This is an account of a friendship I have made with a girl that is serving a 40 year prison sentence in Thailand.
How this all Began
Around ten months ago in the U.K. I was randomly trawling the internet for anything of interest on our favourite tropical destination. Just by chance, I stumbled on an international prisoners abroad website.
Fascinating reading, news, views, stories and there is even a facility where you can email an inmate. Long lists of many nationalities are displayed and I accessed the Lard Yao section in Bangkok. Upon scanning through the list of prisoners my attention was drawn in particular to a girl from South Africa who was arrested whilst pregnant ten years ago. Her baby daughter was born inside the prison and returned to South Africa at the age of three. At the trial, the child’s mother was sentenced to 50 years, then commuted to 40 years on appeal. She has now served 10 years, so unless His Majesty the King of Thailand in his mercy grants a Royal Pardon, then a further 30 years she must serve.
I guessed as much that this girl would appreciate an English pen-friend so I sent over an introductory email. I have never written to an inmate before and this was to be the start of ten months of correspondence between us. All incoming and outgoing mail must go through a censor causing a delay, but I have found that our letters rarely go missing. Over the coming months my friend was open and honest about her life and the reasons leading to her current situation. Our friendship developed and I became increasingly concerned for her welfare. I saved up the cash and booked my ticket for Thailand whilst organising a two hour prison visit with the assistance of the South African embassy.
Crime and Punishment
Until recently I didn’t know what crime my friend had committed - [well, that’s the one question you can’t ask can you?]. I was sure it wouldn’t be bank robbery, or murder or treason. I didn’t want to focus on the girl’s past mistakes. That was history. I know she desperately wants another chance to re-build her life.
About a month ago I discovered that she tried to board a plane with a suitcase with a false compartment containing illegal drugs. Whilst travelling around I have sought the opinion of fellow farangs and Thais on this matter. Many are sympathetic but others take the view that people that commit serious crimes deserve everything they get. A sort of “no more to discuss/show no mercy” attitude. However, as I see it, the problem is that a verdict is never quite as black and white as pure guilt or pure innocence. Any grey areas should also be considered. For clarification, please read Sandra Gregory’s* excellent book “Forget you had a Daughter”. Sandra was arrested and sentenced to 25 years. One statement she made in her book was that “All the foreign girls in Lard Yao on drug offences have one thing in common, which is they were duped by a male”.
It’s my belief that when a woman gives her heart to a man she will trust him without question. Under such circumstances, she will not doubt anything he tells her. When you read Sandra’s incredible sequence of misfortunate events that lead to her arrest, then maybe her story will mellow your viewpoint. Does the punishment fit the crime? We could debate that issue for years and in the grand scheme of things, I guess the decision should remain within each Country’s own judicial system. But here is my take on this sensitive issue - let’s just say that I have the view that when anybody makes a big mistake in their lives, any punishment should never last forever. Shoot me down about this if you want to, but please remember that sadly, some of the poor souls serving long sentences have been completely forgotten about on the outside.
The resulting despair of being forgotten was never prescribed by any court of law.
Return to Bangkok
Any regular visitor to Thailand will recollect the warm feeling of excited anticipation as their taxi heads down the expressway to the metropolis. An expectation of what’s to follow if you like. February 6th 2004 arrives and on this particular occasion the feeling of excitement was heightened like never before. Just a premonition, but I knew this holiday was going to be exceptional.
Before I could make my prison visit there were a few things left to do. As one would expect there are restrictions to the type of gifts allowed.
Toiletries, cosmetics and underwear seem to be highly desirable items. Non controversial books and magazines are also prized. So the Robinsons branch on Sukhumvit did quite well out of me. Wandering around the ladies underwear department looking for bra and knickers was surprisingly, not an embarrassing task. It would have been in the U.K., but in Thailand nobody seems to bother about such trivial matters. So with my passport and bag of gifts I’m all set for the journey up to Lard Yao.
Day of the Visit
Lard Yao Mens and Ladies Prison is located in north Bangkok, about a 15 minute taxi journey from the Mo Chit skytrain station. It’s cheaper to take the boat up the Chao Phaya to Nonthaburi. On such a beautiful day, I would have preferred that nice boat ride but I didn’t want to risk being late and I had to collect a letter of authorisation from the South African embassy beforehand. It is quite possible to visit without contact with the embassy, but then it is restricted to only a 20 minute duration.
The visit would last for two hours and I worried about exhausting our conversation prematurely. I thought about the embarrassment of sitting there in silence.
As a precaution, I wrote a list of topics I wanted to discuss. A sort of cue card of items which I subsequently trash canned in my hotel room. I guessed it would keep it "natural" by remaining spontaneous.
It’s nice when these little decisions to go the right way.
My taxi pulled into the main drive way area that divides both the men and ladies prison. Over to the left side the cab stopped outside a security gate.
With a friendly wave through by the security guard I was inside the compound. There is an admin building where visitors must report to register. Everything was very relaxed and straightforward and I must say that all the staff within the building were helpful and friendly. Not at all formal like I had imagined. There is even a small outdoor restaurant for visitors and a shop where some basic gift items can be bought. The surrounding area is quite well landscaped, trees, plants, etc, it could almost resemble the entrance to a park, except of course for the high walls with barbed wire.
After a few minutes I was invited to the embassy room to wait out of the hot sun. My passport was borrowed and I was asked if I had a camera or telephone. I possessed neither, so was politely taken to a very comfortable waiting room where there was about an hour left until my appointment.
This gave me time to mentally run through all the questions I wanted to ask. What would be my first sentence? How inquisitive can I be without causing offence? What if I made a stupid mistake? How would I cope with any requests I could not comply with? What if we sat in silence? - I needn’t have worried.
Across from the waiting room was a long clean corridor about one metre wide. There were five upholstered small stools spaced out by about two metres. Above the stools a beige formica covered counter stretched the length of the corridor. From the counter to the ceiling a clear perspex screen was sealed on all sides, but a few small circular holes are positioned at head level to enable speech. The place was empty and very quiet and I sat patiently and waited.
Ten minutes early and my friend appeared behind the screen. She was wearing regular blue uniform, but had obviously gone to much trouble to make herself look very good with make up. We both sat down and smiled. The feeling of apprehension disappeared in an instant.
It was one of those personal moments that last in the memory.
I guess the conversation was split maybe 70% to my friend and 30% to myself. I was happy about that because she told me everything about her life. In particular she explained that she was always adventurous and very determined. She would pursue with energy anything that she wanted. I thought back to my younger days when there were times I always thought I knew what was for the best and wouldn’t take advice. Lucky for me that I made my mistakes in England where leniency is very much the norm.
It was extremely interesting to listen to her life story. She was very articulate and polite, and in particular, I was saddened to learn of the despair of being separated from her nine year old daughter. Due to high travel expenses, her daughter cannot visit regularly. Maybe once every year or two. The mother/daughter bond is very strong and so this must be extremely hard to endure. Whilst speaking about her daughter I could see the hurt in her eyes. Very sad indeed, but there is a glimmer of hope insofar that an application has been made to the King of Thailand for a Royal Pardon. This process can take a lot of time but sometimes it is granted. It would be a special day indeed if she could be re-united with her daughter back in South Africa. What a great photograph that would make. I’m hoping that day of reconciliation is not too far away.
Our topics of conversation were diverse to say the least. We discussed modern day living, technology advances, mobile phones with video, the skytrain, the internet, ice cream at Swensens, the meaning of happiness, finance, Singapore, Malaysia, religion, Aids, sorrow, alcohol, family life in South Africa, prison life in Thailand, family life in England, plus of course the dreadful weather in England (Brits never leave that out) and a few anecdotes here and there to lighten up the proceedings. All things considered, a thoroughly enjoyable conversation where neither of us were ever lost for words. After two hours and twenty minutes (I resisted to glance at my watch and it only ‘seemed like about one hour) my friend said that she should be getting back to her dormitory.
Surprisingly nobody came over to call time, but we knew the time was upon us to say our farewells. A sad moment until next visit - probably again later this year. As we have now become good friends, I will definitely go back again.
It was a memorable experience. A pleasure and a privilege I wouldn’t have traded for anything else.
A prison visit may not appeal to everyone, but if you enjoy the art of conversation and forming a new friendship with someone less fortunate, then it’s an experience I thoroughly recommend.
If you can’t spare the time to make a visit in person, you can definitely lift the spirit of an inmate by writing a letter. For the negligible cost of a stamp your mail will make a positive difference. Try to include a couple of post office reply coupons, because if your new friend is broke they can be used to buy stamps. I’m already convinced that all mail received from the outside is welcomed with opened arms, so please try to make the effort to write.
Moreover, if you are of a generous disposition, there is a prison shop where small items such as toothpaste, soap, biscuits etc are on sale. These sort of things we take for granted are very gratefully received. For those of you with exceptional generosity there is a counter where funds can be deposited in the prisoner’s own account. A receipt is given and the money will reach the inmate in a coupon format that can be spent in the shop. On that note, I'll leave everything to your good nature.
Thanks very much for reading this story. I’m interested to hear your views on this matter, favourable or otherwise. Please email me. I will make every effort to reply.
Finally, a big plea to everybody ..... Enjoy yourself in Thailand but please don’t break the law.
*Sandra Gregory was granted a King’s Pardon and has since taken a University course in the United Kingdom.