Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mark and Juliah in Big Tiger

With one spare day in Bangkok, we woke early to visit foreign inmates at Bangkwang Men's Prison, at the far edge of the city, last stop on the Bangkok commuter ferry. We'd heard conditions at the jail were awful, and the guys there, most of them incarcerated on drug charges, appreciated any kind of visitors and the gifts they might bring. It wasn't out of sense of charity that we went, but a drive to get away from the tour buses and banana pancakes, to do something a little off the beaten path in the city that had become the beaten path, plus a burning curiosity for a glimpse of life in a foreign prison.
The jail was surprisingly easy to find, guards shockingly friendly and obliging, and everything appeared much nicer than I'd expected. The man we'd intended to see, Jody Aggett, had been freed several months prior, and Julie and I were at a bit of a loss. "He go home,"the guard said, but gave us the name of another inmate he recommended we meet. Though we were the only foreigner present, besides a pair of Indian and Sri Lankan missionaries, the prison staff seemed used to dealing with visiting tourists.
Michael Connel had been caught at 19 trying to smuggle ecstacy into Bangkok Airport. He'd been acting independently,thinking he could turn a neat profit off the only drug not available in the Golden Triangle. His Thai lawyer told him not to worry: "'Given your age, and the fact that it was your first offense, I think I can get you off with 30 years,'" Michael related to me. The judge gave him life, with the contingency of a death sentence, should it be recommended by a higher court. I don't support foreigners trafficking drugs abroad, as it cuts into local business, but I can certainly see the screwed up logic of a 19 year-old trying to make some money on his vacation.
"But I'll be out of here in another 6 years," he said. Britain's working on a treaty for prisoner transfers with Thailand. America has a similar one, that allows US nationals to be charged and tried in Bangkok, but to serve their sentences at jails back home. "Once I'm there, I'll probably serve another 6 years, and be paroled." Michael had already served 7 years. He'd had his hair shaved short and looked in good health, wearing his own clothes--an adidas jumpsuit and baseball cap--rather than the standard orange jumpsuit, a privelige for good behavior. His manner was kind, courteous, relaxed, and altogether charming. When I lifted the gift sack of fruits, cookies, chocolates, and toiletries to the viewing window for him to see, he thanked us graciously.
"I'm sorry," I said, "we weren't sure what exactly you needed in there. I hope these things will be useful."
"Have you got any freedom in the bag?" he laughed. "Did you happen to bring any of that with you?"
I had no idea how to respond that.
"To tell you the truth, I'd rather serve out my sentence here than back home. Here, the guards are easy going and will leave you alone, so long as you don't cause trouble. I've got a job with the medical dispensary, and that keeps me busy. If you look around here, you'll see most of the guards sleep half the day. I imagine the British jails will be a lot rougher, full of gangs, with fights breaking out."
I told him I was confused; up til then, I'd been informed of Thai prisons only from reading The Damage Done by Warren Fellows, a memoir of eating rats to survive, of keeping one's head down to avoid sadistic guards.
"What you have to keep in mind is that that book was written 20 years ago,"Michael said. "It's nowhere near as bad as it was then."

Michael is a genuinely nice person. He made a serious mistake at age 19 and certainly deserved to be banned from Thailand, but it's very difficult to see the justice in any teenager being detained for 30 years to life, with the constant promise of a firing squad hanging over his head, then deprived of the chance to attend university or get any sort of professional training. If and when he's released, he'll be a much older, much sorrier person with far fewer resources for supporting himself, and he'll be alone.
Julie and I are asking you to do something kind this holiday: send Michael a postcard, a letter, or even a small care package to let him know people are thinking of him. You can reach him at:

Michael Connel
Bangkwang Central Prison
Building 12
1 Nonthaburi Road
Nonthaburi, Bangkok 11000

If you'd like to contact other foreigners at Bangkwang, there's a roster of inmates here. All of them appreciate your support.

Mark and Juliah

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