An Unplanned Visit to a Thai Prison, January 2002

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of emails I sent on past travels.

In December 2001 and January 2002 I took the five week winter break between my first and second semesters of graduate school and headed back to Southeast Asia. I spent the first two weeks in Indonesia, on the island of Bali, with my then-Balinese boyfriend. Originally we had planned to travel together for the rest of the weeks, but soon after my arrival it was apparent the relationship was not going to last. So, we broke up and on January 1 I flew into Bangkok to begin three weeks of travel split between Cambodia and Thailand.

On January 18, 2002, I had planned to join the usual guesthouse-organized visit to an elephant camp in northern Thailand, except I woke up to late. That sleep in resulted in one of the most extraordinary unplanned activities I have ever done while on vacation. I sent this email that same day, right after visiting the prison.

I stayed up rather late last night talking with my two dormitory roommates, so I slept in this morning and gave up trying to get out to see the elephants on my own. I had breakfast and went for a short walk, but I wanted to do something. The night before one of the dormitory roommates has shown me a nice map of Chiang Mai and suggested I might want to visit the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison. I did not even know if I could get in or if I really wanted to. I wondered what I would say to get in and would I sound convincing and would they think I was a journalist.

Generally, when people think of Thailand, they think of the beaches and mountains, beautiful ruins and great shopping, tuk-tuks and traffic and backpackers. I doubt prisons come into many people’s minds when thinking of Thailand, though of course they are there.

So I walked down to the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Facility, which is located almost in the center of the four kilometer square city walls of old Chiang Mai. I walked up to the gate, which was two metal slabs of a kind of celadon green, with a small square hole that slid open for people to talk to the guards inside. It rather made me think of the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy arrives at the Emerald City. Someone inside opened the gap and asked if they could help me. I said, “I want to go inside.” They told me to wait a moment. This seemed almost too easy. After some time – the gates open to let in a truck and some Thais carrying plastic bags of food – two female khaki-uniformed guards come out to speak to me. They ask me if I want to visit the American prisoner. I say I do.

One of the guards informs me that only her parents, brother and sister are usually allowed to see her, but I stand firm. I want to visit the American prisoner. So she tells me to go across the street to the store to buy some things for her and then come in for a visit.
I walk across the street wondering what I should buy. What would this woman need? The guard told me I could buy some soap and a toothbrush and toothpaste. So I purchase these items as well as a bottle of Coke, some talcum powder and some lotion. There is not much to buy in the store and I do not know anything about this woman other than she is American. At the cashier there are some other foreigners trying to buy some things for themselves. They are confused; they do not realize this is a store for prison visitors to buy items for the prisoners. A man at the counter tries to explain this to me and when I tell him I am buying these items for a prisoner who looks surprised. I pay for my purchases and fill out a piece of paper written completely in Thai. Someone tries to help me but one of the questions is the name of the prisoner and I do not even know that. I start to write “American Prisoner” when the clerk speaks with some guards and then turns to me and says “Rebecca.” Yes, I am here to see Rebecca.

The slip is stapled to a bag and thrown into a pile. I protest. I tell them I will be visiting Rebecca and I want to bring her these items. I want to visit her! I sound so sure. Do I really? They inform me it will be delivered to her and I am directed to a small office behind the store. There I wait on plastic seats waiting with a group of Thais. A guard calls out some names and some people waiting come forward and then cross the street to the prison. I wait for my name to be called. The guard merely looks around for me and nods. I want to get my gifts I bought at the store but I am told those will be delivered at 3 pm. It is now 2:05 and visiting hours end at 2:30. I am told to cross the street. This time the green gate is opened to me. I am now inside the prison.

Inside is yet another waiting room with more plastic chairs. There are many people here, perhaps 20 or 30, even some small children. I am told to place my paper in a small wooden trough hanging on some bars. I place it there and step inside another small room where there are people standing in wait. A Thai man next to me tells me in English, “Now we wait.” From there I can see another area. One the outside are guards who are checking the plastic bags of food, writing the names of the prisoners on them, and then passing them through a small window. Beyond that is the visiting room. I can see a long row of chairs and a glass partition separating the visitors from the prisoners. There is a lot of chatter in Thai, most people appear happy. A buzzer sounds and the visitors in the visiting room stand up and file out, a new group of visitors file in. The prisoners are led out, a new group is led in. I wonder what to do. The helpful man tells me, “You will be next, in the last group.” Then a young woman comes up, she looks at me and speaks to the man. She turns to me and asks, “Are you here to see Rebecca?” I tell her I am. The man asks, “What is her relation to you?” I tell them, “just another American.” I ask them, “Do you think that strange?” “No,” the man tells me, “Rebecca will be happy. It is hard in the prison.” He tells me the woman next to him is his daughter. He tells me she used to be inside the prison and she knows Rebecca. The buzzer sounds and the man’s daughter tells me she will take me in to Rebecca.

Rebecca does not have an American accent. Her age is hard to tell. A guard outside told me she has been in prison for about 2 ½ years. I would say she is 35 or 40, but I have no way of knowing. She has reddish-brown hair cut short, and held to one side with a barrette. She sounds German but speaks English well. And yes, she is very happy to see me. She asks my name and why I am in Chiang Mai. She tells me she was born in the US, but only lived there one year, and grew up in Europe, mostly Switzerland. She is in prison because she changed money with another traveler, receiving traveler’s checks in exchange. When she tried to cash them, they were of course with another person’s signature. She tells me she tried to exchange at two places. She says her sentence was 2.5 years for the first attempt and three years for the second. When I say that sounds harsh, she tells me that actually her sentence could have been 11 years but since she plead guilty she received half the time. I am astonished. Surely, this seems wrong.

She has been in prison two years and seven months; she has two years and eleven months to go. She lives in a cell with 150 other women. She tells me the hardest thing is the loss of privacy, but that things are better now as she used to be in a cell with 250 women. She tells me most of the women in the prison are in there on drug-related charges and most are hill tribe women who do not understand as opium is a common cash crop for their tribes. Rebecca tells me that before the sentences for these women were not too long but now they are often for life or even the death penalty. In comparison, Rebecca’s sentence seems light.

She does not tell me any of this angrily or sadly, but matter-of-factly, and even with a slight smile. She has smile lines around her eyes and I wonder how many are from before prison. She admits that she wrong to have done what she did and appears to accept her punishment. I let her talk. She tells me she is glad to talk to someone. Although she has learned Thai, she is currently the only foreigner in the prison. She jokes, “I have been here 2 ½ years and they haven’t managed to catch another foreigner.” The buzzer sounds. She asks me how long I am in Chiang Mai and I tell her I leave tomorrow. I feel sorry to say it, if I were staying another day I could buy her a few more things. She tells me she very much enjoyed our ten minutes and thanks me for coming. She tells me my visit will make her weekend much brighter. I am embarrassed I did not get her more things or that my visit, from a total stranger, could mean that much to her. When she rises, she presses her hands to the glass and I press mine opposite hers. She waves goodbye enthusiastically. I wave in return.

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One thought on “An Unplanned Visit to a Thai Prison, January 2002

  1. Pingback: The Trip in Inappropriate Shoes – The Wanderlust Diaries

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