Visiting a British Inmate in Bang Kwang Prison; Robbo’s big day out at the Big Tiger

_39556203_michaelconnell203In mid-November 2003, 19 year old Michael Connell boarded a flight from Manchester to Bangkok with two tubs of moisturising cream, each discreetly containing 3400 ecstasy pills. He was arrested at the airport only minutes after landing and after a gruelling trial was sentenced to 99 years in the notorious Bang Kwang prison, the setting for some of the darkest stories I’ve ever heard. Locals, and various online news sources, refer to it as Big Tiger; it prowls and eats. Today, I’m going to visit him. Today would also be the day that most people would ask me about when I got back home from my travels.

25/1/2011: I’ve wanted to visit Bang Kwang ever since reading about it in The Damage Done; a compendium of horrors compiled by Warren Fellows who served time there between 1978-1990 for heroin smuggling. For every documented story about desperate junkies in Thai prison cells, injecting the remains of their heroin from the rotting entrails of a pig’s intestine it was smuggled in, there are probably a thousand more like it.

I know what I’m doing. I know this isn’t some kind of display of humbling humility on my part as only a fool would manage to convince themselves that visiting a prisoner abroad is a selfless act borne 100% out of concern for the inmate’s wellbeing or basic human rights. I’m under no illusion, and fully accepting of the fact this won’t count towards my karma-credit nor will it be something that proudly occupies the ‘key achievement section’ on my CV. My motives for this are 50% selfish intrigue, 40% concern for the lad on the otherside and 10% to fill the time between catching my evening flight to LA.

Word has it that an inmate’s daily diet consists of rice and fish heads, and so I earmarked a batch of goods and grub to bring along with me to give to Michael. From the backpacking safe houses of Khao San Road, I got up early and walked down to the river to catch a boat upstream to Nonthaburi, the final stop. On route I popped into a small supermarket. Like Louis Theroux stocking up on supplies and gifts before going to visit one of his subjects I scanned the lackluster shelves for potential gifts. I was very limited in what I could bring (no tins or foil) so loaded up on bananas, apples, dry foods, some spices, biscuits, chewing gum, toiletries and cigarettes. I wanted to get him something British, something he might be missing. Perhaps some West Country cider, strawberries and cream, triangular cut shortbread. Then I thought of a great point Jeremy Paxman makes in his book The English; when the British wistfully look back to Blighty, we don’t tend to miss the buzz of the cities, but the rolling fields and village greens. The British soldiers on the frontline during World War 2 were sent postcards of the British countryside with the stern reminder “this is what we are fighting for” to boost morale and a sense of duty, despite the fact that it was the cities that were constantly under threat by the Nazi’s nightly air raids. What relevance would a slice of Wensleydale cheese have in bringing me and a lad from Greater Manchester closer together? Naturally, I opted for a multipack of Snickers instead, which of course melted into one big sorry state of affairs on the boat ride up there.

I examined my motives once again on the boat up the murky Chao Phraya River. It was a bit like in that episode of Friends where simpletons Joey and Phoebe discuss the possible existence of a selfish act. If you haven’t seen that episode of Friends, don’t bother, that’s pretty much it.

Once off the boat a brisk walk was had through the half dead town before I reached the large prison.

 The watch out towers can be seen from the river pier but it’s when approaching the  outerwall that runs 2,085 metre around the 80 acre prison site do you get a full sense of how big it is. The main road that runs alongside it is surprisingly quite, which somehow perpetuates the feeling of muted screams coming from the otherside of the walls. In Fellow’s book he talks of how when he first approached the prison, even in the confines of the police truck, he could feel the hatred humming from within it. It’s kind of true I suppose.

Opposite the visitors entrance, on the other side of the road, is where you go to register and hand in your passport. Two young Thai girls were there to help me, who presumably are volunteers. I was pointed the way to Building 12 which was back on the otherside of the road, where I handed my slip of paper in along with all my personal belongings to a guard at the front desk. I was escorted through a large iron gate and into a room which at first I found incredibly dark and cold, but only in appearance and colour. Temperature wise it was sweltering; things can’t be looking good for the inmates in this heat.

The dim light of the room was sourced from overhead light bulbs dangling from the ceiling, the only natural light seeping through the cracks of the two iron doors that sandwiched the room; one to the outside and the other to the prison. I was given a boiler suit to wear, due to wearing shorts, by the next set of guards. Before going to have my bag of food checked, I saw a sign telling me there were 7500 prisoners here with 754 of them being foreign. Membership to this prison requires you are sentenced to at least 25 years. Also written on the whiteboard (numbers are easily edited and erased) was the number of foreigners on death row; 264.

The place smelt like a 1980’s public baby change room. Not necessarily of shit, but the pungent eye stinging chemical that was used to eradicate the smell of human waste, which can be just as unpleasantly overbearing and stomach churning than raw sewage itself. The fact I haven’t smelt this since my own days of crapping my pants, is testament to how instantly recognisable the stench is. I say 1980’s, because office maintenance in Britain has come a long way in recent years, but that’s not to say the Far East has. Back home the only place you’d smell such an odour is in a classroom or bus garage after some cheeky chappy has let off some farting gas or a stink bomb. If Bangkok is still using the reserves of chemicals that have probably been exported from the West after compliance with EU regulations, I hate to see what they were using back when Warren Fellows was an inmate in ‘78.

Maybe their reputation precedes them, no thanks to the abundance of books about life in Thai prisons, but it’s incredibly hard not to feel on constant alert around the prison guards. Even the fat jovial one who selects my jumpsuit from a dirty damp pile in the corner of the room looks like he has more than a capacity to distribute some serious misery on someone. A few weeks back, myself and Ben (my mate who I’d spent most of the last 2 months with backpacking South-East Asia) were in the north of Vietnam, in which our initial reaction to the locals was this;

“With many of the native people we have met in Vietnam, there appears to be a thin veil of geniality and chivalry while beneath they could all potentially be hard face, mirthless and stolid bastards working behind a pain of glass at a border control checkpoint.”

The border control simile was in reference to a particular frightening experience we had on the Laos/Vietnam frontier but that’s a different story altogether. Of course, the further south we travelled in Vietnam the more our opinion changed towards a population of pleasant, and genuinely sanguine in temperament, people but the above sentence resonated with me in particularly when standing there in the decompression unit of Bangkok’s central prison with only the unpredictable, certainly unreadable, prison guards for company. These boys do not mess about.

After passing the final pat down test (cameras are strictly forbidden), they unlocked the huge thick metal door and I was in, entering back into the sunshine and through into a large rectangular grey courtyard. At the far opposite end was a guard who I was told would take the bag of food and eventually pass it on to the inmate.

On each side of the courtyard, running up the side walls towards the drop-off guard, were two sets of corridors – running parrell to the plant pots pathetically dotted around in the middle of the courtyard’s void. It was incredibly quite, so I walked to the top and dropped Michael’s things off, which was followed by instructions to wait inside the corridor on the left hand side of the courtyard.

 Inside the corridor, entering via a mesh door, were a row of chairs side by side facing inwards towards a pain of glass; I plonked down on the first one, with my back to the outside courtyard, grateful to be out of the sun and in the shade. Alongside each chair was a telephone wired up to the window. This humdrum routine ran the entire length of the corridor. It was only on closer inspection could you see through the glass to the other side. Through the smears of various oils and indistinguishable stains, you could make out an identical row of chairs and telephones. But there was a catch. Between me and the opposite row of vacant seats after the first glass sheet, was a row of thick metal bars followed by a gap of about 1.5 metres before another sheet of even thicker glass. Beyond was where the inmates sat, looking back out towards the visitor and the courtyard. Aside from me, there was only one other visitor present on this side of the glass; an Israeli who was overcome with grief as he tearfully argued through the phone to the shackled man opposite. One must not stare at trauma.

Those serving life here wear cast iron shackles around their legs. This also goes for those new to the prison, as everybody must endure them for the first 6 months regardless. I’m guessing the inmate on the other side was pretty new to it all, but clearly the guy in tears on my side was also struggling to come to terms with his friends predicament.

Eventually Michael, my host, entered from his side and sat down opposite me, picking up the phone in one swift action, while I did the same my end. If this scenario evokes images of a particular scene from American History X then you’re on the same wave length as me. I didn’t even notice him from the photos on the BBC News website which taken from his trial some years ago now in which he had been depicted as a skinny 19 year old. He now had a full beard, a bigger build and a pair of second hand glasses.

After the initial honeymoon period, I searched desperately for topics to discuss, mutual interests or at least some kind of game that could be conducted through four different formats of separation; glass, bars, passage, glass. I started off by asking him how he was keeping, rather apologetically on my part. Small talk; nobody deserves to be put through that.

“Not too bad considering my circumstances” he joked. He’s a real nice lad and I can’t help but hope everything works out for him.

Knowing he’s a united fan from many of the blogs I read, I started there. Then last year’s world cup and England’s embarrassing performance. He too thinks there’s too much money in football and thinks it’s a comical farce what some players get up to off the pitch.

Also…

He volunteers in the pharmacy. He gets a batch of vitamins sent in from the British Embassy each month. He gets 2 hours visiting time twice a week, Wednesday and Friday. He shares a cell about the size of an average family living room with 30 other blokes. He sleeps under constant surveillance and bright lights. He hasn’t seen his mum since his arrest although his Dad has been over once. It’s all really hard to take.

I meet Gale Bailey and her daughter, who come in from the courtyard a little after me, both originally from Leicestershire. They regularly visit the British prisoners along with many others from Thailand and around the world, bringing them nutrition and necessities. She is a committee member of the BCTFN (British Community in Thailand Foundation for the Needy – http://www.bctfn.com/) and now lives just outside Bangkok doing vast amounts of charity work. She’s certainly one of life’s good people. Her daughter and Michael talk like old friends (she hasn’t seen him for some time) and Gale tells me about the prison. The Israeli guy next to us, now in tears, is visiting his Brother who is doing life for heroin trafficking. I see an extremely attractive woman standing outside in the courtyard. She was stunning and looked out of place in front of the dreary background and drab framework. Gale tells me that she’s the wife of the Israeli guy on the other side of the glass and has subsequently moved over to Bangkok with their two children, who of course were just toddlers when their Daddy was arrested at Suvarnabhumi Airport carrying a Euro-bound suitcase of skag. I glance at him through the glass and hate him for what he’s done to his family. It’s the innocent relatives who pay a higher price.

Gale introduces me to Jag, who sits next to Michael. A very cheerful and witty Malaysian. Actually clever witty, not just comical because of his Malaysian novelty or his pronunciation of some english words. He’d been in here since 1991.

Christ, I started in Primary School in 1991 and for every moment and memory I’ve accumulated since then he’s been in here rotting away. Don’t know why, but I start reviewing some primary school memories. I’d put it down to the half-hearted attempts to grant vitality to the depressingly decaying visitor centre with the plant pots, a half arse attempt to look like a primary school perhaps. Maybe the fact that I’m surrounded by an abundance of wasted life, forces reflection on a much simpler time.

Considering everything, Jag didn’t look too bad actually. He was sentenced to death after he was found packing heroin into concealable packages at a friend’s house in the South of Thailand. He was guilty and freely admits it, although he tells me not everybody is. A French man he knows was arrested when a drug trafficker was caught at the airport and the police searched his phone and called the last 3 numbers that were on the call list. Unfortunately the French Guy was on the list and although obviously did know the trafficker, had no involvement in the operation whatsoever. Nonetheless, the Thai police tracked him down, set him up and had him arrested. He had been on holiday with his family and had probably made friends with the trafficker in one of the local bars or something before the arrest and exchanged numbers. He was now serving 90 years somewhere in this vicinity. Before Jag’s arrest he had run a successful shipping company in Singapore, although it went downhill and he soon found himself lured by the appeal of the drug trade. In 1996, his sentence was reduced to life. I wanted to hear more about him although he was particularly interested in me, asking me lots of questions. I told him about some of the marketing material for a Chinese washing detergent I’d spotted in Vietnam, for which I had written the script for the online commercial. He was clueless to the digital age. Books were not a problem to get hold of but the internet was a no go. He could speak 5 languages, but could not tell you how to setup an email account. He was optimistic that he would be out in 2016, at the age of 49 and hoped to go and help his sister who ran a nursing home or apply his experience with a logistics company although was very concerned about “how the world will view me”.

The guards had entered the corridor on the prisoner’s side and made it clear it was a wrap. Michael wanted to thank me for my time and I asked him if there was anything I could do for him back home, I would be more than happy to do it. “If you can get a helicopter on the top of the roof, that would be brilliant” he said with a chuckle before the guard gave him the eyes, and he got up and walked back to his cell, to continue his 99 year sentence.

Gale and her daughter went off to find a nice place to have lunch. I was going back to catch my flight to LA. These were our choices, a luxury up until now I have its fair to say, were taken for granted. Walking down the road back to the water bus, it struck me that in those few steps, I had gone further in this world than most of them people in the building behind me had in decades. Fuck ‘em? Some would say. But its easy to judge from outside.

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