Tag - bang kwang

A Prison Visit

bangk_175Bang Kwang is famous as the Bangkok Hilton, however, the Thai nickname for it is “Big Tiger” because it eats people.
I remember a few years ago walking down the famous Khao San Road and seeing a sign pasted to a wall that said “Visit Prisoners in Thailand” and it sparked my curiosity as something different a change, but never got round to it, then a few years ago Michael Connell’s case made the news when he disembarked from a plane at Bangkok Airport with 3400 disco biscuits in his suitcase. For a long time I was in two minds about going to visit, I’d read the book “Damage Done” by Warren Fellows and wanted to try and see if I could help one of the prisoners but at the same didn’t want to be involved in ghoulish tourism. I was speaking to a mate of mine called Spike, who’s from Bury in Lancashire and the topic cropped and his eyes lit up.

“I’ve been visiting Mike every week since he got caught. I send him fags and stuff. He really appreciates visitors, he’d be happy to see you.”

With a few more pressing matters out of the way I headed down to Bang Kwang Prison in Nonthaburi on the northern edge of Bangkok yesterday, carefully dressed despite the heat in long trousers and a long sleeved shirt I got out of my taxi at the main gate. Outside there were groups of women praying, some looked like nuns, I don’t honestly know if this is a regular sight or if there was a specific reason for them to intercede but anyway I headed over the road to the visitors centre where I handed in a photocopy of my passport and explained that I was there to see Michael Connell.

“Building 2 cannot. Closed. Come back tomorrow. Today building 4, 5, 6.” “Are there any other foreigners I can visit from those buildings then.” “Not today! Sorry!”

The visitors centre didn’t look like much, it was like a lot of Thai places bus terminals, council offices, utility companies, it was a partially open sided building with a thin roof, concrete floor, rows of plastic seating occupied by the odd official behind a grille or desk handing out bits of paper and stamping them when they returned. I was taking in the sights and considering buying some food in the shop/restaurant attached when a foreign lady walked in.

“Hello.”

She smiled back and when I politely asked her her business she explained she was visiting her boyfriend and that despite Mike not being eligible for visitors that day another Brit Anthony Flanaghan was so I filled in the necessary forms and was told that I could see him at 9:30 so went and sat with Ellsie, the German lady who helpfully played tour guide for me. I bought some fruit from the counter and put it in a carrier bag then wrote “Anthony Flanaghan Building 4” on it. When the time arrived we were given back our forms and a security card to attach to our shirt, we crossed the road and took a door round the side of the main entrance.

Now despite its reputation the place didn’t seem that harsh; the walls were high as you’d expect of a prison but the uniformed staff who searched me and x-rayed the bag of fruit were all smiles the way a lot of Thai people are, more so in some ways, the few corridors and doors we walked through didn’t seem that dungeonesque or horrific more like being in the belly of an old ferry – you know, big wooden doors with bolts and 15 coats of paint.

The final big door opened out into a courtyard with two long out buildings running down either side. Ellsie hurried along, she was keen to see her boyfriend. Inside the long houses look more like a big post office terminal rather than a prison where there are glass and aluminum partitioned booths with a chair and a phone on the desk. Through the glass there’s a gap and some metal bars and a corridor.

Ellsie told me the phones worked in two particular booths at one end and that the guards had to go and get the prisoners and could be anything from 10 minutes to half an hour. Tony who was born in 1970 was arrested in Bangkok in 2004 carrying drugs. The full story is a bit vague but an accomplice of his was arrested shortly after on Ko Samui and a search of his house retrieved smaller amounts of drugs. Shortly after arrest Tony who grew up in Coventry in the West Midlands was sentenced to death, the death sentence was reduced on appeal in December 2006 to life imprisonment and in January 2007 to 33 years.

As I waited for Tony the place started to fill up, mainly with women come to visit husbands, fathers or sons, but there was a small group of English women who seemed up beat and high spirited who congregated near the corner that Ellsie and I were in. Judging from overheard conversation one was a mother come to visit a son, the others were regular visitors who visited once or twice a week and helped keep the spirits of the English inmates high.

When Tony arrived he seemed genuinely pleased to receive a visitor and also well liked by the English entourage he made a few coarse jokes with them and asked if they’d had news from his sister. He appeared healthy, upbeat and in good spirits. When I asked him how he was he said, “Walking on air man. They’ve just let me off death row a few weeks ago and took my leg irons off. They weigh 3 and a half kilos it’s not easy getting around in them and when they come off it’s like learning to walk again.”

He talked about his predicament and accepted his fate which he seems to have come to terms with (as did Mike when I spoke to him later) and struck me as being a likeable and intelligent character. When I asked him how he occupied himself he told me that he wakes at 6:30, when he is allowed out of the cell into the open area where him and two or three mates have their own little shelter or “house” as they like to call it, where they can cook, chat, exercise, read until 3pm when they have to go back to the cell. Tony then likes to be asleep by 9 so tries to exercise as much as he can in the free part of the day but will often read until he sleeps.

When asked what he likes to read he told me, “Philosophy mainly, I’ve been reading Plato, Socrates, Marx things like that, there’s quite a big library here we all put our books in there when we’re finished. I’ve read loads of novels and fiction I can’t be bothered with them.”

I was expecting having read “The Damage Done” in which an Australian serving time for a similar offence to Tony tells of the horrors of the jail to be regaled with stories of eating lice and mixing the puss out of open sores in to add flavour and although there were some unsavory details passed on I was surprised at how little Tony complained.

He told me the cell is crowded, his has 20 men in a space around 7 meters by 5, others can hold as many as 30 although some hold less as well. Now he’s off death row things are a lot easier and although he has a long sentence he intends to stay in the Thai prison system for the duration and relatively speaking he has a short sentence.

But Tony to his credit when mentioning a negative will always counter it with a positive, he told me of his two sons Kyle and James aged 19 and 16 and how James is joining the army, after telling me that he has to shower and wash using river water he tells me he’s got top marks in his Thai language lessons.

The subject of Michael Connell crops up as it was him I initially wanted to visit and he explains that Mike is hoping to get transferred to British jail although Tony would prefer to stay in Thailand because of the violence within the British prison system. He elaborates that stuff does go on in Thai jail, but it is confined and manageable.

As we talk (despite being told by officials to the contrary) Michael Connell walks past behind Tony and I point him out, Tony explains I can speak to him later once our visit is nearly up. When Mike comes over to talk he appears again like Tony upbeat and complicit of his fate. He appears underweight and explains he’s lost a lot because he’s playing football in free time and sweating it out in the heat and not really eating properly, he looks forward to being in the UK, although Tony feels life is a bit more easy going in a Thai jail despite the uncertainty. They both remain optimistic of further reductions in their sentence however readily admit that the uncertainty of any reduction is part and parcel of the Thai system.

There seems a genuine camaraderie amongst the inmates receiving visitors and despite the lengths of their sentences a genuine optimism for the future. When the visit was over I passed the bag of fruit through a hatch to be passed on to him and wondered if Tony would eat it or turn it into the hooch he told me the inmates use to get pissed on at the weekend.

Copyright Dominic Lavin. Not to be reproduced in part or whole. Anyone wishing to use this piece should contact the author for permission. Visit Dominic’s MySpace Page.

Prison Visits

Visiting Prisoners in Bangkok Don’t go to Bang Kwang prison with any illusions…

‘Brokedown Palace’ is a movie, and although there may be the occasional exception, the foreign inmates in Bang Kwang have broken Thai law. Given that, Bang Kwang’s foreign prisoners are a long way from home and often short of a few of the necessities in life. A visit from someone with a bit of time on their hands can therefore be something the foreign prisoners in Bang Kwang genuinely cherish – and if you are up to it, it’s a worthwhile thing to do.

What follows is the definitive guide to how to become a prison visitor.

Provided by “Princess” from the UK, apparently an old hand at visits, the information given should be read carefully before even considering going up to Bang Kwang – if you don’t you could make things worse for the people you are trying to help.

Getting there:
From Banglampoo Pier (Khao San) take the big whistling boat going upstream (to the right). It costs 6 Baht to Nonthaburi and takes 40 minutes. Nonthaburi is the last stop and you will recognize it by the white clock tower by the pier and the AMPM convenience store. Jump off the boat and walk straight on – ignore the touts! Take the 1st left and walk about 250 meters. You will see Bang Kwang prison on the right. You will need to go to the registration area on the left…

Dress:
Guys must wear long trousers. Dress respectfully, whatever your sex. It really pisses the guards off girls wearing tiny shorts and vest-tops. Please dress properly because there are rumors the prisoners’ visits will stop because of backpackers. Make sure you know exactly who you will call out as well – it annoys the guards when people ask for names they don’t know. If you want names you can call the relevant embassies: UK Embassy – 02 305 8333 – ask for Maureen, Kate or Anita. They will not give prisoners’ names over the phone though so you will have to go down to the embassy in person to meet them. American Embassy and others may give names over the telephone – I’m not really sure.

Food:
If you bring food from outside put it in a large clear bag. You can buy bags at the registration area cafe for 2 Baht. Write the name of the prisoner you are visiting on the bag. After you have visited the prisoner, you have to hand the food in at the counter (where 100 people or so hang around!). You hand in the original form and your passport. Wait for your passport to come back (usually takes 10 minutes) and off you go.

Books, etc.:
If you want to bring mags, books or papers hand, them into the Foreign Affairs office on the right as you go into the prison area. Leave the prisoner’s name and building number on the cover and they’ll get them… Don’t bring magazines with too many naked pictures in them though – they won’t get through. Other info: Please be aware that the prisoners sometimes have family or friends visiting. Look in the registration book to see if someone has already called out the prisoner you are visiting. It’s very frustrating for prisoners when they have people they know over and someone randomly chooses to visit them! Beware that in August and December this may occur more often because that’s when contact visits take place and families come over… Be very careful at these times. Very few women get visitors and have to rely on missionaries.

To write to a prisoner:
Address an envelope as follows –

Name of prisoner
Bldg. No.
Bang Kwang Prison
Nonthaburi Road
Nonthaburi
11000

Final thoughts:
If you are not really up to this, don’t go… time wasters won’t help anyone. Be sensitive to the prisoners’ situation – if you say you will do something for them, such as send an email for them or something, then please do it – imagine their frustration if you don’t. It’s also handy to take a pen and paper in. Just chat normally. If they want to tell you their story, they will. But they’ve probably told their story 1,000 times so they may want to talk about other stuff!

Footnote from KSR.com
For more information about this you can take a look at the Internet and find a number of sites. It’s not our intention to link to any of these sites because some of them are critical and make what we regard as slanderous remarks about Thailand. We can’t support those sorts of sites, but visit them if you want to. However, be aware of what you are reading – there are far fewer victims around than you might think! Most people know what they are getting into…

Here’s one site we can link to http://www.correct.go.th/brief.htm

Apology:

In our ‘Banged up’ section giving information about visiting prisoners in Bangkok, we wrote: “Some countries offer support to nationals who find themselves in prison abroad, others do not. The United Kingdom, for instance, offers British prisoners on Thai soil no support whatsoever.” We received the email below from Angela Tokalau at the British Embassy who gave us a more informed picture:

Dear Sirs,

I happened on your site by accident and read, with much disappointment, the comment made in your seciton on visiting prisoners in Bang Kwang.

I am the Second Secretary (Vice Consul) at the British Embassy and feel that you need to have some more information about what we actually do for our prisoners while they are on Thai soil.

Prisoners in Bangkok receive a visit from an Embassy official every month, more often if there is a problem (health etc). For those in prison in the provinces, we visit every three months. We provide vitamins and prescription medicine free of charge and also pay for medical, dental and optical treatment for each prisoner, regardless of their circumstances.

We do shopping on their behalf, run bank accounts for them at the Embassy, arrange their transfers to British prisons if they are eligible, advise on preparing Royal Pardon Petitions and keep in regular contact with their families. For some of our priosners, we are the only visitors they get.

Can you honestly call this no support?!

Also, please note the Embassy telephone number was changed over a year ago to 02 305 8333.

I would therefore be grateful if you would arrange for the comments about the Embassy’s lack of support to be removed from your website.

Yours faithfully

Angela Tokalau (Mrs)
Second Secretary (Vice Consul)
British Embassy Bangkok

Our sincere apologies for this misinformation.