Visiting Bang Khwang Prison

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THE VISITOR’S EXPERIENCE

When it comes to unsolicited visits from strangers, most inmates at Bang Khwang are happy for the respite from the tedium of prison life, but not all welcome the attention.

”I’m like a zoo animal asked to perform for the paying public!” complained one Asian prisoner.

Likewise, a Hong Kong prisoner on death row became distraught once it became clear that he couldn’t communicate with his visitors who had assumed he could speak some English.

He had hoped that a friend or loved one had showed up for a visit and when it became clear that wasn’t the case, tears were shed on both sides of the double windows.

Some inmates are so ashamed of their situation that they don’t want their loved ones to see them, let alone strangers. However, most are grateful to have someone to talk to; it can offer a release of pent-up thoughts and a rewarding experience for both parties.

For foreigners lacking consular or NGO assistance, visiting an inmate can be confusing. Some take the express boat from Bangkok to Nonthaburi pier and ask for directions from there _ the prison dominates this part of town and isn’t hard to find. Others ride the MRT to Bang Sue and take a taxi the 10km from there.

According to the Corrections Department, King Rama V arranged to buy Nonthaburi land for a prison in 1902. Construction didn’t start until the reign of King Rama VI in 1927, however, finally being completed in 1931.

The facility houses those with appeals pending at the Appeal Court and the Supreme Court, those with sentences ranging from 25 years to life, and death row inmates.

The entrance of the prison is nondescript, almost decrepit.

The outside walls are 2,406m long, six metres high and one metre beneath the ground and are equipped with high voltage wires. Inside walls of each section are 1,298m long and six metres high, topped with barbed wire.

Large groups of female Buddhist visitors can be seen at times, as they make merit by praying by the prison’s walls. A shop and visitor processing building across the road have now disappeared and paperwork is done near the entrance. Visitors must arrive an hour in advance of the visitation slot, of which there are five or six a day.

Once past the gate visitors must deposit their phones, money and other personal effects. They then go through a metal detector, get patted down and enter a courtyard with seats lined in rows. Signs warn visitors to refrain from speaking in any language other than Thai, to only use the designated window and to stop speaking immediately when the bell sounds _ dictates that are routinely ignored by visitors and prisoners. The guards are not unfriendly, but many of the fans and telephones don’t work. You sit about 10m away from the prisoners, looking through two windows and speaking over a bad connection. Bells buzz intermittently until finally the line is cut off and you can only wave as the prisoner is led away.

On one of our visits a prisoner’s friend arrived in the same time slot as us; the guards sent us in together.

”We’re visiting the same prisoner?”

The friend gave a disapproving look. ”That’s who I’m visiting. I don’t know about you!”

It can be a testy jockeying for visitation privileges because under the rules inmates are allowed only one visit per day, two days a week. If a ”prison tourist” arrives earlier in the day than an important visit from a consulate, lawyer or family member who flew in from abroad, the rest are out of luck.

Australian retiree Ray Archer has been visiting prisoners for eight years and has found the experience to be rewarding. The 2,000 or 3,000 baht donations he occasionally makes to prisoners are tax deductible, which makes it an even more worthwhile cause.

Not all visits have been fruitful, Mr Archer said. Some inmates weren’t honest, or tried to prey on his sympathies to get money or favours, and at least one prisoner he visited over several years went back to drug dealing soon after his release.

In general, though, the visits have given him a fresh purpose in retirement and he petitions prison officials and NGOs at times to help improve conditions.

Bill Francis, retired from the US Air Force, first came to Thailand to help after the 2004 tsunami and he started visiting prisoners a few years ago through a British charity. He developed a deep friendship with one European prisoner, and was granted a face to face visit with him once a year. The prisoner was recently released, and while happy for him in his new freedom, Mr Francis was saddened to lose a close friend.

”There was a real affinity, even a physical resemblance,” he said.

He plans to visit his friend in Europe next year to see how he is coping with life on the outside. Meanwhile, he will continue to visit other prisoners.

THE CONSULAR VIEW

Although one British prisoner told us that UK government policies on transfers were ”all to the detriment of the prisoner”, a local consular official spoke to Spectrum about some of the positive initiatives undertaken by the embassy.

”We visit our British national detainees every eight weeks and provide consular assistance with their welfare issues,” he said. ”We also ensure that any funds that they are entitled to from Prisoners Abroad _ a UK-based charity _ or have received from their families or friends are given to them accordingly.”

He also explained the prison transfer agreement between the UK and Thailand. ”British detainees have to serve one third of their sentence or four years, whichever is less, before they are eligible for transfer. If this is a life sentence then they would be required to serve eight years before eligibility. Once transferred back to the UK, the sentence would be re-calibrated to fall in line with UK minimum sentence terms.”

He said that the conditions of local prisons can be challenging. ”There are always issues for foreign detainees in prisons in this part of the world. One of the big problems is that cells are shared by a number of people and beds are not provided, so the basic comforts that would be present in a British prison are simply not there. Food and medical facilities perhaps don’t match up to the level that they are in the UK.”

The official encouraged British nationals to visit their compatriots in local prisons.

”We run a prison visiting programme and visitors to the prisons help out in many ways, by providing reading materials, simply someone to talk to, or as a liaison between the detainee and family members and embassy. There are never enough voluntary visitors to go around for all of our detained British nationals, so [visits] would be appreciated, yes.”

A spokesperson from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, told us that many Australians find that ”overseas laws and legal processes can be very different to those in Australia and harsh penalties can apply to actions that may not be considered a crime in Australia”.

”If an Australian detained overseas requests consular assistance,” she said, ”an Australian consular officer will visit the detainee as soon as possible … to provide welfare support and to closely monitor the health and well-being of the Australian in detention.”

Some prisoners are eligible for government loans in order to access ”supplementary food, medical assistance and other essentials that may not be routinely provided by a prison”. A prisoner transfer treaty with Thailand, administered by the Attorney-General’s Office, came into force in 2002.

One Response to Visiting Bang Khwang Prison

  1. ross.adams
    October 13, 2013 at 7:16 am

    I am willing to donate somemedical supplies wich will help cure the imate of many conditions. It is chlorine diaxide taken in small amounts , it is an idtibiotic . If anyone is interested in it then let m know

    Ros

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