Click here for my original first-hand account of visiting Bangkwang...
... and here's the latest, courtesy of American travel site Travel News Today (subscriber only):
Many tourists, eager to find out more about life behind bars or hoping to offer comfort and company, have taken to visiting Third World prisons. This week, Virtuous Traveler Leslie Garrett finds that while some dismiss it as a fad, the experience nonetheless leaves a legacy of gratitude and sorrow for those who’ve been face to face with prisoners doing hard time.
Ari Sharp, a university student from Melbourne, Australia was intrigued by the notice he spotted in a Thai hostel: "Visiting Bangkwan, Klong Prem and other Prisons. " The notice promised that it was possible to visit a prisoner without prior notice and that "These visits allow the visitor to have a conversation with only a fence...between yourself and the prisoner..."
Sharp, who was backpacking around Southeast Asia, viewed the chance to talk with a prisoner as "an experience too exciting to pass up." It turns out he is not alone.
In recent years, prisons have become popular tourist destinations in parts of Asia. Lonely Planet’s guide to Thailand credits the growing interest in “prison tourism” to the 1999 movie, Brokedown Palace, in which two teens find themselves in a Thai prison wrongfully accused of drug smuggling. However, those who have visited say that, fad or not, it’s a sobering, worthwhile experience – for both them and, they firmly believe, the prisoners.
Other travellers aren’t so sure about the ethical implications of visiting someone with whom you have no prior connection. A post on an Internet travel forum poses the question: “How about visiting prisoners you don’t know? Is that a cruel fad or an act of charity?” Another suggests that the whole practice of visiting prisoners might make the prisoners themselves feel like “an attraction” – like animals in a zoo.
But what do prisoners themselves think? Garth Hattan is an American who spent more than seven years in Bangkwang for drug trafficking before being released to the United States on treaty. He generally met with any visitor who requested a visit with him, hoping to offer up his life as a cautionary tale. As he wrote in one of his “Letters from the Inside,” a column he wrote for the Thai-based Farang magazine, he hoped that visiting him might make travelers think twice about "taking the fateful walk from the conventional wild side into something you feel exudes a truly radical allure – like an impulsive jaunt into narco-trafficking, for instance....There’s no-glamour here, no-promise of success, no-proverbial pot of gold to pick up on the other side; just a sweaty, inanimate existence riddled with the futile dreams of what could’ve been, mingled with aching regret of having let so many good people down – especially yourself."
Kay Danes is an Australian mother of two who has become a strong, vocal advocate for those behind bars, calling them "forgotten." Danes herself was imprisoned in Laos in December 2000 for close to a year after she and her husband were accused of stealing sapphires, a charge the two vehemently denied. After extensive diplomatic negotiations, the couple was released and given a Presidential Pardon. But Danes says the experience left deep scars. She has written a book about her time in prison, Deliver Us From Evil, and talks openly of the routine torture she heard being conducted only yards away from her cell. She says that many prisoners are detained for years without trial and would “cherish a mere postcard from the outside,” she says. “They exist on hope.”
Tony Fox, who works with Foreign Prisoner Support Service (FPSS) is heartened by the number of "kind-hearted people" who make a point of visiting prisoners while on vacation or traveling on business. He says FPSS gets two to three hundred "solid enquiries" each year about how to go about visiting a prisoner. These same tourists report back to FPSS on the conditions of the prisons they visit and the prisoners. Danes also volunteers with FPSS and says that, while most prisoners would welcome a visit by tourists, she cautions that tourists need to examine their own motives and ensure that they are “well-intended and not…seeking a cheap thrill.”
Ari Sharp says his intent was to “avoid a hedonistic Bangkok holiday.” He wanted to see how life was for another group of people – foreign prisoners. “These people are as much a part of Bangkok as the tuk-tuk drivers and the market vendors…”
With that motivation, Sharp followed the directions offered in the hostel notice and after a 30-minute boat ride followed by a brief walk he arrived at the Bankwang Prison. In the midst of the noise and chaos of young families and bureaucrats, Sharp spotted some Westerners. He approached them and was introduced to Greet, a Dutch missionary who visits prisoners twice yearly. Greet organized the group of tourists, including Ari Sharp, and helped them navigate the bureaucracy. Sharp requested a visit with Jagnathan Samynathan, a Malaysian imprisoned at Bangkwang, whom he had read about on the hostel’s notice board and thought wouldn’t receive as many visits as western prisoners. While there are more than 7,000 foreign prisoners currently serving time in Thailand according to government stats, the majority are from other countries in Asia. The dozens of American, French and European prisoners are usually held for a period of time that ranges depending on the treaty arrangement countries have made with Thailand but seems to average around eight years. They can then be transferred to prisons in their own countries.
Sharp says that Samynathan “exuded warmth and friendliness”. He spent about two hours with “Jag” as he now refers to him, discussing the prisoner’s background, then moving on to news, politics, sport and family. The tourists seemed more depressed at the prisoners’ plight than those behind bars, says Sharp.
The whole experience, he says, gave him a “much greater appreciation of the everyday freedoms that I am lucky enough to have.” He also considers himself lucky to have gained two penfriends with whom he remains in touch. What’s more, the visits taught him about “the power of forgiveness and the respect for the ability of people to change.”
Kay Danes would be delighted. “People make mistakes and sometimes they do things out of desperation,” she says. “Those who are guilty already know they have done wrong. On the other end of the spectrum, there are prisoners detained for no reasonable explanation, like political prisoners I met in Laos. They live everyday wondering if they will see their loved ones again.”
Prison tourism seems to have its genesis in requests by relatives of foreign inmates who, through tacked up signs in hostels and guesthouses, encouraged travelers to visit their loved ones behind bars since they could visit only infrequently or not at all. But, fad or not, prison tourism seems to have heightened awareness of the conditions under which some people are held, often without even benefit of a fair trial.
And that awareness works to not only help the prisoners, but might even keep a traveler from making a similar mistake. Garth Hattan reported that, more than anything, he missed his nomadic existence and advises travelers to "Enjoy your travels, and never put yourself in a position that would jeopardize your freedom to do so."
If you are a traveler who wants to make a prison visit part of your trip, be sure you behave with consideration and respect. And remember that this is not a photo opportunity—cameras are usually prohibited—but it is a sobering experience opportunity.
If you’re interested in visiting a prisoner, first visit www.foreignprisoners.com. The site offers a list of prisons around the world as well as prisoners’ names and stories. Be sure you follow the rules and never promise anything that you're not prepared to deliver -- from sending a letter to contacting a loved one on the prisoner's behalf.