A Visit To Bangkwang Central Prison Bangkok Thailand
A few weeks before my holiday to Thailand, I read about a man who foolishly decided to try and smuggle drugs into the Kingdom. He was caught and is twelve years into a fifty year jail sentence
I wondered what I could do for someone in there. I decided to take in some food. I had read that the prisoner’s diet is almost exclusively fish heads and rice. So some fruit, biscuits, snacks and tinned things would be a nice treat. I reasoned that it was better to buy those sorts of things there. But what could I take from Britain for someone in there?
Then I realised that if it were me, I would want a shed full of books to read.
I went to my local Salvation Army and asked about the price of their paperbacks. I can’t recall the price now, but I do recall that a suitcase full would be expensive. I thought it best to explain what I was trying to do. That got a sympathetic response. I ended up getting about 30 kilograms of paperbacks for £4. I also bought a tatty big roller suitcase to put them in for £6, so they got some action too.
I started reading around the subject and discovered that the prison guards hold back things that visitors bring for inmates, if they disapprove of the gifts in some way. So I went through the books examining the front covers. There were books about the wild-west, espionage, war- all the things that men like to read about. There were also a few bibles and the such like, together with some Shakespeare plays. I tore off covers with images of scantily clad women, and those with images of weapons or violent activity. I imagined that the guards were as unfamiliar with the English language, as I was with the Thai language, so they would not be able to consider subject matter.
The suitcase was pretty heavy, but I got it to Manchester Airport. From Bangkok, it was but a taxi ride to the prison. I hailed a taxi from outside my hotel. That’s when I met Jack. He was a friendly type, who knew his city well. After finding somewhere to park, he insisted on dragging my suitcase to the foreign prisoner office. Once inside Jack spoke to the reception guards. There were four of them. We had called at an inconvenient moment, as they were all about their lunch.
I thought that this was where Jack would say goodbye, but no. He waited until the guards had finished eating, and then explained what I was there for. He had gleaned all he needed to know from our chat to the prison in his taxi.
We emptied the suitcase, and a guard began the lengthy process of examining each book, then placing two different ink stamps on each, then signing each book. It took about an hour.
Eventually, Jack and I were free to reload the suitcase, we left the office and crossed the road to another office where I had to show my passport. Again, it was a bad time to call. I could not go in to see the prisoner until 14.30, it was then 13.30. I had another hour to wait. I thought that surely Jack would leave now, he had a living to make and could have had several other fares while he was fooling around helping this farang, (foreigner) but no, he just sat there waiting with me.
Jack and I sat in the on-site café, and I got him some lunch for his trouble, I had had mine back at the hotel. Jack chose a deep fried fish, with rice and some vegetables. It cost me 50 Baht, nothing to me, but looking at Jack's threadworm shirt collar convinced me that it was the thing to do. We had some cold water too. We were grateful for the shade. It was about 30 degrees. A zephyr was blowing our way from across the river. It was not cool, but it was welcome.
At the first office we visited I told them that I was happy to visit any English speaker. One of the guards had handed me a piece of paper with a name on it.
While Jack tucked into his dinner, I took a look at the name of the man I was to visit. His name was Michael Connell.
I knew nothing of him. But I suspected that it was drugs related, as most of the inmates were there for just that, well that’s what I was told.
Then I heard an English voice behind me. The man had seen me approach the office, and had taken a look at the form I had filled in earlier, which was part of a pile at the office desk. He knew that I was going in to see Michael Connell.
The man’s name was Martin. He was an Englishman from Manchester, living in Southport Australia. I told him that I lived in Southport, England, and that provided some conversation for a while. Martin had come specifically to see Michael Connell. But he had forgotten to bring his passport. He had been told that he would not be allowed inside to see Michael Connell. But Jack came to the rescue. He took Martin to the first office to see the reception guards. When they returned a delighted Martin explained that Jack had resolved the issue. Martin would be visiting Michael with Jack and myself, that was, if I did not mind. I said of course not. Jack had by then, accepted my invitation to visit Michael too. This made sense as at that point I had asked Jack to take me home afterwards, and there was no point in him sitting around bored waiting for me outside the prison, while I made my visit.
There were many Thai nationals milling about, and when they all stood up slowly together, I knew something was afoot. It was time to cross the road again and enter the prison proper.
At the reception area we fell into conversation with a Dutch national who was there to visit a fellow Dutchman also serving a long jail sentence. He had made the mistake of turning up in short sleeves and short trousers. This is viewed as lacking in respect when visiting temples and officials in Thailand. So the Dutchman was invited to wear a pair of overalls the guards kept for such occasions. He looked like he was there to fix the boiler.
As we got further up the queue we found that we could not take anything of value into the prison. It would all have to be left with the prison guards. Martin and I opted to place his and my valuables, wallets, passports and cameras into my suitcase. The books we loaded into plastic bags I had brought.
Jack took my suitcase back to his car and locked it in the boot. He wouldn’t hear of me doing it. He was back in time to get patted down with the rest of us. Then we had to walk through a metal detector type instrument, the type often seen at airports.
I was dumbfounded at what Martin then told me. Michael Connell was to serve ninety nine years in Bangkwang Prison, for importing ecstasy tablets into the Kingdom. The original sentence had been death. At that moment we were ushered beyond the metal detector, and made a ninety degree turn to come up against a huge steel yellow door. It made an awful clang each time it closed. It seemed like a monstrous full stop, on the pages of the lives within.
We passed through this portal into a light airy place within. A long neat lawn was the central feature, and curious flowers accompanied the path to where expectant guards awaited that day’s visitors. Other guards came and went, pistols on hips.
We showed the guards our book filled plastic bags. There was other stuff in there too. Back home in England I had seen images of prisoners inside this place. They were all barefoot. So I had also brought a few pairs of old sandals and flip flops which I never wore. If the guy didn’t like or want them, then he could give them to someone who did.
A guard reached into a bag and held a single flip flop aloft like he had hold of a scorpion by it tail. He was giggling and so were all his mates. I have never seen such rudeness from a Thai. They seemed to think it was a mean gift to bring. Perhaps it was. But if I had to walk around barefoot in a Thai jail I would welcome a pair of free flip flops. They would have been of more value to me in there than a bottle of whiskey.
Along both long sides of the garden were corridors. We made our way to where we were directed. Soon Michael Connell would be informed of his visitors. Apparently, they are never told until the very last minute. We waited for perhaps ten minutes.
In the corridor we sat with our backs to the garden, looking inwards. Immediately before us was heavy gauge glass from work-top to ceiling. Then perhaps a space of eight feet containing nothing. Then anther wall of heavy gauge glass, behind which was another corridor. This was where the prisoners would be directed. Before us on the work-top was a phone. Another was available opposite for those prisoners lucky enough to have a visit.
Then he arrived. He was perhaps twenty five years old. He seemed well nourished with blue eyes and blondish hair. He seemed resigned to his fate, but was upbeat about his appeal. His eyelids were red. Perhaps he had not slept well. He seemed at times close to tears, only just in control. But these moments were fleeting, his recovery almost immediate. I had to admire the way he somehow managed to cope with his predicament.
Martin was the first to speak to him. Their conversation was almost exclusively about football and Manchester United in particular. They were both Mancunians, and both huge fans. They spoke for perhaps twenty minutes about players, tactics etc and Roy Keane’s then recent departure from the club.
I was not looking forward to my turn, unlike Martin, I had no interest in common with Michael.
Michael and Martins conversation started to peter out. The phone was passed to Jack. Jack's pigeon English was a little better than Michael’s pigeon Thai, their conversation stalled almost immediately. Now it was my turn.
I put on my brightest smile. "Hi Michael", I said, "how are you?"
"OK", he said.
I asked if there was anything I could do for him. He thanked us profusely for the books, and then said there was nothing really. I told him that while waiting to see him that I had bought things for him at the prison shop. I tried to recall all of them.
Dried, fresh and tinned fruit, biscuits, crisps, tooth paste, tooth brushes, soap, detergent, toilet rolls, soft drinks, bottled water, and a raft of other things I could not recall. Again, he expressed his thanks.
I told him that I had read that they had no mattresses in there. He told me that they had, though not the sort westerners are used too. They were thinner, but not bad really.
He said his biggest concern was that he would one day be forgotten by those back home. I’m not sure if he meant Britain, or Manchester in particular. I asked him if he would like pen-pals. Yes, he said.
Martin was gearing up for another grasp of the phone, relieved, I passed it to him. They went straight back to football again. I listened to their conversation as best I could. I was amazed that the inmates had access to satellite television. They have to pay for it, but it’s entertainment, and gives them something to look forward to. I thought about the books, and realised that they would help to pass his wasted years too. I knew what to bring next year. I’d go back to the Salvation Army and all the charity shops to buy up cheap games like Cluedo and Monopoly, for him and his friends in there. I’ll take him in the Japanese Gengko game which is hugely popular in Thailand. I should have thought on. It would only have cost me about 100 baht.
I feigned envy that he had satellite television, while this was something I did not have. I said damn, I want to get in here myself. I was delighted when Michael burst out laughing.
Other visitors began rising out of their chairs and waving and saying good bye. Clearly, visiting time was nearing its end. Martin was gamely hanging on to the phone. We waited till approached by a guard. I told him I’d call again next year. We said our farewells, then waved and made our way slowly to the guard’s room where we left our carrier bags of paperbacks and things.
It crossed my mind how he must have watched us leaving, and yearned to join us. I hadn’t told him that soon I would jet out to Phuket – Thailand's biggest island for a month long holiday. I thought that that would be better left unsaid.
We made our way back to the taxi, then Martin remembered that he had not bought anything for Michael. He ran back, and returned about 15 minutes later. I gave him his stuff from my suitcase. I offered him a lift back into Bangkok proper. Martin accepted and we talked some more. He had sent a container of coffee and another of coffee whitener to Michael. He leapt out at some traffic lights somewhere in town pushing a few hundred baht into Jack’s hand. I watched him weaving through the standing traffic, trying to reach the pavement before it started moving again. He sure could move for a forty – something. Then it was back to the hotel for me, where I gave Jack his fare and a sizeable tip. He’d earned it.
Martin had explained Michael’s position to me. It might be possible for Michael to agree to be deported to the UK to serve his sentence there. I think there may well be a reduction in sentence length, but I am not sure. His best option is thought to be to remain in Bangkwang, hopefully one day, he may receive the King's pardon. Were this to happen he may have served as short a time as 5 – 50 years. But of course, it may never happen.
Bangkwang is a medium to long term jail, meaning that the inmates are serving at least fifty years. It also houses those awaiting execution. Martin told me that newcomers are chained hand and foot for the first six months. This is not an attempt to stop them escaping, rather it’s an attempt to stop them killing themselves. It’s known locally as the Big Tiger – because it eats men alive.
Thailand is at present suffering hugely because of the availability of drugs. Smugglers can expect long sentences with no mercy. There are thousands of men and women from all nations in jails for such crimes in Thailand.
Later on, I thought about the men I met that day. Martin had been a pleasant guy, who like me was able to empathise with Michael, although, neither of us approved of how he came by his misfortune. But we were both in agreement, he did not deserve to be doing 99 years in jail.
Jack had been a star. I don’t think I would have managed the jail visit without him, and I think without his intervention, Martin would have been turned away from the jail earlier.
But what of Michael? A hardened criminal? I don’t think so. I have since read that he has learning difficulties, and may even have been pressured by criminals to engage in this enterprise in order to write off a debt he could not pay.
He may even have been set up to be caught. I have since read that the police were tipped off with a mobile phone call. They knew his flight, where he would land, and at which time, the colour of his suitcase and clothes. Whoever tipped off the police probably shared the flight to Bangkok with Michael, unbeknown to him. The person who turned him in, having focused police resources on Michael, then calmly walked out of the airport, probably with a huge haul of drugs. A sacrificial pig perhaps, to ease a bigger fish through the dangerous waters.
A very unfortunate, vulnerable, and perhaps impressionable young man then.
Had Michael Connell been smuggling heroin, crack cocaine, explosives or weapons I would have no sympathy for him. But ecstasy, which is what he was smuggling, is not a dangerous drug in my opinion, and I think the sentence should reflect that.
I understand that my opinion may offend some people, but ecstasy has never actually killed anyone. Those few who have died while trying it did not have the information that they needed, namely drink plenty of water, and get as little exercise as possible.
Of course the best advice is not to do it or anything like it in the first place.
Go here for some further information, and the opportunity to sign the petition to His Majesty the King of Thailand, or maybe not, as you please.
Drugs + Thailand = a very bad mix.