Here are the kinds of things you remember.
The concrete. To sit on, sleep on, sit against and sleep against, put your head on. It’s cold, and it doesn’t give. Concrete and flesh are utterly different kinds of matter. Utterly incompatible. You knew this before. You learn it again, in a new key.
The doors, big and ugly, and always slammed. Hard, harshly, by design, with meanness in the heart. To remind you that you are scum, a criminal, a piece of shit, and scum and shit and criminals are to be treated anyway one wants to treat them. Meaning meanly, harshly, with contempt. Yes, the doors. They’re opened at any hour of the day or night. At someone else’s pleasure and utterly without regard to you or your needs, or nary a thought that you’re a member of the same species. Because remember: even in a jail where a charge has yet to brought against you, and perhaps will not be brought against you for lack of evidence, or because it’s a bogus charge from the get-go, you are nothing but scum, a piece of shit, a mere criminal.
The boredom. This is what drives you fxxxing nuts. The slow, ticking minutes, and then hours. Hour after hour after hour. Nothing, absolutely nothing to do. Nothing to read. Not even strips of newspaper that they might’ve made available for you to wipe your ass. You can only chat—maybe. Hear a small story—maybe. Tell your own small story—maybe. Recycle endlessly old and stale stories if you’re not alone. But you can nap, and you can daydream. And nap some more. And daydream some more as you lie on the gray concrete floor or bench.
The bad food. By design, you think. You know. What you’d give to scum, something less than human. That you’d never give to your dog, because if you’d give it to your dog he wouldn’t be your dog.
The indifference, the steely chill you begin to feel in your veins. Brought on by the helplessness. Almost nothing about your fate is now in your hands. Choices? There are few. None you think. And at such moments you feel pure hatred. Enough you make it quite easy to kill, literally kill, one of these people around you who treat you like scum, a piece of shit, a scummy piece of shit called a criminal. How they love that word criminal, these cunt jailers!
The unfairness. A bogus charge, in your case. In many cases. In thousands of cases. Now you will pay. You will pay no matter how it is resolved. If you were not a criminal before, you most certainly are one now, because you find yourself in jail.
The fingerprinting, that they can’t even get right. Have to do it three times, four times. And it’s your fault. Your fault because they can’t even do their fxxxing job! A small moment to laugh, find humor where humor is now the refuge of all things absurd.
The orders to behave exactly in one way, and in only one way as they move you from one cell to another. Orders about your hands, your eyes, your walk. Whatever. The world is much smaller than the cell. It has been reduced to the smallest of freedoms. Freedom? What the fxxx is that?
The amount they want so you can get out. Outrageous! Unreal! You don’t want to pay? Then just sit there until you want to pay, or they decide to let you out, or let you out provisionally. Bargain the terms of payment? Well, maybe. How much do you have?
The humiliation. The constant verbal reminders that you are a criminal. Not a proven criminal, but a criminal nonetheless. A criminal by virtue of finding yourself among convicted heroin users and drug dealers and car thieves and dudes who beat the shit out of wives who deserve to have the shit beaten out of them. What do you do when you see something you don’t like, if you’re bigger and you have the weapons? You kick it, abuse it, step on it. After all, you’re dealing with a piece of shit, mere scum.
Yes, an American Jail in the year 201-. The smallest glimpse, the kindest glimpse, of an American jail…really. I didn’t make this up. You really don’t want to know more. You’ll like America even less than you do if I tell you more.
& & &
He told me that he was put in a cell with seventeen Cambodians. Like well–packed sardines. No place to move, to roll to, to stretch, to breathe, to get a whiff of air that was not hot and wet and reeking of runny shit and hungry cockroaches and roaming
rats and boiling human sweat.
He told me that you could get some straw so you didn’t have to sleep on the concrete floor. You would have to pay for it, of course.
He told me that you could get the hint of a little fresh air, and a little cool air. You could get a fan, but you have to pay for it, of course. Thirty dollars a month, if you must know.
He told me that you could get more than the fifteen minutes out of a twenty-four hour day outside the cell, if you paid for it, of course. You could get an hour a day for fifty dollars a month.
Light? Light! A small bulb in the middle of the ceiling, on all the time. What the fxxx did you expect? This is Cambodia, the Wild West, asshole.
You want to know what you are charged with? Use your imagination. Think of all the reasons you can think of, of the ways you just might have done something that someone didn’t like, or would require money to do, or how you pissed off the ex girlfriend, and you might be close to what they have in mind as a reason for putting you where they have put you. You might find out in three weeks, or three months. Or maybe they will take sixteen or eighteen months to tell you. You do know that they have eighteen months to come up with a reason. Eighteen goddamn fxxxing months for you to do time, and decide how much you are really willing to pay to get out before they invent a reason for putting you in here.
He told me that you could get into a cell with only three other people in it. But they would not be people of your choosing. They could be almost anyone. Killers. Rapists. Drug dealers. Psychopaths. Paranoid pedophiles. But you have to pay for the privilege of this smaller cell. You will have to pay three hundred dollars a month for this great accommodation. Three hundred dollars in the capital of this most corrupt of corrupt countries in this part of the world in 2010 will get you laid a good ten times.
He told me that you could get more than one bowl of dirty gruel a day. But you would have to pay for it. You had better pay for it, for more food, for better food, or you will not live long. You cannot live long on the food they give you. Well, you might live longer than you might think. You just don’t know long that will be, or what condition you will be in when and if you get out and you’re still breathing.
Oh yeah, you want toilet paper to wipe your ass? No problem. Just ask how much and get the money and you’ll have toilet paper to wipe your ass so it doesn’t begin to feel like a rancid three-layer cake. Otherwise you’re going to have to make do like everyone else with that dirty bowl of water that contains everyone else’s shit. You don’t like it? Use your hand and wipe it on your pants. Use your shirt and then turn it around so others smell the shit. Or just find a way not to have to shit. Come to think of it, this is the best solution of all.
Anything else you want? No problem. Just tell them and they will give you a price. Everything has a price, isn’t that obvious by now? This is Cambodia, asshole, where have you been?
Okay, you want out? I mean, really out so you get out of the country and never have to look back? Run to another country and start over? How about Thailand? The Philippines? Laos? Ask how much. Tell them if they don’t hear you that you’ve got serious money, and you’ll pay, and you’ll pay as soon as you know how much you have to pay.
One month, two months…five months, six months. They didn’t tell you that no matter what you are willing to pay, you got yourself too far into the system and whatever you will pay in dollars to get out you will still have to make payment in time. In a cell with seventeen others where everything you want will cost dollars. Don’t like it? Touch shit. Fxxx you. Tell the cockroaches, the rats, the mosquitoes, the flies, those dirty and smelly animals that have their hands and their feet and their bodies all over your body all the time because there’s no space that’s not occupied.
A Cambodian jail in the year 201-. A Phnom Penh jail in the year 201-. The slightest glimpse of one. That kind talked about in Phnom Penh in 201- because an expat did something he wasn’t supposed to have done, or maybe didn’t do something he was supposed to have done, or is alleged to have done something he wasn’t supposed to have done. Or didn’t do anything all…who knows? This is Cambodia, asshole. Make it up, invent it, dream it…honest, I never lie.
Yeah, who knows? After all this is a country in which you make up laws as you go along. Or change them to suit the needs of the moment. Laws if they can be called laws that when you are subjected to one are invoked in a way that says: Guilty until proven innocent. And then: Good luck (and I hope you’ve got enough money to buy your way out).
Whenever I read these Bangkok prison novels or anything to do with doing time in this part of the region, it makes me just a fraction nervous. It's a situation none of us want to face….