Published in The Myanmar Times on 21 January 2013
On a bright December morning in Bangkok, a ferry speeds along Chao Phraya River until only a handful of passengers are left at the final stop of Nonthaburi. Bang Kwang Prison is a short walk and a world away. The maximum security jail is sardonically known as the “Bangkok Hilton” by its foreign inmates or as “The Big Tiger” by Thais (because “it prowls and eats”). The visitor registration area across the road has just been demolished and its outdoor replacement bustles with a wide variety of nationalities and a strong majority of women. There is a hot food stall but few appear to have an appetite.
After providing photocopies of my passport and the name and building number of the inmate I am about to visit, I spend the next hour talking to two women who have visited dozens of foreign prisoners over several years. Julie is going to see a Tibetan monk, whose paintings she sells on his behalf. As well as providing a creative outlet, the earnings help him cover the costs of food and other necessities inside Bang Kwang. Prisoners receive one meal a day and in May 2012, the prison authorities banned food, books, clothing and other items being brought in by visitors. Inmates without access to cash do chores for the richer ones in order to buy food from the prison shop (where queues can be hours long). Other than money (which is deposited to an official after the visit), the only item I can give is magazines – which are also now prohibited. Every page of every magazine is scrutinised by a guard in a small office for exposed female curves: once approved, I am asked to write Luke’s name and building number on the cover.
Choosing magazines from a 7-Eleven the night before hadn’t been easy: while hoping to provide the maximum benefit I could, I knew virtually nothing about Luke and zero of his interests. I bought magazines in three languages; two of which he speaks. Until the night before I hadn’t even known why he was jailed (suffice to say it was for being found guilty of trafficking a large quantity of drugs). When I began corresponding with his sister Emma, she wrote, “You are most welcome to visit [Luke] but I am not sure whether he would like to meet you. I think he will.” Emma said it was her brother’s decision whether he wanted to share his story. He did not wish to do so publicly. Therefore, his name and nationality, as well as the details of the offence have been changed or withheld.
At about 9am my name was called out: it was so mispronounced that it was only because I’d kept my sights in the guard’s direction that I knew to get up from my seat. Some of the visitors from the first session were leaving the prison as I made my way past men doing dust-ridden construction work. Julie told me they were inmates who are so close to being released that it’s deemed unnecessary to keep them in maximum security conditions. Their faces were covered by cotton bandanas. A girl who appeared to be in her early 20s had tears streaming down her cheeks as she walked past me. She was the only person I saw crying that day.
Male and female visitors are lined up separately for a thorough pat-down by the guards before entering the prison compound. The guard in the men’s line grinned after searching an attractive transvestite, who turned on her heel to face us with a glamourous twist.
As we walked towards a room with glass-partitions, I saw people staring into tiny screens in front of curtained rooms. Julie told me that the men behind the curtains were Bang Kwang’s death row prisoners or those who had been placed in solitary confinement for misbehaviour.
As the first visiting session came to an end, two inmates accompanied by guards walked through the open courtyard. The men wore brown cotton prison pajamas and were shackled to each other at the ankles and wrists.
Someone called out my first name and I looked up in confusion. A man wearing a bright Nike t-shirt winked and kept walking. Julie said he must have remembered my name from the passport photocopy tray. Despite being totally inappropriate, I nevertheless felt grateful to see someone smile. I was beginning to understand, on a minute level, how dull life in prison must be.
Although visiting someone in jail undoubtedly provides a better sense of perspective, this wasn’t the object of the exercise. In a city as hedonistic as Bangkok, where tourists can shop, eat and drink beyond their heart’s content, this was something I could do that meant something to someone other than myself.
The following quote by a Russian inmate in Bang Kwang called Felix Cheremnykh is posted on the Luna-Rose Prisoner Support Society’s website: “One day… the office called my name for a visit. That moment in my life is change. I have a chance to go from the cage. I go to talk with the “Outside World,” I go to talk with a real person, not just the other ghosts.”
When I turned to face the booth I had been allocated for the visit, I saw a man smiling into the phone receiver.
I sat down and picked up the phone. I craned my neck to see him properly because the reflection of the glass panels made it difficult to do so – prisoners and visitors are kept far enough away to prevent their hands meeting on opposite sides of the glass. It’s also difficult to hear, because there are about 20 people talking into phone receivers at the same time.
“Hello Luke,” I said nervously.
“My name’s not Luke,” he said, still smiling.
I panicked as I thought of disappointing Emma, who has never been able to visit her brother in jail and was anxiously awaiting news of him.
The man told me that he was from Pakistan, had served eight years and was going home in a month’s time. He said he’d been talking to someone during the first session but was told to hang up the phone before he could say anything else.
I waited about 10 minutes before a second man appeared and sat down on the stool on the other side of the glass partitioned room.
Luke was stunned that I had made contact with his sister. He spoke quietly and without much apparent confidence in English, but seemed glad to have someone to talk to. However he responded to several questions (such as whether he wanted me to pass on a message to his sister) by saying “Never mind” and sadly shaking his head.
Prisoners rise at 5am and Luke said he can’t sleep for more than two or three hours a night because he is “thinking about the outside.” Few fellow inmates share his ethnicity and he said many are nasty. The Thai Department of Corrections’ website, correct.go.th, states that Bang Kwang Prison provides inmates with: “Recreation and entertainment facilities, both indoor and outdoor… These include library, television, radio, video, movies and various types of sports and games. These activities keep inmates strong, provide physical and emotional release [and] enable inmates to experience… self confidence and new and better ways to spend their leisure time upon release.”
However Luke told me that he hasn’t heard a single note of music in Bang Kwang and that other than occasional cooking, he simply sits all day long in a crowded cell. I am the first visitor he has had in more than 18 months.
I hear myself saying that 10 years will pass and that one day he will be free again.
He is desperate to know whether his country has a prisoner exchange treaty, which would mean that he could leave Thailand after serving eight years.
About half-way through the visit, Luke told me that he was set up by a friend at the airport. The pain in his eyes is intense; just as it is when he said that he hasn’t heard from his girlfriend of eight years. He doesn’t believe she will wait for him. I try to reassure him but am later told by his sister that his girlfriend may be responsible for his situation.
Emma also said that Luke’s defense was conducted by a lawyer appointed by Thai authorities.
She described the lawyer as “a doll without any soul.” As his family watched on, the lawyer “just sat there playing with his pen and doing some drawings.” He was hostile towards Luke’s family – never once speaking to them – and there wasn’t an option to appoint their own lawyer. Luke was missing for several months before Emma discovered he was being held in Bombat prison prior to sentencing. His embassy hadn’t been informed.
Heather Luna-Rose, the director of Luna-Rose Prisoner Support Society and the person I spoke to while waiting to see Luke, said, “Over the seven years I have been visiting foreign inmates… I’ve observed many coping strategies and psychological responses.”
She explained that “there is usually a period of adjustment, when inmates are angry at the institution, the country, the justice system and often blame everyone around them for their situation. After a while, many inmates… become more ‘institutionalised,’ meaning… relatively more accepting of their situation… Others succumb to mental illness, such as depression and/or tune out using drugs. After about a decade, the harsh negative effects of incarceration take a heavy toll on most inmates and it becomes much harder again for the inmate to keep going.”
Heather said she sees many men retreating further inside themselves, after being deprived of interaction with the outside world for so long.
I left Luke with the promise to write and headed straight towards Klong Prem Women’s Prison. I had been given the name of a Thai woman serving a 32-year sentence for drug trafficking. Her husband, arrested on the same charge, had been released sometime earlier and was suffering a condition Heather describes as “survivor guilt.” He is reportedly consumed with depression about the fact that his wife and cell-mates remain behind in Thai jails.
It was a miserable sight to see children dozing off in the heat while many of us waited more than three hours for a visit. My stomach churned when I saw a prison guard pinch a toddler’s cheek. There were very few foreigners in the waiting area and applying for a visit was confusing – I missed hearing my name several times.
Ai is less than halfway through her sentence. Yet even though she was sick and had to wait until the next day to be admitted to the prison hospital (which is standard procedure), she was generally upbeat. She spoke with a lot of enthusiasm for Jesus Christ and told me she’s busy working in a factory and taking part in Bible classes (she converted more than a decade ago). She said her fellow inmates are like family to her and that only some of the young ones cause trouble. She greeted some of the missionaries that walked past and I jotted down a letter to pass onto her husband. Ai receives regular visits and was hopeful that she would be granted a King’s pardon the following day. As it turned out, she didn’t.
How to write to or visit a prisoner in Thailand:
It isn’t necessary to obtain permission in advance to visit– if you know the name and building number of a prisoner, you can simply turn up on the days designated for visits (this varies according to the building number). Visitors are not limited to visiting their fellow citizens, however the procedure for obtaining the name of a prisoner varies depending on nationality – try asking your embassy in Bangkok for help. To write to a British prisoner, visit www.prisonersabroad.org.uk/get-involved/volunteer.html or email email@example.com
More of Felix Cheremnykh’s art can be viewed on the “Free Felix Cheremnykh” Facebook page.