A scene from the movie “Brokedown Palace” which is banned in Thailand
My first impressions of Thailand even before I came here weren’t that good. While I was traveling in Australia I saw the movie “Bangkok Hilton” starring Nicole Kidman. I don’t remember much of the movie, but what stands out is Kidman going through customs in Thailand carrying someone else’s bag. She is stopped and they find drugs in the bag. It made me paranoid about never ever going to Thailand. I was afraid that someone, maybe the police, would plant drugs in my bag and that I would spend the rest of my life in the notorious Bangkok Hilton. About two years later, I was backpacking across Asia. My itinerary included lengthy stops in many Asian countries. However, I had only allocated a short stay in Thailand. I was still paranoid. Of course I ended up staying much longer but that is another story.
For the past few months I have been visiting one of my former students in prison in Samut Prakan. He has been telling me about life in a prison in Thailand which you can read at ThaiPrisonLife.com. I was at first horrified when I saw my student being sentenced to three years in prison. I didn’t know how he would survive. Since I have been in Thailand I have read a number of autobiographies written by foreigners in Thai prisons. They all talked about merciless beatings, gang rape, sadistic guards, murder and a lot more. However, since I have been talking to my student, I have started to see a different kind of prison. I am not saying he is in a holiday camp as it is certainly a hard life. However, the Klong Dan Central Prison seems to be a model of a modern Thai prison. There are no daily beatings. The guards aren’t sadistic. There are no drugs in the prison. The food isn’t even that bad.
I guess things have changed for the better over the years. It is also possible that some of the foreign prisoners exaggerated about their treatment in order to sell more books. Although I have found it a fascinating experience writing these prison life blogs, I don’t think anything I have written here will propel a book to the top of the bestseller list. There are no dramatic incidents. His daily life is quite uneventful. I am not saying that these foreigners lied about everything. They were, after all, mainly locked up in high security prisons like Bang Kwan. I know I wouldn’t survive there. But they have painted a pictured that has tainted the Thai people and given the world an impression that all Thailand’s prisons are a hell on earth. They are what you make of them. In the outside world we have to understand and respect the Thai culture in order to survive. From what I have heard from my student, it is much the same inside. He said that many of the foreigners don’t respect the Thai way of doing things. They want everything done their way and their demands are often unreasonable. This often then leads to tension between the different nationalities and the guards that have to deal with it.
The following account is of an average day in a Thai prison. The interview was done over the period of four weeks.
You have been in prison for more than three months and you have probably settled into a routine by now. Can you give us an idea of what an average day is like? Also, let us know how things changed for you.
I was in that first cell for about 2-3 days. I was then moved to another cell. This one was very crowded. My old school friend, who is a trustee, suggested that I should try to transfer to his cell. To make the move, I had to bribe someone 10 packets of cigarettes. In prison, cigarettes are worth more than money and we use them to get things done. Once I arrived in the new cell, I then paid another five packets of cigarettes to the cell boss in order to have my own space on the floor. I don’t really have a lot of room. It is about the width of my shoulders and the length of my body. However, I suppose I am fortunate because about 30 people in my cell have to sleep on their side on the bare floor. My mother sent me a mat to sleep on. We aren’t allowed pillows. But, I have a pillowcase which I stuffed with spare clothes.
People start to wake up at about 5.30 a.m. I roll up my mat and put it in the center of the room. Other people who have any bedding do the same. Some people use the toilet in the cell but the cell boss doesn’t allow anyone to make a smell. Which is understandable. So, most people wait until they are let out to go to the toilets on the ground floor. At first I was really too embarrassed to use the toilets in the cell for the first week or so. I couldn’t go with everybody watching me. But, I got used to it. They say prison changes you. It really does. At about 6.30 a.m. the prison guards come to do the head count. We have to sit in rows in the cell and then count off one by one. At the moment, there are 53 prisoners in our cell which measures only 4 metres by 8 metres. Once the count has finished they let us out. Most people then rush down the stairs for the toilet and the showers. There is always a long queue. I take my time and wait for my friends. I always do everything with my group at the same time.
Most prisoners have to line up for the five minute shower. However, as I am now a trustee myself, I am allowed to use the water tub to take a bath. For this I splash water all over my body. Soap myself. Then rinse with more water. I then brush my teeth. A lot of the prisoners then go to the canteen to eat the government food. I don’t usually do this because it isn’t always that nice. Around the prison grounds there are places where you can buy food. For breakfast I sometimes have chicken and rice, or fish cakes or fried pork with rice. A plate of this costs about 25 baht. We use a flat plastic spoon to eat our food. It is the kind of Chinese spoon that is used to drink the noodle soup. We are not allowed forks for obvious reasons. After we finish eating we wash our own plates and spoons and keep them in a safe place for next time.
We are not allowed to touch money. We can buy coupons with money from our prison tab. It is like a kind of bank account inside the prison. We cannot set this up by ourselves. A relative on the outside has to do this for us and then pay money into it for us to use. If you don’t have any relations then you will have a really hard life. You need money to pay for nearly everything. There are quite a few people without any relations and I try to help as many as I can. These coupons are only valued for the day. Unlike outside you cannot get a refund. If I buy 100 baht of coupons I have to use them all up otherwise they are wasted.
The final part will be posted tomorrow. Please visit www.ThaiPrisonLife.com for the background information about this story. If you can find the time, we would all appreciate it if you can send him a postcard or a new year’s card. You can find the address on the above website.