I am not sure if you can call me a veteran prison visitor here in Thailand. Although I probably have over 60 prison visits under my belt, all of these have been to the same prison: Samut Prakan Central Prison. I was again there on Friday and met an Iraqi who was sentenced to one year for a forged passport. Quite common at the moment as they are keen to escape their war-torn country. At the same time, they are worried about being deported back there once their sentence has been completed. Another guy I visited a few times was born in Ghana but grew up in America. Since the age of four he has been using an American passport. But, this now turns out to have been forged. He is doing three years and is very worried about being deported back to Ghana. It may be the place of his birth, but he doesn’t speak the language and he no longer has any relations there. Most of these people ask me to help them contact the United Nations in Bangkok.
A few months back I did an interview with Susan Aldous who wrote the book The Angel of Bang Kwang. I asked her quite a few questions about what it was like to visit Bang Kwang, the notorious maximum security prison in Bangkok. Up to that point I had only visited foreign prisoners who committed petty crimes. Samut Prakan Central Prison is not a maximum security prison. No-one there is serving long sentences. Even that foreign prisoner I wrote about before who was arrested for attempted murder. He just got sentenced to six years and eight months. The prison is almost a second home to me as I have been there so many times now. Everyone there knows me. Even some of the visitors. I was there not long ago and I saw a foreigner with a folder full of printouts from our Thai Prison Life website. He was so happy to see me. As you know, I have been thinking for a few years about going to visit a foreign prisoner at Bang Kwang. I am not sure why I was so nervous. But, I finally got up enough courage to go recently.
I didn’t really want to go and visit an anonymous prisoner who I didn’t know. So, I did my homework first. The prisoner I linked up with was Steve Willcox from the United Kingdom. I first found out about him because his website has a link to our ThaiPrisonLife.com website and I spotted it in the statistics. His website gave the impression that he was making it by himself. It was basically a prison blog which talked about some of the horrific conditions inside the prison. There was even an email address for him. I was sure he wasn’t able to check the email himself, but I sent a letter anyway to introduce myself. The reply came from a young lady who told me that she was updating the website on Steve’s behalf. Basically, he sent out monthly newsletters to her and then she would type them up. She told me that he would love to hear from me as he was keen to have penfriends. She gave me his full address at Bangkwang.
Over the next month or so we wrote back and forth. I think Steve ended up writing more letters than me. And much longer too! I guess he had more time on his hands. A total of 33 years to be precise. I never asked him about what brought him to his present situation. But he volunteered some information anyway. He also told me that he was married to a Thai woman who had given birth to their son after he had been sent to prison. The boy is now four years old. I think surprisingly, she is still standing by him. Despite living far away in Loei in Northeastern-Thailand, she has been going to visit him every month for the past four years. When she can, she also brings along their son. This year Steve applied for a transfer to the UK prison system. At the same time, his wife applied for a visa to move to the UK to live with his parents. They thought that they had a strong case. His parents were acting as sponsors. They had a letter guaranteeing that she had a job waiting for her. They also had the documents showing that their son was a British citizen. Unfortunately, the British Embassy turned down her application. They didn’t say why.
At the same time, Steve’s application to transfer to the UK went through and last month he heard that he would be moving soon. What should have been a joyous occasion, now turned into mixed blessings. He would be going home to be closer to his parents. But his wife and son would now be on the other side of the world. By this time it was too late and there was nothing he could do to stop the process. He could only hope that his wife’s appeal would be successful. If he had known before that the British Embassy in Bangkok would turn his wife down he might not have applied for the transfer so quickly. Not all British prisoners at Bang Kwang opt to go home. They feel that in Thai prisons they get a certain amount of freedom that they wouldn’t get in an English prison system. Here the prison guards usually leave them alone. Steve once told me in one of his letters that he would miss the food the most. Apparently they paid a Thai ladyboy prisoner who cooked the best Thai food ever. He also said that in England he would be put in a maximum security prison with murderers and rapists. It didn’t matter if the same crime in the UK would only have been a few years. They put you in prisons to match your length of sentence which you then have to serve. Unlike in America where they often re-sentence you and often let you out in less than one year.
After about three or four letters I was ready to meet Steve in person. However, he warned me that there was now a new governor at Bang Kwang who was cracking down on backpackers turning the prison into a tourist attraction. He said that as a result he had hardly had a visit in the last few months. I rang Jeff Mitchell, my contact at the British Embassy, and he confirmed that even with a letter from the embassy they were now refusing visits if you weren’t a relation. I told him I was determined to try and he wished me good luck. I decided I would have a fair chance of getting in. I was going to dress smartly with shirt, tie and jacket. I had also done my homework so that I wouldn’t look like a lost tourist when I arrived. Steve told me that it was best for me to arrive in the morning at 9 a.m. He said that if I did that then we would get a 90 minute visit. In the afternoon you would only get 30 minutes. Even that is pretty good. When I was at Samut Prakan Prison last Wednesday with some people who wanted to visit Gor, we only got 15 minutes!
Visit ThaiPrisonLife.com for more information about life in Thai prisons. We also have many exclusive pictures taken inside the prison courtyard and cells.