Susan Aldous visiting prisoners at Bang Kwang
Over the past five years or so it has become “fashionable” amongst backpackers to go and visit complete strangers at the prisons in Thailand. The most popular destinations are Bang Kwang and Klong Prem in Bangkok. I think I first heard about these visits from an article written by Garth Hattan, an inmate at Bang Kwang. At that time, he was writing a regular column for the popular English language magazine called “Farang”. This is what he had to say about these surprise visits:
“From time to time some of we Western inmates here in Bangkwang Central Prison are blessed with unexpected visits from foreign travelers who have gotten our names from our embassies, billboards at guesthouses, word of mouth, or a website. Most of the guys here are receptive to these visits, since they provide an inviting diversion from the ceaseless monotony of prison life. Some, however, eventually feel reluctant to go out and meet these casual tourists because there are some who seem to view a visit to Bangkwang as simply another novel attraction on their itinerary of killing time while awaiting their trains, boats or buses to outlying destinations. I’ve experienced such encounters and felt a bit like a caged lion at times. I’m generally inclined to welcome visitors because, aside from satisfying the curiosity which has compelled them to drop by in the first place, it gives me the unique opportunity to deter others from making the same ignorant mistake I did and consequently finding themselves on this side of the bars.”
I do remember thinking, after reading that column, about going to visit him, but decided in the end that I would be too embarrassed to go and visit a complete stranger in a prison. Then, about two years ago, our Steve asked if I wanted to go with him to visit a prisoner at Bang Kwang. Again I hesitated. It would be easier for me to go with someone, but still I wasn’t sure about going to show morale support for a drug runner or murderer. After all, most of the prisoners at Bangk Kwang are serving a minimum of thirty years. Now, of course, I have been introduced to prison life by visiting Gor at Samut Prakan Central Prison. Through him, I then started to visit foreign prisoners. Most of these people were there for petty crimes like stealing or passport problems. I have now visited this prison over 50 times going to see Gor or one of the foreign prisoners. Although I now feel a lot more comfortable about visiting Thai prisons, I still have yet to go to any of the big ones in Bangkok. I just don’t know whether I could go toa maximum security prison.
One person who has no such qualms about visiting prisoners is Susan Aldous, an Australian who has spent the last couple of decades in Thailand. Due to her dedication to helping the inmates of Bang Kwan and other institutions, she gained herself the label of “Angel of Bang Kwang”. This then became the title of her fascinating autobiography of the same name which has recently been published by Maverick House. I am glad I bought her book at Asia Books. It gave me some good insights into why she visited prisons. And a surprise for me. What I didn’t know was that Susan often visited Garth Hatton at Bang Kwang. Despite the restrictions, they quickly fell in love. Everyone thought this romance was doomed to failure. However, after Garth was transferred to a prison in America, Susan followed him there a short while later. Three months later Garth was released from prison and then the two of them got married in what looked like a fairytale ending. However, things didn’t work out well. Garth re-offended and found himself being arrested by the police. They eventually got divorced and Susan returned to Thailand, the place she now calls home.
Susan Aldous in a Holding Cell in a Police Station
Although I enjoyed reading Susan’s book, I was still left with some unanswered questions. In particular, I still wasn’t sure whether I could ever feel right about going to visit foreigners at Bang Kwang Prison. So, I was really happy when she agreed to talk with me about her book. My main interest in this interview was her visits to the prison. However, much of her book is taken up with her younger life as a rebel and drug addict in Australia and her subsequent projects in institutions for women.
How did you feel the first time you visited a prison?
My first visit was to Bang Kwang Central Prison which is a maximum security prison housing men sentenced from 30 years up till death—before that, I’d been mainly visiting holding cells. I experienced mixed emotions naturally. A deep sympathy for those incarcerated, a sense of great incredulity at the length of the sentences, however the strongest forethought was astonishment over the lack of happiness or friendliness from the guards. I was used to Thai’s being extremely accommodating and these men and women were not. They were unhappy and sour. I came away with the resolve to make a difference to their lives and set a goal within a year to get each one of them smiling. I was later to discover they lived in squalid poverty and were suffering in their own prison of sorts.
While today one still experiences indifference on the authority’s part it is a much friendlier place. They do smile more and greet you amicably and this is due to many of the visitors being friendly to them and also the new educated guards coming up through the ranks. It is a different place for visitors than it was ten years or more ago.
Did you ever get comfortable visiting prisons? As you have been so often, do you go as far as calling it a second home?
I felt very at ease in prisons after a while. I lived down the road and passed by Bang Kwang every day several times, even on the weekends. At that time, I was also visiting daily, up to 2-3 rounds and participating in many activities within the other prisons and Corrections Department as well so it became a huge part of my life and some days I was dealing more with inmates, guards and families of inmates than I was at home, so perhaps, yes, I did almost live within the prison system. Currently, I do not. Since returning to Thailand, I have shifted my emphasis to assisting more of the Asian inmates left behind, and I generally visit three prisons between one to two times a week in total, some of my visits as few as annually or biannually. I have many other projects and they take my time.
Do you think you could survive a long prison sentence at Bang Kwang?
I don’t think you can really predict how you will do in any difficult situation, but most certainly the length of sentence would to me, be the hardest thing even over the conditions etc. if you locked me in the Hilton Hotel, cut me off from congenial company, and told me I’d have to stay there for 50 years, I imagine that insanity would be a great possibility.
There have been a number of books over the years depicting life in Thai prisons. Do they all paint an accurate picture or have some been exaggerated in order to sell more books?
I think some could seem exaggerated. But you have to remember that many were written years ago when things were extremely harsh and horrid. They were nearly or more than a decade of experiences boiled down into a paperback and in some ways can come off as being over the top. Things have changed, but even for myself if I was to collect and dwell on the horror stories of the past ten years I could write something as equally gory as some of these books. To me though the utmost horror of the entire affair is the sentencing and legal system and the slow painful way it drags out without any human care and this is not exaggerated, and in fact I feel this subject is not even fully covered and down played in many cases as it’s just too hard to really express it all fully.
You were visiting the prison before it became fashionable. What did they guards think of you during that first month?
They wondered why I was there, they often thought I was drug dealing, working as a spy, or undercover cop and the inmates thought the same thing, ha! It was the man the boy and the donkey so many times. On occasion it became wearisome having to fight the ones you were trying to help, whether they wore prison guard uniform or prison inmate uniform. Constancy of purpose won out in most cases though.
So, did their opinion of you change when they realized that you were genuinely trying to help the prisoners?
Yes, actions spoke louder than words and they also realized that I was genuinely interested in them and their families too. Sadly there were some, who’d never change no matter what you did.
Is it in their own interest for them to help you help the prisoners? If so, in what way?
Initially it was more work for them, a risk in case I was to report on conditions or bad behavior etc, but after a while they started to get involved and even were very helpful. Some naturally wrote my projects off as their own to win points and to gain promotions. In some ways it was to the prison’s advantage as care-giving projects certainly do help project a humane image.
Today I cannot and do not do the numerous projects that I did years ago. Security and current prison attitudes dictate this as well as my time constraints and abilities. Instead I do a few a year within Bang Kwang via the hospital and then smaller ones through inmates, so it’s not such a big deal and is easier to work that way with the new administration.
Updated: Click here for part two of this interview.