Bang 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.
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.
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