Compassionate prison visits-Telegraph

September 24, 2010

[CJ Hinke of FACT comments: I have been visiting prisoners in Bang Kwang for the past six years. It is arduous and expensive but is one of the most compassionate acts available to everyone I can think of. Won’t you help another in need?]

Visiting the ‘Bangkok Hilton’

In Thailand’s Bangkwang Prison – known by its expat inmates as the ‘Bangkok Hilton’ – a group of British prisoners are strugging to keep up hope.

Sean O’Hare

The Telegraph: September 20, 2010

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/expatlife/8008469/Visiting-the-Bangkok-Hilton.html

Gail (in red) with other expat prison volunteers in Thailand

Thailand’s Bangkwang Prison is known to expat prisoners as the Bangkok Hilton although this reveals more about the British sense of humour than it does about the jail where men serving sentences north of 25 years are detained. Thais, perhaps more realistically, refer to it as the Big Tiger, because they say it eats men alive.

Gale Bailey, originally from Leicester, has been visiting expat prisoners there ever since August 2005, voluntarily making the 90 minute trip from the comfortable apartment she shares with her husband in Bangkok to the infamous prison on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, where the cell lights never dim and the noise never ceases.

There are approximately 120 UK prisoners currently serving time in Thai prisons, the nine held at Bangkwang on drug-related charges considered the most serious offenders. Despite being virulently anti-drugs, Gale and a handful of expat volunteers visit them all at least once a week.

“Being so anti-drugs, it is strange that I visit so regularly and I can’t really explain it. I don’t condone their actions but at the end of the day they are human beings and I do not sit there in judgement. I am a mother and if it was my son it would break my heart but I would support him. Some of these chaps haven’t seen their mothers since being sentenced and in two cases that means seven and eleven years. I can write emails to their parents and act as a go-between,” she says.

One of the nine is Michael Connell, a former supermarket worker from Manchester who was caught trying to smuggle 3,400 ecstasy pills through Bangkok airport at the age of 19 and sentenced to 30 years. He has been in Bangkwang for the last seven years, and has been visited by Gale ever since she retired from an office job with her husband’s international engineering company in Bangkok.

At the prison Gale and Michael speak via telephones, separated by glass, a metre gap and two sets of bars. They discuss pretty much anything, including Michael’s job in the prison hospital’s pharmacy and his progress in his Thai language classes. No physical contact is allowed, although gifts can be left.

“I might take up some nice oranges or apples. It’s little things like that that make all the difference when you are in a place like that. The most important thing is that you eat well and keep clean in order to stay healthy.

“When I first started visiting Michael he was monosyllabic but now he has really come out of his shell. I was there for an hour and a half last week. I said to him ‘Michael, you haven’t done bad, you’ve really matured in the last few years.’

“With Michael, because he is still young, he prefers it if I don’t talk to him about going out at night and having a few drinks because it reminds him of what he is missing out on. The older guys in their 40s don’t mind because I am older and it makes them think that when they finally get out they won’t be past it.”

In concrete cells which hold up to 20 prisoners, space is limited and often prisoners have to sleep sitting up. During the summer months the heat is oppressive, during the rainy season the prison sewers regularly flood. One’s quality of life on the inside is dependent on cash gifts from the outside – from food to bed sheets, everything has its price.

While Gale considers the British Embassy’s treatment of the expat prisoners “brilliant”, what with its delivery of monthly care packages of vitamins and food, she does consider the British government’s prison transfer agreement somewhat harsh in comparison to other countries.

As things stand, British prisoners, after serving eight years of their sentence in Thailand, can put in for a transfer to a UK prison although unlike other governments there is no support for a prisoner’s clemency plea once they have served a sentence comparable to the one they might have received if they had committed the offence in the UK.

Gale says: “Countries like the US and Holland are much more lenient and will reassess the crime and bring it into line with domestic sentencing, although not in the UK, which seems unfair. It does seem harsh that murderers and rapists serve less than these guys, but on the other hand, they all knew the law of the land before they tried bringing drugs in.”

In recent years prison visits in Thailand and South America have become part of the tourist trail, with gap year students often paying to be escorted around. These visits have become known as “banana visits” by prisoners because it makes them feel like monkeys in a cage. While Gale’s motives for visiting the prisoners are genuine and go beyond satisfying curiosity, she does concede that the visits often serve to lift her own mood.

She says: “Some people say it must be depressing going in there, but we actually have quite a laugh. If I’m feeling tired or whatever, I go and have a chat and I leave feeling much better. It’s very rewarding to be greeted with lovely smiles knowing that they appreciate the time and effort that goes into travelling to Bangkwang.”

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