Songs of the jailbirds

Songs of the jailbirds

From life inside a Bangkok women's prison to working as a prostitute with yakuza, author Thanadda Swangduen is winning awards for telling her story

Thanadda Swangduen's latest book Khang Ying reveals the astonishing life behind bars of women inmates.

"Prisons create communities of their own," said the 47-year-old sex worker-turned-author, who spent 1,150 days in a Bangkok jail two decades ago on a drug conviction.

"The inmates set their own rules and we had to adapt to carry on with our lives. Prison is a living hell where hundreds of convicted women live together, including some who were wrongly convicted and had to serve jail for the sins others committed."

Thanadda's book, the title of which translates as "women inmates", shows how prison changes women, and not necessarily for the better.

Some were turned from fragile young women into aggressive and violent inmates. One alpha inmate was a gentle mother before becoming a tough lesbian with cropped hair after years in jail.

"Tom, lesbian or whatever, it does not matter. They had to adjust to survive," she shrugged.

Ironically, the unbearable situation in prison has given Thanadda a second chance by prompting her to start writing.

A high school dropout, Thanadda does not like reading books. Her latest career has its roots in writing appeals for other inmates.

"I learned how to write good sentences to convey emotion." She bragged, "Eighty percent of the appeals that I wrote for my friends succeeded and they received leniency later."


In 1994, Thanadda went to jail for drug possession and attempted extortion. She maintains she was wrongly convicted.

She claims she was groggy on a sleeping pill at a Bangkok bar one night when a stranger offered her a ride. At some point she passed out. Thanadda says she woke to find herself with the stranger in a shabby hotel. The man was drinking beer.

"I knew he was going to rape me. So I pretended to play along, waiting for the moment to drop my sleeping pill into his beer. But when the police came to the hotel and saw the man passed out from the pill, they charged me instead."

Thanadda said the police encouraged her to confess so she could be released on probation. "I was about to go back to Japan in four days. So I thought I'd say whatever they wanted," she said.

But she was sent straight to jail. "The drug charge was serious. I learned later that once you are charged with a drug-related crime, it's difficult to get out."

Midazolam was found in her blood, from the sleeping pills she was addicted to. A controlled substance classed below amphetamines, the charge was significant enough to put her behind bars for more than three years.

Thanadda's background did not win her any sympathy from the police. Thanadda had been a sex worker from 17 -- a career she continued until she was 41, shortly before she started writing her first book in 2011.

She was forced to leave school after finishing Grade 9. "I had an unexpected pregnancy with my boyfriend. It was my first sexual experience," she said.

After giving birth, she took on odd jobs to raise her child and pay for medical treatment. "My boyfriend had syphilis and it was passed on to my child."

A friend persuaded her to work in Pattaya as a bartender, saying that she would earn at least 5,000 baht per month. "It was a lot of money at that time. I went to Pattaya by bus immediately," she said. Her baby was sent to live with her mother. The job, however, turned out to be prostitution.

"The bar owner brought a client for me. When the client took me to a hotel room, I began to understand what was happening. I cried hard and asked him to let me go home.

''My breasts started leaking because I had only delivered a child four months earlier. The client saw my shirt was wet from the milk. He gave me 4,000 baht and left."

Thanadda went back to her residence in Pattaya and stared at the bank notes.

"I was thinking that prostitution might not be that bad. It might help me earn quick money.

"Of course, I felt ashamed and embarrassed when I slept with the first three or four clients. After a while, I thought it was my work. I had to think like a robot, focusing only on the money to feed my child."

After eight months, she went to Hong Kong for sex work. At 18, she went to Japan.

"My life started going downhill from then," she said. "I was addicted to sleeping pills. It's very common for sex workers. When you take it, it will make your mind blur and it will make you brave enough to do things such as trying to persuade guests to go with you.

"When I woke up, I would not remember what happened last night or how many guests I slept with. The only thing that matters is waking up with a thick purse, that's enough."

Later, she spent two years working for a yakuza gang in Shinjuku. "Once I wanted to escape. They beat the hell out of me. They did not let me go because they thought I might know too much. I was badly injured. I thought they were going to drop me to my death. But they sent me to a hospital. I went back to work with them later."

After the yakuza leader was busted for killing a rival, she was freed by the gang. "But I did not go home because I fell in love with one of my Japanese clients."

An attempted return to normal life failed. "I washed dishes in a restaurant and did everything. But the money was not enough."

With money running out quickly and no savings, she went back to prostitution and soon caught the attention of Japanese police. She spent three weeks in prison before being deported. "The Japanese prison was like a hotel, with a double bed and air con."

A year later, she planned to return to Japan and was four days from boarding her flight when she was arrested over the incident in the Bangkok hotel.


On the first night after confessing, Thanadda was taken to the prison where she would spend the next three years and two months.

There were about 60 women sharing a common bedroom with no air conditioner or fans, most convicted of drug offences but there was no division based on the seriousness of the crime, age or sexual orientation. Those contesting their cases were mixed in with the general prison population.

Some looked depressed, while others seemed laidback as they had been in and out of many prisons.

"We almost slept on top of each other because the space was so tight," she said.

"If you went to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you could come back finding no space to sleep."

Thanadda was one of three new inmates that first night. One was a middle-aged lady who did not talk much while the other was a 20-year-old university student who was convicted of using and possessing heroin.

"She cried incessantly. I felt bad for the young lady, it was like her future had come to an end."

Compared to the Japanese prison, the experience was horrifying. Even bathing was an ordeal, as inmates could only use four bowlfuls of water. The women would stand around a large water container, some in sarongs and others only in underpants, supervised by five senior inmates.

A senior inmate blew a whistle, allowing the inmates to rinse their bodies. A second whistle meant it was time to apply soap and shampoo their hair. The third whistle was for rinsing and the women had to finish when the fourth whistle blew.

"No one cares whether you have properly washed your body. If you did not finish then, the five 'big leg' inmates would beat you with the water bowl.

"It was the first time I'd seen outdoor bathing. Our skin was darkened and burned because we had to bathe outdoors under the sun. There's no dignity left."

She reminisced about the shower at the Japanese prison, which provided some measure of privacy.

"I knew I had to adjust myself to survive. I had to be ready to live in a new world. But regardless of how much I thought I had prepared myself for this, when I saw how inmates bathed I felt numb to my knees."

The inmates are given thick and rough clothes inherited from other inmates -- brown for those on remand and blue for convicts. Those with money can buy more comfortable uniforms for 350 baht.

Not having money also meant eating prison food. "It was red rice which tastes terrible. I, for one, could not swallow it."

Thanadda had some 3,000 baht when she entered prison and first used it to buy better meals. "You can find everything in prison, if you have money."

She later earned extra income by washing clothes and massaging the senior inmates.

"Rich people will not understand the hardship because money creates gaps everywhere, no exceptions, even in this living hell."


Jail also changed those around her. On the inside, an alpha inmate in her forties dubbed "Brother Nhong" was a lesbian with close-cropped hair and a relationship with another woman.

One day, however, Thanadda and Brother Nhong shared the visitors' room. Instead of spending 30 minutes talking to her sister, Thanadda was surprised and distracted by how differently Brother Nhong behaved.

"She was visited by her husband and a son. She spoke to them in gentle and soft tones, different from how I often saw her treat other inmates.

"When we were walking back to our cell, she glared at me as a warning not to tell anyone."

Such experiences and changes would later fuel Thanadda's books, but it was a sympathetic prison registrar who would first spark her interest in writing. After sharing her story, the registrar asked Thanadda to be her assistant and write appeals for other inmates. The job involved listening to women's stories and crafting persuasive essays for parole officials.

"I was popular because my appeals helped many inmates to reduce their jail time."

There are only two occasions when inmates can seek pardons: the birthdays of His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Queen.

Not everyone could be helped. A woman named Pla approached Thanadda for assistance defending charges of heroin distribution, claiming she was only a user. She said she had been caught using heroin in the residence of a dealer, who managed to escape.

"I felt very sorry for her. Pla was a softly spoken woman with a good demeanour," she said.

"But I thought that having my help during the trial process might prolong her jail time. So I did not write anything for her.

"After the court finally sentenced her to 15 years, Pla's behaviour changed completely. She became almost insanely aggressive. She was locked up in solitary confinement many times, but she did not seem to care."


Thanadda was released in 1997. "When I saw my sister and brother waiting at the prison gates, I burst into tears," she said.

It would not be her last time behind bars, as Thanadda went back to the sex trade in Singapore and Bahrain.

She was arrested once in Singapore and detained before being deported.

"Singaporean cells for international sex workers are also bad. Singaporean officers told me to behave well so I wouldn't be back."

In her thirties, she attempted other jobs but found working as an ex-con difficult.

"When I was 39 years old, I decided to go back again. But I had to fake my ID card to say that I was younger than my real age."

She arrived in Bahrain in 2009, where she worked in the sex trade and cleaned for extra money. When she was arrested for working illegally and detained before deportation, she was already 41 and had to borrow 20,000 baht from a friend for her return.

"I wanted to earn the money to pay back my friend. Honestly, I was thinking of going back to prostitution again. But my sister suggested I write."


Thanadda's sister saw an ad for the Chommanard Book Prize Award, with 50,000 baht for the winner. "I asked my sister, what would I write? My sister said, why don't I write about my life as a sex worker. So, I spent 10 days writing 120 pages. I thought only about the reward money."

When she sent the handwritten draft of her debut book My Name is Eri, detailing life as a Thai sex worker abroad, the publisher sent it back and asked for a typed version. She spent 5,000 baht having it transcribed.

"I thought if I got the award, the publisher would wire me the money and that's it. So I used my real name. I did not think about the publicity."

On the day of the announcement, Praphansarn Publishing invited her to attend the event. Thanadda had no idea she would win and have to face reporters.

"Now everyone knew that I was a sex worker. But I thought, what the hell," she said.

While it came as a shock to some family members, the positive feedback left Thanadda ready to embark on a new career writing books and magazine articles.

"Now, I earn money as a writer. The money is much less than I used to earn as a sex worker. But I am happy with my new profession."

Her latest book, Khang Ying, earned another top Chommanard award, and she cried when she received it. "It means a lot to me. I want ask society to show sympathy to my inmate friends. Every little smile from you counts."

BEHIND BARS: Female inmates at an Uthai Thani jail. Thanadda Swangduen spent three years in prison. (Photo by Tawatchai Kemgumnerd)

EYES ON THE PRIZE: Thanadda Swangduen poses with her award-winning book ‘Khang Ying’, the follow-up to her debut memoir ‘My Name is Eri’.

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