A better you behind bars

A better you behind bars

LGBT inmates at the Chanthaburi Provincial Prison benefit from self-improvement projects to help with their transition to civilian life

Although drag queen Golf* and tomboy Tee* are so different especially in terms of outer appearance and gender identity, they have one thing in common. Both -- representing the LGBT community at the Chanthaburi Provincial Prison -- have used their talents to become role model prisoners.

Photo © Ivan Uhkov/123rf.com

Both, serving lengthy sentences for drug peddling, have come to terms with the consequences of their actions and have opted to have a positive outlook towards their future, using opportunities given to them while incarcerated to improve themselves.

Golf, a 41-year-old who has not had sex reassignment operation and thus assigned to the men's ward, was given 31 years for her crime. She has served six. Tee, 48, was sentenced to 25 years and has served seven. Their sentences were reduced multiple times due to good conduct and royal pardon, yet they still have a decade or so left to complete.

Chanthaburi Provincial Prison houses 2,519 inmates -- 307 females, 2,212 males. Approximately 80% of the cases are related to drugs, asset fraud and forgery of official documents. Several charity projects have been set up to help the inmates. Among them is the Kamlangjai project under the royal patronage of HRH Princess Bajrakitiyabha Narendiradebyavati. Launched earlier this year at the Chanthaburi prison, activities include Buddhism workshops and training in vocational careers, including Thai handicrafts and fortune telling. Princess Bajrakitiyabha also opened a coffee shop, which offers prisoners an opportunity to learn management skills.

The multitalented Golf also designs costumes for band members. CHUMPOL CHAIKANARAKKUL

The Kamlangjai project invited the private sector to collaborate on spin-off projects to provide more opportunities for inmates. Krungsri Auto implemented the "Chan For Chan" campaign, providing life skills coaching to prisoners by psychiatrists to bolster their transition back into society upon release.

Golf and Tee are among the prisoners who attend these activities. While Golf helps with teaching other trans women the art of cabaret performance, Tee is a head cook, delighting guests with some of her best recipes, and teaching female inmates how to build a career in the food industry once they complete their sentence.

"I am also glad that through my cooking skills I can make others happy," Tee said. "Prison life sucks because you have no freedom, but it is imperative to stop feeling sorry for yourself soon so you can map out the course of your life behind bars. Today prisons have all sorts of educational and reform courses to prepare you for the world outside, some even prepare a career path for some of us. I make the best of this and encourage others to follow suit."

Prison life for the LGBT community is not as bad as before because there is more acceptance, she said. However, her biggest fear is whether society will accept her when she is released from prison.

Signature dishes and desserts by head cook Tee, who had a flourishing food business on the outside before she was arrested on drug charges.

"Social acceptance is so important for us prisoners," said Tee. "We need an opportunity to show we have turned a new leaf. Prison time is still considered a stigma in Thai society. I pray that this mindset will change so reformed ex-convicts can have a future."

Golf is a member of the prison band CTS Sung-Te. She is in charge of songs and dance performances. Her black and silver costume, with deep cleavage accentuating her breasts, look emasculating, while her make-up highlights her high cheekbones and pouting lips.

CTS Sung-Te was formed in 2017 from The Chan Star contest, which invited one representative from each of the 30 Chanthaburi prison cells to compete in a contest that ran for two months. It was a grand event where the provincial governor was invited. Guest judges included members of the police, judiciary and prosecutors.

They initially used rundown karaoke machines but were later donated new musical instruments, which gave them the encouragement to perform at a higher level.

Beaming while recalling the compliments her dance troupe received, Golf said getting the right inmates to form the band was a painstaking ordeal. Both LGBTs and heterosexuals auditioned.

Home recipes such as pork curry with chamuang leaves is another top dish by Tee. Krungsri Auto

"It has been just a year since trans women inmates like myself have found purpose, we can do what we love … do women like things like learning how to sing and dance, sew costumes and teach each other make-up skills. Prior to this, I worked with male inmates polishing silver jewellery. To say the least it was depressing, each day was a travail," said Golf.

"After breakfast we spend quality time practising our dance and lip sync routine after which we brainstorm about future themes for our performances," she said.

Golf said prison life has also improved in the past year. In the past, trans women inmates had to sleep in the same cell with senior male inmates, most over 50.

"I am very grateful that we have our own cell, and we don't shower with the rest of the men, so we can have privacy. Meal times are also different so we do not get into any unnecessary altercations with the men folks.

"Trans women have their issues, so I as the most senior in the group, teach my younger sisters to shed their unbecoming traits of envy and jealousy so they don't break prison rules by having fist fights. I also see to it that each person is focused on completing their education, which is a must, even though many join transvestite cabaret shows upon their release from prison."

Golf is open about the need for trans women inmates to have a strong male partner to look after their physical and emotional needs. Golf said some young trans women come into the prison system having never truly been able to express their womanhood in the outside world.

"They have never had a person guide them and love them for who they were. As a result, too many feel that their only affirmation of femininity is having a man between their legs. Promiscuity tends to be the first method of showing the world that they are, in fact, passable and desirable women. To remain disease free in such circumstances, it is important to have a partner who you can depend on for everything. A husband who is there to protect you and provide emotional support. My last serious relationship was about a year ago, he completed his sentence, so we broke if off.

"I always stayed away from drugs, let alone sell them. It was out of necessity that I decided to take the dangerous step to break the law. Looking back, I am certain there was a better way out of the predicament I was in. If only I didn't decide in haste, I would be spending the twilight years of my mother together with her."

*Not their real names.

Veteran psychiatrist Dr Supara Chaopricha was picked to equip offenders at Chanthaburi Provincial Prison with life skills to help them lead a productive life as law abiding citizens after their release. Avoiding a relapse of criminal behaviour is a top priority.

Golf, a trans woman, is teaching younger inmates like herself to get an education and learn a skill or two while serving their sentence. CHUMPOL CHAIKANARAKKUL T.+6681819836

For the debut programme, 30 female inmates participated in the workshop "Sang Serm Term Jai Chan", translated as inspiring strength.

There will be a break of about two months between each workshop in the eight-month course. Participants will most likely be inmates who are nearing the completion of their sentence and who have a good behavioural record.

Prior to the royal initiative, Chanthaburi Provincial Prison had a 25% relapse rate by inmates, significantly higher than the national average of 14%. After the implementation of various projects in the past year, this number has dropped to a record low of 6%, thanks to the efforts of everyone involved.

"Addressing their psychological needs should help offenders work their way towards becoming valuable members of society," said Dr Supara. "The biggest challenge is working with probably one of the most vulnerable groups to integrate back into society. The life coaching skills for prisoners that I will use have been developed over six years. My past experience of working with inmates in different settings has given me a well-rounded understanding of their needs, the challenge now is to arrange it in a manner that will help them the most."

Dr Supara said that during the course of the programme, special attention is placed on such topics as self awareness, improving relationships, empathy and problem solving.

During the evaluation, she discovered that the majority of participants in the group had no major underlying emotional issues such as depression and anxiety.

"I was rather glad to see that most of the inmates' emotional health was in pretty good shape, for one they have reconciled to the fact that they had blundered and now had to take responsibility for their actions. Their attitude by and large is good, which is a step in the right direction. What they are lacking is the tools needed to not relapse back into their old ways and address the hurdles they most likely will face on the outside.

"One is to prove to society that they have potential; all they need is opportunities to prove themselves worthy."

Dr Supara's workshops are designed for participants to think, evaluate and assess the direction they take in life, preparing them for new experiences that can either make or break them.

Having worked with inmates in the past, Dr Supara said that when businesses don't offer career opportunities to people with a prison record, offenders usually fall back to their old ways. However, she is confident that with these campaigns for self-improvement, the chances of relapse will decrease.

"I believe this opportunity will emotionally give them the tools to be strong in the face of adversity, in moments they find themselves vulnerable. Coupled with their vocational skills, I believe we will have a winner."

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