Is 'White Prison' making Bang Khwang a darker place?
text size

Is 'White Prison' making Bang Khwang a darker place?

A new programme bringing drastic changes to the notorious 'Bangkok Hilton' reduces prisoner privileges in the name of greater control. 'Spectrum' takes a look at current conditions through the eyes of past and present inmates and the people who visit them

Bang Khwang Central Prison is undergoing a transformation under an initiative aimed at ridding the notorious "Bangkok Hilton" and eight other facilities of drugs and other contraband. The "White Prison" policy came into effect last May under new director Vasant Singkaselit. Under the policy, visitors have been banned from bringing food, clothes or other items for prisoners; even books are banned. Prisoners are allowed to meet visitors once a day for 45 minutes, up to two visits a week, while visitors can only seen one inmate per day. Inmate workshops have been cancelled, punishments have become harsher and access to help in case of medical or fire emergencies has been limited.

NO WALK IN THE PARK: Jail cells line both sides of a corridor at Bang Kwang prison.

While some prisoners have reported that the drive has resulted in a safer environment with less drugs in circulation and fewer instances of shackling, most inmates as well as right activists say that officials are going overboard with enforcement.

They contend that the changes have been detrimental to prisoners, who already live in conditions that may contravene UN guidelines.

Spectrum spoke to past and present inmates, human rights workers and consular officials about the reality of life in Bang Khwang and what the White Prison initiative could mean for inmates.

While many prisoners and human rights workers agreed to speak about the conditions, most asked not to be identified. Rights workers who have very limited access now don't want to be shut out altogether. Inmates say if they voice complaints they face retribution from guards, officials and even other prisoners.

One common fear is that the prison is ill-equipped for emergencies.

Previously, once prisoners were locked up after 3pm, "blue shirt" prisoners _ those perceived as less of a security threat _ were still allowed in the hallways and could report to guards if an inmate became ill at night and needed urgent attention or another emergency. Inmates are aware of what happened in Honduras last year, when a fire started in a prison and the keys weren't found before more than 350 inmates died _ and worry about a similar occurrence here.

The official daily schedule begins with breakfast at 6am, vocational training or educational programmes before and after lunch at noon, dinner at 4.30pm, lock-up at 5.30pm and bedtime at 9pm. The reality at Bang Khwang is that prisoners are locked in their cells for around 15 hours a day. Those who get sick during this time receive no help until the next morning.

Prisoners are no longer allowed to work. The workshops _ once hives of crafts activities that helped inmates pass the time and earn a little money for essentials _ apparently became too profitable for the guards, who served as middlemen.

Prison officials have also justified the move saying that some classes used dangerous substances, such as paint thinner for furniture making.

It is much harder now to get face-to-face meetings for family visits, and White Prison volunteers take priority. These volunteers agree to searches in exchange for access to privileges.

Many prisoners complained about new "strict and ridiculous rules" and harsh punishments.

If a mobile phone is found in one cell and nobody takes responsibility, for example, everyone in the cell will have visitation and other privileges withheld.

Pressing concerns include severe overcrowding. As of Feb 1, there were 257,323 inmates in Thai detention facilities designed to accommodate 160,000. Bang Khwang's 14 buildings house 3,863 prisoners, an improvement on the 8,000 it once squeezed in, but still beyond capacity.

The UN standard ratio of prison warders to prisoners is 1:5; in Thai prisons, the average is 1:20. The lack of warders has long meant an overemphasis on the shackling of prisoners and the use of weapons by warders to protect themselves, as well as an inefficient rehabilitation process for inmates.

There is no separation of inmates who are convicted and those still on trial, nor of violent and non-violent offenders. Activists say this breaches global standards.

Sleeping space and ventilation are insufficient, with prisoners lined side by side across the floor.

The light is on all night and many inmates have trouble sleeping, making them irritable and prone to lashing out.

According to a report by the Union for Civil Liberty, Bang Khwang has nearly 60 cells still used for solitary confinement _ even though these have been banned by law. The temperature in the cells can climb to excruciating levels and hygiene and health are serious concerns.

The food provided lacks nutrition. Those with money can still buy fresh ingredients and cook, but poor inmates have to rely on the food provided.

One serious issue, according to prisoners, is the lack of a licensed doctor at the prison. One doctor comes to treat sick inmates a few times a week. A dentist extracts teeth twice a year.


The worst off are often the Myanmar, Cambodian and Lao prisoners, who have little money or consular and legal help, and receive few visitors.

Some NGOs concentrate on trying to help groups that have fewer prospects for fair treatment. One organisation used to visit 400 poor Thai and foreign prisoners a month, but this is no longer possible, said one of five employees who makes such trips.

"Under the changes in regulations, each one of us can visit only one prisoner a day," she said. "So we'd have to spend four months to cover everyone. But we also need to visit many other prisons, so we can't help as many people as we used to."

She acknowledges some positive aspects of the changes, including better safety."Since the authorities changed the rules, the place is cleaner and more peaceful, with less fighting and less fear inside the prison. Some gangs have disbanded or taken a lower profile."

She said some prisoners deal with their situation better than others because they have some money, supportive family members or friends, or are just better suited temperamentally to deal with adversity. Positivity is a crucial attribute for prisoners, she said, both in adapting to prison life and after release.


Spectrum talked to another NGO worker who has been visiting Bang Khwang over the past two years and spoken to dozens of prisoners, some of whom she described as "very talkative", and others as "quite shy".

She related one story at Bang Khwang that she feels is touching on a personal level but also indicative of a broader malaise.

"There is a security detainee from the deep South, very polite and shy. He was arrested in 2004 when there were several attacks at police stations and security checkpoints in the South. He was found at the scene seriously injured. He told me he was hired for 300 baht to drive a pickup to transport rubber plantation workers and didn't know that his employer was planning an attack.

FREE AT LAST: Alexander Krebs at Bang Khwang in 2000. He served 16 and a half of his 18 year

"The first two courts sentenced him to death and the Supreme Court commuted it to life imprisonment. For six years he had to wear almost six kilogrammes of leg shackles. He has to make a living in prison by offering laundry service to rich inmates."

She later travelled to the South to verify the inmate's story, and after speaking to his family she is convinced of his innocence.

"They are very poor, and had to struggle against prejudice through the whole judicial process," she said of the family, who felt the judge "had already decided that he was an insurgent".

His wife can now only earn a small salary and their six children are scattered about trying to get an education.

"When I hear his story and compare it to some well known politicians or their family members who were arrested and treated differently, that's when I see a clearer picture of the justice system in Thailand." Double standards in the justice and corrections systems are not improving, she added.

"The rich can easily get out of serving long sentences. Even inside the prison, money is a ticket to better conditions. You can order almost everything from outside if you have enough money ... Corruption and bribes are common."

Prisoners who acknowledged and described their own crimes to Spectrum said that many of their cellmates were undeniably innocent _ sentenced by association or as scapegoats.

Thailand follows two sets of international standards to protect the rights of people deprived of liberty: the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, 1977; and the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Female Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders. The Corrections Department has stated that prisoners' treatment should follow these standards.

''In many cases,'' the rights worker said, ''the treatments have fallen below these standards.''

Permanent shackles fastened on to death row prisoners in Bang Khwang were removed in January this year, but prisoners have to wear leg irons during transport, at the prison hospital and in court.

Those who have chronic health problems should be given regular check-ups and effective treatment, said the rights worker, adding that there should be better protective measures to prevent the spread of TB and pneumonia.

If an inmate becomes ill after the cell is locked, he has to wait until the next morning for the guard to bring him to see the doctor. This was what happened to Amphon Tangnoppakul, or ''Uncle SMS'', a prominent lese-majeste prisoner who died in custody at Bangkok Remand Prison last year; he received no treatment because the clinic was closed on weekends and holidays.

One prisoner said he got into trouble with officials after complaining to rights workers about his worsening respiratory problems.

Another health-related issue is that many prisoners suffer from undiagnosed mental health disorders. No regular tests or check-ups are provided. Foreign inmates can ask for a psychiatrist, but only through their embassy, a request that is so complicated and time-consuming that most inmates don't bother.


Although he also served time in four other prisons around the capital, South African Alexander ''Shani'' Krebs served 16 and a half of his 18 year sentence in Bang Khwang, making him at the time of his release last year its longest serving Western prisoner. He was caught in 1994 trying to smuggle 1.2kg of heroin out of Thailand, and his death penalty was reduced to 50 years, then life, after which pardons eventually reduced his sentence to under 20 years. South Africa lacks a prisoner transfer agreement with Thailand, so unlike most Western prisoners he had to serve the entirety of his sentence in the Kingdom until his May release and deportation. We contacted him in Johannesburg last week to see how he was coping with life on the outside. He admitted it has been a struggle to adapt.

''I'm finding it difficult to fit in with family life and society in general,'' he said. ''I'm more of a Thai than a foreigner and I'm still in a prison mindset. I have a lot of demons and struggle to sleep at night. Psychologically there is some damage. Otherwise I'm happy to be free and take it one day at a time.''

In a previous interview he told us that conditions in Bang Khwang were not quite as bad as portrayed in the Western media _ such as in Warren Fellows' memoir The Damage Done, or the films Bangkok Hilton (1989) or Brokedown Palace (1999).

''At first when you come in the conditions seem inhumane because it's like nothing you've ever experienced,'' he said, ''but with time you tend to adapt.''

Nevertheless, he said he spent two six-month stints in solitary confinement, witnessed fighting, corruption and murder, and petitioned the authorities to alleviate overcrowding and introduce clean water into Building 2, which housed many of the foreigners at the time. Conditions did slightly improve during his years as a prisoner.

He developed an artistic talent behind bars, something he was grateful to the prison authorities for tolerating. His drawings and paintings, displayed by his family in Johannesburg and online, earned him international recognition during his later years as a prisoner. Since his release, he has sold a few pieces and been commissioned to do a few portraits, and there are talks about a potential exhibition. The income is not enough to make a living on, though.

''At the moment my primary focus is my book Dragons & Butterflies, which should be published by August this year,'' he said. The title refers to the contrasting aspects of his personality. ''I've also done several talks at schools trying to educate the kids and bring a greater awareness about the consequences of drug abuse and trafficking.''

Despite the ongoing struggles to readjust to home life, he bears no grudges.

''For me my prison experience will always remain a positive one. I'm grateful for having got a second chance in life and Thai prison afforded me this opportunity. I've been drug free for over 17 years now and I can try to make a difference to others, hoping that they will learn from my mistakes.''

When asked about improving prison conditions, he said foreigners shouldn't be singled out for special privileges _ conditions should be improved for all inmates equally.

Ultimately, he said, he would like to see a more just and fair judiciary with sentences imposed more in proportion to the severity of the crime.

''I would also like to see the death penalty abolished and for Thailand to stop human rights violations.''


Some who serve their term at the ''Big Tiger'', as Bang Khwang is sometimes called, remain broken or scarred by their experiences, but others have overcome their sentences to achieve meaningful lives. One European prisoner, three weeks before his release from a life sentence for drug trafficking, told us that the population of Westerners in Bang Khwang has been declining for years, as the old-timers get released and fewer are taking their place.

''They're just not doing such stupid things any more,'' he said.

He had been down and out at the time of his crime, he said, pondering suicide to escape his debts, and in an Amsterdam pub someone offered him a holiday and a job. He had a bad feeling about it from the beginning, all the way until the metal detector went off and he was arrested at Don Mueang airport for trying to smuggle 800g of heroin.

''I was arrested for stupidity,'' he said.

While he admits his guilt, he said his 15 years in Bang Khwang have been an extreme punishment out of proportion to the crime. The conditions, at times, have been brutal, he said. During his incarceration his partner died, his mother had a stroke and his son grew up without knowing his father.

He found various ways to cope, however. Petitioning the embassy for help was so infuriating it helped focus him, he said. He studied up on the law and the legal situation as it related to different nationalities. Americans and Scandinavians, for example, can serve under five years before being transferred, after which they're released after a few months, he said.

And he tried to stay out of trouble, able to live in the same cell for over a decade. ''Moving cells or prisons is as much of a hassle as moving house in the real world.''

Directors have come and gone, policies have changed, but one thing he learned, he said, was never to volunteer for anything such as the new White Prison policy. He said the changes have made conditions worse, and he is being released just in time. ''The White Prison policy is a way for the new director to take away rights and privileges.''

The hardest aspect of imprisonment here, he said, is that no one knows their exact release date.

He spoke of his nervousness about re-entering the world. Consular assistance ends once he's on home soil. His country has changed during his time in prison, and he doesn't know how he'll be able to adapt. Some elements of his life, though, will be the same.

''I was broke, jobless and homeless when I got here,'' he said. ''And that's what I'll be when I go home.''

AN EYE FOR THE ILLICIT: an official conducts a search of a cell in Bang Kwang Central Prison.

THE HARD CELL: Inmates at Bang Kwang Central Prison in Nonthaburi gather as officials search their cells.



When it comes to unsolicited visits from strangers, most inmates at Bang Khwang are happy for the respite from the tedium of prison life, but not all welcome the attention.

''I'm like a zoo animal asked to perform for the paying public!'' complained one Asian prisoner.

Likewise, a Hong Kong prisoner on death row became distraught once it became clear that he couldn't communicate with his visitors who had assumed he could speak some English.

He had hoped that a friend or loved one had showed up for a visit and when it became clear that wasn't the case, tears were shed on both sides of the double windows.

Some inmates are so ashamed of their situation that they don't want their loved ones to see them, let alone strangers. However, most are grateful to have someone to talk to; it can offer a release of pent-up thoughts and a rewarding experience for both parties.

For foreigners lacking consular or NGO assistance, visiting an inmate can be confusing. Some take the express boat from Bangkok to Nonthaburi pier and ask for directions from there _ the prison dominates this part of town and isn't hard to find. Others ride the MRT to Bang Sue and take a taxi the 10km from there.

According to the Corrections Department, King Rama V arranged to buy Nonthaburi land for a prison in 1902. Construction didn't start until the reign of King Rama VI in 1927, however, finally being completed in 1931.

The facility houses those with appeals pending at the Appeal Court and the Supreme Court, those with sentences ranging from 25 years to life, and death row inmates.

The entrance of the prison is nondescript, almost decrepit.

The outside walls are 2,406m long, six metres high and one metre beneath the ground and are equipped with high voltage wires. Inside walls of each section are 1,298m long and six metres high, topped with barbed wire.

Large groups of female Buddhist visitors can be seen at times, as they make merit by praying by the prison's walls. A shop and visitor processing building across the road have now disappeared and paperwork is done near the entrance. Visitors must arrive an hour in advance of the visitation slot, of which there are five or six a day.

Once past the gate visitors must deposit their phones, money and other personal effects. They then go through a metal detector, get patted down and enter a courtyard with seats lined in rows. Signs warn visitors to refrain from speaking in any language other than Thai, to only use the designated window and to stop speaking immediately when the bell sounds _ dictates that are routinely ignored by visitors and prisoners. The guards are not unfriendly, but many of the fans and telephones don't work. You sit about 10m away from the prisoners, looking through two windows and speaking over a bad connection. Bells buzz intermittently until finally the line is cut off and you can only wave as the prisoner is led away.

On one of our visits a prisoner's friend arrived in the same time slot as us; the guards sent us in together.

''We're visiting the same prisoner?''

The friend gave a disapproving look. ''That's who I'm visiting. I don't know about you!''

It can be a testy jockeying for visitation privileges because under the rules inmates are allowed only one visit per day, two days a week. If a ''prison tourist'' arrives earlier in the day than an important visit from a consulate, lawyer or family member who flew in from abroad, the rest are out of luck.

Australian retiree Ray Archer has been visiting prisoners for eight years and has found the experience to be rewarding. The 2,000 or 3,000 baht donations he occasionally makes to prisoners are tax deductible, which makes it an even more worthwhile cause.

Not all visits have been fruitful, Mr Archer said. Some inmates weren't honest, or tried to prey on his sympathies to get money or favours, and at least one prisoner he visited over several years went back to drug dealing soon after his release.

In general, though, the visits have given him a fresh purpose in retirement and he petitions prison officials and NGOs at times to help improve conditions.

Bill Francis, retired from the US Air Force, first came to Thailand to help after the 2004 tsunami and he started visiting prisoners a few years ago through a British charity. He developed a deep friendship with one European prisoner, and was granted a face to face visit with him once a year. The prisoner was recently released, and while happy for him in his new freedom, Mr Francis was saddened to lose a close friend.

''There was a real affinity, even a physical resemblance,'' he said.

He plans to visit his friend in Europe next year to see how he is coping with life on the outside. Meanwhile, he will continue to visit other prisoners.


Although one British prisoner told us that UK government policies on transfers were ''all to the detriment of the prisoner'', a local consular official spoke to Spectrum about some of the positive initiatives undertaken by the embassy.

''We visit our British national detainees every eight weeks and provide consular assistance with their welfare issues,'' he said. ''We also ensure that any funds that they are entitled to from Prisoners Abroad _ a UK-based charity _ or have received from their families or friends are given to them accordingly.''

He also explained the prison transfer agreement between the UK and Thailand. ''British detainees have to serve one third of their sentence or four years, whichever is less, before they are eligible for transfer. If this is a life sentence then they would be required to serve eight years before eligibility. Once transferred back to the UK, the sentence would be re-calibrated to fall in line with UK minimum sentence terms.''

He said that the conditions of local prisons can be challenging. ''There are always issues for foreign detainees in prisons in this part of the world. One of the big problems is that cells are shared by a number of people and beds are not provided, so the basic comforts that would be present in a British prison are simply not there. Food and medical facilities perhaps don't match up to the level that they are in the UK.''

The official encouraged British nationals to visit their compatriots in local prisons.

''We run a prison visiting programme and visitors to the prisons help out in many ways, by providing reading materials, simply someone to talk to, or as a liaison between the detainee and family members and embassy. There are never enough voluntary visitors to go around for all of our detained British nationals, so [visits] would be appreciated, yes.''

A spokesperson from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, told us that many Australians find that ''overseas laws and legal processes can be very different to those in Australia and harsh penalties can apply to actions that may not be considered a crime in Australia''.

''If an Australian detained overseas requests consular assistance,'' she said, ''an Australian consular officer will visit the detainee as soon as possible ... to provide welfare support and to closely monitor the health and well-being of the Australian in detention.''

Some prisoners are eligible for government loans in order to access ''supplementary food, medical assistance and other essentials that may not be routinely provided by a prison''. A prisoner transfer treaty with Thailand, administered by the Attorney-General's Office, came into force in 2002.

FACE OF THE STATE: A prison guard stands watch inside a chamber at Bang Kwang prison.

Do you like the content of this article?