The Real Bangkok Hilton

Lazing back at the hostel planning on my next big adventure, I came across this on the notice board (read the whole thing here):

It is usually possible to go and visit a prisoner without prior notice.
These visits allow the visitor to have a conversation with only a fence,
( or two fences as at Bangkwang ) between yourself the prisoner.

Message boards around Bangkok invite the casual traveler to visit anytime.
SCHEDULES : Bangkwang Klong Prem Lard Yao Women's Prison

This was an experience too exciting to pass up. There are so many layers to this encounter, I think I should start off by just explaining what I saw:

Dutifully, I followed the straight foward instructions that lead me to the river, on a 30 minute river express boat ride up to the poverty-riddled northern part of Bangkok, and then for a brief walk to the prison grounds. The visitors centre is a chaotic open-air courtyard, with surly bureaucrats and young families clustered around some tables and chairs fanning themselves from the heat. Amongst the crowd of Thais there were a handful of western faces, whom I approached.

There were five fellow backpackers (from Canada, Finland and the UK) as well as a missionary worker from Holland, Greet (her name, not her response to me). Greet has been travelling to Bangkok twice a year for nearly a decade, and has befriended many of the prisoners. She is also fully aware of the procedures for visiting prisoners. Following her instructions, I photocopied my passport with the help of one of the officials, and then obtained a visitors slip from another. Along with all the details about myself, I also had to nominate the prisoner I was there to visit. At the hostel I had read a little about Jagnathan Samynathan, a Malaysian national imprisoned at Bangkwang. I put his name on the form.

As a group, the seven of us then headed across to the prison itself. Bags need to be checked it - including cameras, money, books... everything but for pen and paper, passport and a bottle of water. The visiting centre at the prison is a chaotic, noisy one, not helped by the mid-construction of the new centre in the same area. On one side, prisoners sit side by side with a decent space between each, on simple benches. In from of them is thickly matted wire, with spaces of no more than a square centimetre in the long fence. On the opposite side is the visitors area, with a similar set up. Visitors sit along long benches, with wire and bars in front of them. A metre gap separates the prisoners' fence from the visitors' fence.

At one end of these long parallel fences sit the Thai prisoners and their visitors, whilst at the other sit the foreign prisoners. Speaking with a raised voice is the only way to communicate, due to both the distance between the visitor and prisoner, and also the noise from other conversations. It is trying and frustrating, but the prisoners are used to the inconvenience and carry on regardless. On the wall in both English and Thai is a warning that any anyone caught trying to organise narcotic sales will be given the death penalty. And have a nice day.

Finally I met Jagnathan, or Jag as he soon became. Jag was an amazingly warm and friendly man, talking at ease about some of the most horrendous and soul-destroying experiences. Piece by piece his story was revealed. Jag is a committed Christian from the Mallaca province in Malaysia and in his late 30s. When a shipping business he was the founder of was struggling in 1991, he headed to Bangkok to try and make his fortune. Soon a drug deal he was involved in went horribly wrong, and the participants who had been caught immediately led them to Jag, who was arrested for his part. With the aid of a Thai government appointed lawyer (who did not speak English, with Jag - at the time - not speaking any Thai) he saw his options as to plead guilty, and accept a life sentence which might be commuted to a lengthy stay, or to plead not guilty, and if he lost, to face the death penalty, which might be commuted to life in prison, with little hope of any shoter sentence. He chose to fight it, and lost.

Jag has spent 14 years on the inside of Bangkwang prison. In 1996, at the 50th annivesary of the King's corronation, his death penalty was commuted to life in prison, a change which meant he no longer needed to wear shackles on his legs 24 hours a day. He has seen many prisoners come into Bangkwang, but seen few leave. Overcrowding is rife at the prison, and up to 8,000 prisoners are no held there, clearly beyond its capacity. Jag sleeps in a room with 25 others, and there is no bedding at all. They sleep on the cold floors, and if they are enterprising enough they can make a small blanket, no larger than the size of a pillow case from Jag's desciption.

As we are talking, some other prisoners walk by and stop for a chat. Two who sit down to discuss their situation are a couple of British prisoners, in prison for drug offences. Andrew Hawke, Michael Connell (more about Andrew and Michael here) and Lee James William. All of them are remarkably stoic and accepting of their plight. Universally, they accept that they have done wrong but believe they deserve a second chance. There is no sense of self-pity or desperate longing for the outside world, tempting as that must be. To keep morale high, the four joke and toy with each other, thick British accents seeming strangely out of place. They mutter about the silliness of the prison bureaucracy and its obscure rules and decisions, and there is a general consensus that the medical care is inadequate. One prisoner was told he was lying about his injured leg and so denied assistance, was Jag avoids the pain of his peptic ulcers through his own crude treatment - he avoids eating anything.

In my mind there is a stereotype of the typical prisoner, and this stereotype is only greater for those in a foreign prison. I expect world-weary people, who show the phyiscal and emotional scars of time on the inside and hold a high level of cynicism about the outside world. In my mind, it is hardened wrongdoers who find they way into prison, and they are people who know little else. The stereotype is wrong, at least in this case. The prisoners I met were fundamentally good blokes, who for their own regrettable reasons did wrong. They are worldly, intelligent, well-read and hopeful about having a decent future. Easy as it would be to dismiss them as fools or worse, they are not the dregs of society but instead the wrong people in the wrong circumstance.

Jag mentioned that he believes he has had an especially tough time because of his nationality. As a Christian from the predominantly Muslim nation of Malaysia, he believes his government was not prepared to fight for his release or his transfer home. Also because of his nationality, he believes he doesn't receive the volume of visitors the other prisoners recieve, many of which are European missionaries or British travellers keen to comfort 'one of their own'. Jag has used his time inside productively, and has learnt Thai, perfected English, and is now attempting Spanish (to go with his Malay and Tamil from before he entered) as well as learning to play the guitar. There is a sense that Jag is arming himself for life on the outside, although sadly this seems to be a long way off. Jag was hopeful that the 60th anniversary of the royal corronation in 2006 might result in a pardon for himself and some other prisoners.

Finally the bells ring and it is time to depart the visitors centre. Tearful farewells are exchanged amongst both the Thai families there to visit their loved ones and the foriegn visitors there to make contact with new people. The tears are all from those outside the prison - for those inside it is just another grinding day, and just another farewell until the next visit.

From there it was on to Klong Prem prison, a thirty minute bus ride away. Stories from inside there reflect a similar reality, although the ethnic rivalries are interesting. Several Burmese prisoners are housed at Klong Prem, including Zaw Naing Htun, who I spoke with. The foriegn prisoners are giving special treatment, including high quality white rice and and exemption from labour. The Burmese, however, are grouped with the Thai prisoners, and given the tough treatment. Like with Jag, Zaw expects little help from his Embassy and has been underwhelmed by their interest.

All in all, a dark and sinister side to Bangkok, and one that few visitors get to see. The stories from those inside haunts anyone who hears them, and this is perhaps the closest thing to a living hell. Difficult conditions, no one who cares and no hope of release.

The prisoners at Bangkwang can be contacted at:

Bangkwang Prison
Nonthaburi Road
Nonthaburi, 11000


Anonymous said…
Ari, how do you feel after your visits to the prison? You paint a really disturbing picture to we very sheltered innocents back home.
Anonymous said…
A dark and sinister side indeed.

Clearly an anomaly in the sweet-smelling and fastidiously clean city.

Aside from the amputees crawling through the street asking for spare cash. And the fifty year-old dudes from Nimbin walking through the markets hand-in-hand with Thai children.
Anonymous said…
very interesting certainly not the usual touristy thing
and very well written, s
Anonymous said…
The Foreign Prisoner Support Service has lots of info and names of people to visit.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous said…
interesting. im going to visit thailand again in november. maybe i will visit a prison.
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Anonymous said…
Hi Ari,

I've just read Welcome to Hell by Colin Martin. Colin spent 10 years in the BH after he hit a fraudster's bodygaurd. Defintely the the best prison memoir I've read. Published by Maverick House Publishers, I think.

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