A gruesome reminder

A gruesome reminder

Uncover the chilling history of the nation's ever-changing penal system at the Corrections Museum

A gruesome reminder
The exhibition features more than 300 artefacts and torture devices from across the country. Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

A few weeks ago, suspected serial killer Sararat Rangsiwuthaporn, dubbed "Aem Cyanide", shook Thai society when it was revealed she had poisoned all 15 of her victims. Despite the fact that she has not legally acknowledged her involvement in the murders, her response has sparked fury on social media. She seems unconcerned about the law, and once again, some have questioned the legitimacy of Thai law and punishments.

While the cyanide poisonings are being investigated, the Corrections Museum opened its doors last weekend to the general public so that future generations can learn about the history of the Corrections Department and the evolution of Thailand's penal system from the Ayutthaya period to the present.

Located on Nonthaburi 1 Road, this is the only prison museum in Thailand, which spans over 3 rai and features an exhibition of more than 300 torture and execution instruments, documents, everyday items, photographs and other artefacts from prisons around the country.

Standing on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, the compound, with three cement buildings, is constructed in a modern style and encircled with a green multi-purpose garden that adheres to the sufficiency economy philosophy. Visitors can go back in time on a tour that begins in Building 1 and discover the museum's origins.

Back in 1939, Col Khun Srisarakorn (Chalor Srithanakorn) initiated the Corrections Museum at Bang Kwang Central Prison as a learning centre so that people could understand more about punishment and life in prison.

The museum was later moved from Nonthaburi to Bangkok. As part of Bangkok Remand Prison, the museum found its new home in Romaneenart Park and resumed operations in 1999. Situated in the Chatuchak district, it took over three Administrative Buildings and Building 9, which the Fine Arts Department later added to the list of historical monuments.

The Corrections Museum is designed in a modern style. Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

"Since Romaneenart Park was transformed into the Crime and Justice Museum in 2015, the Corrections Museum was closed and relocated back to the Department of Corrections headquarters in Nonthaburi. All things have souls, and they have now returned home," said Ayuth Sintoppant, director-general of the Department of Corrections.

"King Chulalongkorn gave this land to build jails for mild and harsh punishments. With a long history, visitors can visit to learn about the story of Thailand's criminal justice system," he added.

Looking at a selection of antique items, visitors can imagine what a warden did every day. The jail's funds were kept in a traditional safe box and a fire extinguisher was necessary to comply with safety regulations.

There were no alarms at that time, so a century-old drum was used to notify the shifting of the guards from 8pm to 5am before being replaced by a metal bell.

The ground floor of Building 2 is designed to resemble a medieval torture dungeon, where a line of prisoner-like figures are stationed to demonstrate many forms of punishment applied from the Ayutthaya to the early Rattanakosin periods.

"In the past, prisons were scattered around Bangkok and outer cities. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth was the basis for punishment, and torture was employed to compel a confession. Depending on the wardens' discretion, there were variable laws intended to penalise criminals and the death sentence was the maximum punishment for murder or serious bodily harm," Ayuth said.

When going in, it's like an excruciating moment straight out of a period drama that transports visitors back to the heyday of the Ayutthaya kingdom. The displays range from the least severe such as stocks, to a ta-ngok used to constrain captives by having them wear long bamboo around their necks. With these devices, inmates were unable to move freely, eat or even lie down. Those who attempted to flee wound up standing outside all day while bound by a land anchor around their ankles.

To get a confession, a culprit was placed inside a big rattan ball equipped with numerous sharp nails before being kicked by an elephant. It was also possible for them to be tormented by having their chins dangled from a large iron hook, while the feet were lifted off the ground.

The exhibition features more than 300 artefacts and torture devices from across the country. Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

Other common forms of torture included a box that looks like a coffin but only has two tiny openings for breathing, often left outside in the sunlight.

Walking further, visitors can see a scenario in which a temple was transformed into an execution site, recalling the times of King Rama V when beheadings were normal as part of a death sentence.

In accordance with Thai customs, two executioners would start the ritual by pleading with local deities and their teachers for mental fortitude and protection from spirits. Among the offerings were a pig's head, a duck, a fish, a banana, a coconut, Thai sweets, alcohol, a bouquet of flowers, a joss stick and nine candles.

A culprit would have his last supper and then his body would be affixed to a wooden cross while having his ears and mouth blocked with clay. After being put to death, his corpse would be sliced into pieces and fed to vultures or crows, with his head being nailed to a sharp pole for public display.

The highlight is a sword used by Rhian Permkumlungmuang, Thailand's last sword executioner who beheaded 53 people until the execution method shifted to shooting in 1934.

A sword used by Rhian Permkumlungmuang, the last sword executioner in Thailand. Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

Bang Kwang Central Prison functioned as a significant execution site and monks were invited to preach to criminals before their last dinner was served, according to Thai traditions. They would have their eyes closed and held a candle, joss sticks and flowers as an executioner aimed for their heart.

The firing squad was also replaced when Thailand adopted lethal injection in 2009. In accordance with the rules, criminals receive three injections of sodium pentothal, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride in order to relax their muscles and stop breathing.

The execution method was changed from beheading to shooting in 1934. Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

The upper floor illustrates how King Chulalongkorn revolutionised Thai prison affairs after visiting Singapore and Batavia in 1871. He sent four civil servants to take a course on prison treatment protocol in Singapore and borrowed its prison design to erect the Bangkok Remand Prison. There's also a display of original pardon letters written by King Rama V and later VI.

Pardon letters written by King Rama VI. Pattarawadee Saengmanee

Hub Poei Gate, a red colonial-style arched entryway, allows visitors to tour the jail's surroundings, where the wardens and personnel used to live.

Inmates entered the inner prison by passing through the Hub Poei Gate. Photo: Pattarawadee Saengmanee

The adjacent chamber displays imitation jail cells, various kitchen items, firearms, prison guard uniforms, and black-and-white images of the everyday lives of prisoners and prison amenities including a large bathroom, nursing room, and the Tarutao Vocational Training Settlement.

"We now provide career training programmes rather than torturing inmates. To enable them to reintegrate into society, we help them with skills development and provide them with access to education. If they can support themselves, they won't commit crimes. It is a plan for long-term human development," Ayuth said.

Next, it's time to go shopping. The 1st floor of Building 3 is home to the Hub Poei boutique, and it offers a variety of amazing handicrafts made by talented convicts from all across the country. In addition to a salary, convicts receive a payout equal to 70% of the price of the goods.

Fashionable indigo-dyed handbags from Sawang Daen, elegant Benjarong porcelain from Samut Sakhon Prison, lovely smocking handbags from the Central Women's Correctional Institution, and innovative home furnishings made out of fabric from the Chon Buri Women's Correctional Institution are some of the best-selling items.

For those looking for a quick snack during the day, a café on the 2nd floor serves a wide range of aromatic coffees, Cha Tra Mue teas, and sweet soda beverages that pair nicely with baked pastries. The monthly menu is modified by baristas from different prisons.

A cafe offers delicious pastries, coffee and tea. Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

The Hub Poei store offers a wide selection of handicraft items from various jails. Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

The Corrections Museum is open daily from 8.30am to 4.30pm (except Monday). Admission is free. For more details, call 02-967-2222 or visit facebook.com/prthaidoc.

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