Samut Prakan Central Prison, Klong Dan
The old prison in Samut Prakan is just down the road from me. All that remains are portions of the wall and the guard towers. They were supposed to turn the place into a public park. But that was about three or four years ago and nothing has happened. The new prison is now 30 kms outside of the city. It is at a place called Klong Dan which is literally in the middle of no-where. However, if you don’t have your own transport it is easier enough to reach there on a public bus. I went there on Friday 15th September with my former student’s mother and his girlfriend. His mother had been to visit him a few daysbefiore, and while she was there she had booked a visit for us.
At Klong Dan, you are only allowed to visit prisoners between Monday and Friday. Not at the weekend. This must be awkward for many people, as like me, they would have to take time of work in order to visit the prison. The morning session, between 8.30 a.m. and 12.00 p.m., is for visiting male prisoners. The afternoon session, between 12.00 p.m. and 3.00 p.m. is for visiting female prisoners. Obviously not so many women prisoners here. I read on a sign that there are 13 rounds in the morning. The posted times showed me that we would be allowed 20 minutes for our visit. The waiting room was already very full with people waiting to visit someone inside. Some of them were sitting down on benches and others were milling around by a door that obviously led to the visiting rooms.
A sign by the door gave some rules for visiting. We weren’t allowed to take in mobile phones or cameras. I had both in my pocket and wondered if it would be a problem. I didn’t have too long to ponder. As we had already booked our visit a few days before we didn’t have long to wait. Walking closer to the door I could see that people were staring at some television screens on the other side. This was showing the visiting rooms inside the prison. I was expecting a guard to call our number and then tell us to go in. However, as soon as the prisoners were spotted arriving everyone just rushed in. So much for my idea that they might do a body search!
Visiting Area for Relatives of Prisoners
I followed his mother to one of the waiting rooms but there was no sign of him waiting for us. We then went back to the entrance to ask the guard. We had gone to the wrong room and he pointed for us to go a different direction. We had just wasted five minutes and we would only be allowed a further 15 minutes between us. The visitors room was actually a surprise for me. I was expecting to be having a shouting match between two wire fences. That is how I think it is at some of the prisons in Bangkok. Here we had a granite counter which was split in half by a wall of bars, wire mesh and perspex glass. On each side were stalls for us to sit on and we even had the use of a telephone. Not only that, but the telephone was actually good quality. This made it easier to hear each other.
His mother spoke to him first. She updated him with news of the latest efforts to get him out. After five minutes came my turn. I didn’t really know what to say to him. It is difficult to chit chat when the clock is ticking. I asked him about his life in the prison. He said that it was much better now ever since his grandfather had been able to pull some strings. He had been assigned to work in the computer room. His job entailed typing up names of new prisoners on the database. He said he also had some older prisoners looking out for him. He asked if I could buy him some cigarettes in the prison shop as he needed them to pay people. I asked him about his prison cell. I had heard that these could get very crowded. He said there were 50 prisoners in the one cell. I asked if there was enough room for everyone to lie down and sleep, and he said there was. I wanted to ask him a lot more as I was so curious, but we were running out of time. He was obviously eager for his girlfriend to speak to him.
I sat down on some benches with his mother and looked around. In one far corner there was a camera. It didn’t look like that there was much security here. However, it didn’t really matter as we couldn’t pass anything to the prisoners through the perspex glass. I then spotted a couple of prisoners who didn’t have anyone to talk with. It looked like their relatives weren’t able to get there on time. Obviously they must have booked in advance like we did but something happened to delay them. I jokingly suggested to my former student’s mother that maybe she should go over and chat with them. So she did! They gave her a message and a phone number to ring. They said that they didn’t mind sitting there for twenty minutes as it broke up the routine of the day.
I was just wondering what happens when time is up when everyone started getting up from their chairs. Obviously the telephone line is cut after 20 minutes so that brings the conversation to a quick halt. There was only time for a quick farewell as the prisoners were led away. No-one stayed longer than they should. I suppose everyone was just making room for the next round of visitors to come. We then went outside to visit the prison shop. I had brought with me some snacks and reading material for him but his mother told me that it wasn’t possible to give him anything during the visit. We could only buy things in the prison shop or send something through the post office.
The way the prison shop works is that the shopkeeper gives you a form to fill out. You don’t actually get to see or touch any of the items. You have to trust them that they will pass it on. You can buy basic stuff like shampoo, toothpaste, underwear and even food. His mother said that he didn’t have a blanket to sleep with and so she had to buy him something. In order to survive in prison you have to literally pay for everything. The food is apparently really bad and most people pay for their own meals. On the order form I could see that a plate of fried rice was 20 baht and grilled chicken was 90 baht. Looked like the prison staff were doing good business here. I told his mother to put down ten packets of cigarettes for him and then gave her some money. I wasn’t sure what else to buy him. But she suggested it would be better if I put some money on his prison tab. That way he could use the money himself to buy what he needs. That made sense so I did that.
Obviously I have only touched the surface of Thai prison life. There is still a lot more I want to know. The newspapers have reported riots in three different prisons in the last few weeks. They were all protesting about sadistic guards that beat them for no reason. During the last riot two inmates were shot and killed. In a prison, it would be so easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The way things are going, I don’t think he will be out on bail any time soon. So, I think I will be back visiting this prison a few more times at least. For those of you who, like me, are curious to know what it is really like in a Thai prison, then I suggest you keep an eye on these blogs. There is a lot more to come.