I was talking yesterday with Susan Aldous, the Angel of Bang Kwang prison. Today is the conclusion of my interview with her.
What do the prison guards really think about complete strangers visiting the prisoners?
I think they’d rather not have to deal with them.
Are backpacker visitors doing more harm than good?
Bang Kwang will barely let in visitors at present who are not related. Backpackers were often seen as a nuisance by the guards, noisy, rude and outspokenly voicing their disgust at times. This did not go over well. However, many were kind and the inmates were certainly thankful for the time away from inside life. It was a mixed bag. If they came nicely dressed, were polite and also kind and non-judgmental to inmates, they provided a great service. I always felt that it was tremendous that they took time to reach out to someone in need
Is Bang Kwang and other prisons in danger of becoming a tourist attraction?
It was…not any more, at least with the new administration at Bang Kwang. It’s closing down to non-official outsiders, harder to get into and we have no idea how long this will go on for. Other prisons are easier to access, but involve longer waits, shorter visits and not always easy to find your way around. I do not see it as being as fashionable as it was some years ago.
When you go to visit a prisoner, does it matter to you what crime he has committed?
I do not agree with crime obviously, and I think it’s important for all of us to admit to our own our mistakes, attitudes or crimes if we are going to grow or change. However, the men and women inside have been sentenced, given judgment by society and now it’s my turn to come in and help treat folk as human beings. I treat a street murderer with as much care as I would a murderous arms dealer. I treat a drug dealer with as much respect as I would a pharmaceutical salesman. I believe in redemption and you cannot lift someone up if you are looking down on them, you have to be on the same level looking eye to eye, heart to heart. At times they are my teachers.
Some people argue that these people committed a crime against society and that they deserve whatever punishment that they receive. And that they shouldn’t expect any sympathy from us. What do you say?
We need to contain dangerous criminals for the good of society, but we also need to care for people and treat folk the way we would want them to act. We must set the example, and if we do that, we can then expect accountability and behavioral changes.
You are described as a devout Christian. Do you see this as your duty to help others, or would you be doing this anyway?
I wouldn’t have been alive to help anyone, if I’d not have had my turn about. With that said, I would encourage anyone of any religious persuasion or not to love and help others, it’s the best drug of choice and makes life purposeful and we should all feel compelled to be a part of the solution rather than the problem.
Helping Inmates of Bang Kwang with Eyesight Problems
I am not sure if I could personally go and visit a complete stranger at Bang Kwang. Nor am I sure if I would feel right about supporting someone who has been convicted of drug trafficking or a sex offence.
And I would respect that as your convictions, but sometimes it’s good to look behind what folk have done and see why or what was in their background and then make an educated judgment as to whether they should be visited or not—and some folks are actually innocent. There are some inmates whom I would not visit again, not just because of their crime either but because of their character and attitudes. As for myself, I go by the edict that the healthy do not need a doctor.
How would you persuade me to go?
I wouldn’t, it’s not for everyone, it’s not even good for some would be visitors as they cannot handle it emotionally and come out worse for it. I would just be an example and hopefully you would want to at least be open to see why I do go and why many others do as well. My goal is to activate folk to work towards something positive, anything, whatever they feel called to, to make society better, to show love and care for those in need. We can start at home, in our office or on the street it does not always need to be in a prison.
Apart from helping the prisoner, do you think I would personally gain anything from this visit?
It would depend on your attitude when going in and your openness to the one you were meeting and it would depend on whom you met and the actual experience. Some visitors come out exhausted, angry and feel emotionally drained; they never want to go back. Others come out devastated over the situation and are genuinely surprised to meet an inmate who is ‘good folk’. They in turn continue a friendship from a distance via mail and this brings them happiness. Others, carry the conviction that they can be a serious helper at ground zero to one in need and through that I think you or anyone else would feel a lot better about life, self and towards those whom society judges as ‘bad’. It’s like perfume; you cannot pour it on others without spilling a few drops on yourself.
How did the visits change you?
I went to make a difference and it changed me. It made a huge difference to me. I could no longer ignore that these situations existed and I was already a full time volunteer. It opened my life, my heart and my mind to a new world. I learnt patience, love and consistency; I learnt to give even when it hurt. I learnt to handle difficult folk, situations and disappointment. I experienced great joy and friendship.
What do you talk about to a complete stranger?
Them, I talk about them. I talk about me, my life, what I do, but mostly I want to know about them, what makes them tick, showing genuine outgoing concern and love touches lives. I laugh, I joke, and I enquire. Just like I would anyone else I met in any social situation. Current events, politics, music, sport, life!
Are there any subjects that we shouldn’t talk about with them?
That would vary from person to person just like in general society. Perhaps your latest sexscapade or babbling about yourself and your problems would be inappropriate as would hours of negative diatribes about the unfairness of the legal system; they know that already I think.
How often do you visit Bang Kwang these days?
About once a week or two at most and then some weeks not at all. Additionally, sometimes special projects take me back to those big yellow doors…
Some people think it is strange that you visit prisoners in Thailand. They say that you wouldn’t visit prisoners in your home country. I wouldn’t dream of visiting prisons in America or Australia. Why is Thailand different? And would you personally visit prisoners in other countries?
I first visited a prison in Melbourne years ago when I was 16-years-old; it has since been closed down due to the horrid conditions. I have visited in the USA and write to death row inmates there as well, I also visited Panama too when I was passing through for a few days, id’ go to any prison, I just happen to live in Thailand. Why would I not want to go to other prisons?
What is the project that is taking up most of your time at the moment?
At present its humanized health care projects through reform, visiting patients, and women’s issues, HIV and sex worker issues, teaching officials and then inmate work. As well as writing two more books.
What are future plans?
Recently a gentleman in Japan, via his blog asked me the same thing; this is how I answered him.
On the personal front: I want to see my daughter grow up and find her niche in life. She is incredibly talented and writes amazingly well, so maybe that’s her thing. Who knows, but we are on one amazing journey to find out.
Take a real holiday.
I love to study, so most likely will do some more of that when the right doors open.
Take a real holiday.
I would like to establish a more stable financial base.
Take a real holiday.
Dare I say it? Perhaps even fall in love again.
Take a real holiday…it’d be nice to even be able to conceptualize what a real holiday looks like at least.
Take a real holiday! Did I already say that?
Improve my Thai and perhaps even learn how to spell in English. The first, being a more achievable goal and then take a holiday.
Work wise: I want to continue working towards seeing the death penalty abolished and working standardized prisoner exchange treaties globally in place. Also, fair treatment for the incarcerated, mentally ill and whoever suffers due to lack of love and justice!
Yeah, yeah, I know I sound like Miss Congeniality’s Sandra Bullock’s antithesis. And with such goals in mind, there goes the holiday! Better to wear out than rust out at least.
Currently, I am having a part in creating two new books. One is giving a voice to Thailand’s Ladyboys and the second is the story of a male sex worker, which all play into some of my outreach programs. This has been extremely interesting and a real learning curve for me, more to come I am sure.
I just want to keep on doing what I am doing, and keep on loving it as much as I do and I am very open to whatever form it all may take as time moves along.
I am satisfied enough to be content and dissatisfied enough to keep on reaching out to accomplish more.
Something that I really love about my life is that no matter what horrid things, difficulties or obstacles happen, I can always eventually reframe them and use them to empathize with those who are in need of encouragement or answers.
I look forward to the future with great hope and expectancy.
Is your daughter now following in your footsteps?
She is not, but at times she goes with me to prisons or the shelter, she certainly counsels her friends and even strangers in a manner which she surely has imbibed from being around me. She is her own person and as a teenager is finding her way.
That is the conclusion of my interview with Susan Aldous. Her book, The Angel of Bang Kwang, was recently published by Maverick House. I haven’t yet decided whether I will go and visit a prisoner at Bang Kwang. However, I think I am now a step closer to doing this. If I do get to go and visit, I will tell you all about that experience here.