of inmates enjoyed playing on it. And other prisoners and I would jog around it and do pull-ups on the goals. There are also benches, a Buddhist temple and a mosque. I would mostly just pass my time walking around the compound.”
He also reports that at no time did he ever see or hear about guards abusing any of the prisoners. What’s more, many of the non-formal guard duties were performed by well behaved and trusted inmates.
As Stan puts it, “The prison is run by the inmates. They guard you. And when you come in, they process you.
“Prisons in some other countries are dangerous. The prisoners in Samut Prakan were all nice.”
While overcrowding was his only major complaint, he also had several lesser grievances. One was what was _ or wasn’t _ on offer at mealtimes.
“You don’t get many vegetables in there,” says Stan. “But you could buy better food with your own money. The free food that they gave us was almost useless. They served rice topped with some bits of indescribable vegetables and some tiny pieces of meat that were very bony. You lose weight in there.”
He also missed fruit, saying “We were lucky to get an apple a week.”
There are dozens of cells and each has a TV, often showing what Stan called “horrible and violent Hollywood action movies”. He was glad that at least they were dubbed in Thai.
Stan also expressed frustration that the strict measures enacted to ensure that no drugs are smuggled into the prison also meant that many medicines would not get in either.
“They don’t have to have that security at the expense of our health,” he says.
“I was cold there the first few nights since it takes a few days to be issued a blanket. And you have to wash it right away. Sleeping on the floor is horrible. When I got out, my doctor told me that I’d contracted bronchitis and scabies.”
He says that only representatives of the inmate’s embassy could bring in medicines for them.
The same policy also applies to reading material; even his Thai girlfriend wasn’t allowed to bring him books, and he says that although there was a prison library, it was full of “awful-looking, mostly romance novels”.
“There was only one good book in there, The Killing Fields, which made me feel better while reading it since I wasn’t that guy in that story.
“Considering that I was only in there for a month, I can’t complain much. If I’d been in there longer, getting out would have taken a bigger adjustment. I tried not to worry about it.”
Another source of annoyance was going to court. “We were shackled each time we had a court appearance, which was about once every 12 days. The system is very backed up. So basically you would be shackled, bused to court and stay there all day in a cell that’s worse than prison, only to get a piece of paper stating that your case was still under review and that you had to come back in another 12 days.
“Court days suck. You don’t look forward to that piece of steel being attached to your legs by a guy with an anvil who would bang it on for you. And you would always have a thorough body search on court days when you left and when you came back to your cell.”
Stan thinks that prison may indeed serve its purpose of scaring convicts straight.
“Anyone who goes to prison will try to do something on the straight and narrow when they get out. The question is: Will they fail in readjusting to life outside? There need to be more efforts at rehabilitation _ prison shouldn’t just be about punishment.”
Source: Bangkok Post