"You have no liberties here"
Should travelers find themselves on the wrong side of Thai law in a single "lapse in judgment", it could be all it takes "to lose all your civil liberties".
So argues a 46-year old American, who in April served two weeks in the high-security Bangkok Remand Prison.
He described conditions in the prison as "deplorable," with prisoners routinely humiliated by a system "designed to indoctrinate you as though you've just committed a serious crime."
I thought we were going to get out the next day. But when we asked for bail, they said: "No bail today! No way!" So then we thought they would put us in a jail beside the Courthouse. Before you know it, we're on the bus: and the guy is laughing. "You're going to the Bangkok Hilton!" We said, "what?" But he kept laughing. All the way through the gates.
Prisoners, in his view, are denied their dignity "from the first moment they arrive".
When you get in, you're made to strip naked in front of everybody. They make you bend over to check you're not holding anything. All your things are put on a table. The 'trustees' (inmates chosen for special tasks) will pick and choose what you can keep - and it's anything they don't want. I felt disgusted.
When you're then marched into a barber's chair, and they zip off all your hair. You realize it then. You keep thinking: 'Why am I in here? This is hardcore prison! This is a penitentiary! From everyone I talked to in there - and I'm not saying that they were innocent - it was clear to me that their crimes didn't meet the punishment.
The 'white-collar' nature of the infringement did not prevent the man from being remanded in a maximum-security setting designed to house some of society's most serious criminal offenders.
I would ask the other men: 'What did (that inmate) do?' They said: 'This one killed a police officer'. Another was in there for stealing B4,000 ($130USD) worth of steel. This other guy is in here because he'd made counterfeit money… Another, for assault. But it didn't matter. You're divided up (into cells) depending on where can they squeeze you in. They don't consider who has done what.
You wouldn't put any person, who committed a minor crime, in such a place.
Meanwhile he came across prisoners, remanded under similarly minor charges.
For the first few days, I was in complete disbelief. I just couldn't believe I was here, under these conditions, in this place. I had to slap myself out of it. You get there, by the busload, with people like Joe Gordon… Some of these guys, people like me, aren't criminals. Maybe they made some missteps, but they're not criminals. But everyone goes through the same criminal system.
"Overcrowding,” he emphasized, “is the absolute number one problem”:
There are forty-three to forty-eight prisoners in each cell, on any given night. The room should have fit, maybe, half that… To have considered anywhere near decent living conditions.
Lockdown is 4pm - that's when they round everyone up, and lock them in. The door isn't opened again until 6am the next morning. You're handed a blanket, and sleep on the concrete floor. Packed in like sardines, shoulder-to-shoulder. All the rows would fill up, so I would sleep in the middle, with everyone's feet in my face. There was just no room, and in every cell it's just the same.
'In 'Building Five,' there was absolutely no room. There must have been fifty guys in there. I slept in front of the toilet.
There are no medical tests… No 'who is sick, and who is not?' 'Who has TB (tuberculosis)? 'Who has a medical condition'? Nothing like that of the sort. So here you are sitting next to people with TB, which runs high in there. The water is dirty, at the water stations, where you have no choice but to drink.
As a 'farang' (foreign) prisoner, he often felt himself "invisible":
The Building Commander will ask: "Where you from? America, Australia?" And then: "What's your case?" They don't even know what your case is. All they only know is that, suddenly, you're there, and you're a hindrance.
The worst part about the experience, by far, is an idle mind. 'Farangs' don't work in the prison; everybody else does. The 'farangs' just mill around all day. Make sure they're there for the (head) count. Smoke cigarettes, talk. Read a book, if you have one. But do nothing. You're made to do nothing, and this is really hard to deal with. Half of you wants to do work, or do something. The half that wants to work - that has nothing to do - just thinks about getting out.
He found guards to be much stricter on local prisoners, "even though most of the Thai guys were also in there for very minor offenses."
The only small dignities came from the other inmates. Even though the room was crowded, and even though we were forty-eight men to a room, the conditions deplorable and the food absolutely terrible - I found the inmates were actually hospitable. They knew we had nothing, so they shared food with us.
I've seen the Thai prisoners hit, by guards, with their stick… But I've never seen them (the guards) hit a 'farang'.
He fears that foreign travelers remain largely unaware of the potential "loss of their liberty, and basic human rights," should they find themselves caught up on the wrong side of local Thai law.
You cannot make a phone call. You have no outlet. If no one knows you're there, the only possible way for someone to know you're there is if the embassy gets wind of it… I was lucky. I managed to keep my cell phone. But still, it took five days before I saw Embassy (officials).
That's the shock, really, for an American. That you have no liberties. You have no rights. You will do what they say, when they say it. They don't care if you're sick - even if you're on your deathbed. You lose all your liberties, as you have known them. You lose them all. Your human rights! Zero. Gone.
Assisted by legal counsel and officials from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, the man secured his release. He describes that moment:
I'd kept getting wind, that we might be getting out. But then, it wouldn't happen. The emotional roller-coaster was the hardest. On that day I watched the time ticking, like thunderous bombs, and I'm trying to think… Then, at 7:35pm - I heard the jingle of the keys. I heard the first guy's name, from Australia. Then I heard my name. When I heard that, the feeling was… elation. I jumped up - I couldn't believe it!
I'd only been in this building, with these guys, for a couple of nights. But the men in my cell were just as jubilant. They got up and cheered for us. They could feel our freedom. It was a ruckus. I was overcome with emotion. No one cared about the guards at this point. "Yeah!!" we kept screaming. "Freedom!! FREEDOM!!"
While the man, urges travelers to remain aware of the "situation they face here," he feels travelers should continue to visit Thailand.
"Come to Bangkok. Bangkok, for the most part, is great. People are great. It's fun, and relatively inexpensive. But understand one thing. When you get into this land, when you get off that plane - you better know, it's their way. Your civil liberties, your human rights, as you know them, don't exist here… You better educate yourself, before you get here. Understand that you don't have any civil rights. Whether you're American or (otherwise). If you understand and you're willing to accept that… and you don't make a mistake, then fine."
"But, on the other hand," he says, "as an American citizen? I just can't wait to get home."
Thai Ministry of Tourism reports that in the first quarter of 2011, Thailand received some 264,000 travelers from the United States.
The man expects to be deported to the United States later this month.