I’d like to prelude this article with advise from my uncle when he heard I was visiting a Bangkok prison: “Try swapping places with him... 3 hot meals a day and regular sex...sounds pretty good!”
UPickAPath Puppetours voted for me to visit an Australian incarcerated in Bangkok’s toughest prison for smuggling drugs. Well, this didn’t exactly go according to plan. Instead, I found myself in a conversation with a Russian man on literature, prison and murder. Bangkok’s maximum security prison holds the ironic name of the Bangkok Hilton. Cameras were forbidden so words are all I have to bring you inside with me and relay to you this unique experience.
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” - FyodorDostoevsky
Across from me are a group of 20-something year olds whose arm-pits have wet themselves. They’re clowning around like a pack of teenagers; chatting, shoving, ones swigging on a beer while another is posing for photos. They’re laughing excitedly as if they’re about to pat a Walrus at the zoo. But they’re not. They’re about to meet a British man who has been incarcerated in Bangkok’s prison for those sentenced to life or death, for smuggling drugs.
What’s wrong with this picture?
They make me feel just as on edge as the bright, orange plastic chairs that I, mothers, wives, children wait in the heavy heat of this city for a voice to bark from behind a tiny sliding window the names of fathers, husbands, and sons.
The lure of concentration camps, prisons, cemeteries, places of mass killing as tourist attractions for holiday-makers says interesting things about our species. We sell tickets to somebody else’s gross misfortune. A dark curiosity in all the things that had once made these people scared of the dark as kids, draws thousands to these tourist unattractions.
Thoughts of my visit to Dachau, one of the largest concentration camps of Nazi Germany mingles with others that make like cigarette smoke in my mind - exhaled, curling dreamlike then vanishing - during my boat trip to the prison. I remember watching tourists posing with smiles and the two finger peace symbol held aloft for happy snaps of themselves inside what were once human gas chambers. The absurdity left me with no other expression but to laugh. I now find myself laughing again.
The coiled barbed wire, the high cracked white walls, watch towers, thick barred vault-like doors impose a imperious presence on the typical Bangkok street. Opposite the prison, the familiar symbol of the Red Cross is emblazoned on a uniform white concrete block building. I wonder if the prisoners can see it from the yard.
I follow a sign across from the prison reading “Visitor registration”.
A veranda hangs over the rows of bright orange chairs where mostly Thai people sit with large plastic bags filled with food, fanning themselves with newspapers. The building looks like a petrol station. The roof is falling in while one single tired fan does its best to spin.
A sweat imprint of my hand is left on the registration form I give to the little window where a guard, with gold-rimmed dark aviator sun glasses looks me up and down with an expression that appears to have been drawn on. His brown uniform is skin tight and creaseless.
“Copy Passport and come back,” he nips at me. I almost curtsey like a well mannered girl and do so. I have been warned to be on my best behaviour - “inside prison walls, you have no rights.”
Preparing for the prison visit was not easy. Requiring the name and location of the prisoner I was to visit, I contacted the Australian embassy, however, despite the British and American embassy being forthright with prisoner’s names and details for willing visitors, I was delivered a “due to our strict privacy laws we are unable to provide you with the requested information,” email. Instead, I relied upon some, what seemed, out-of-date listings of a website called foreignprisoners.com. I decided I would take my chances and it seemed it had payed off once my visitor application was stamped forcefully by the guard with a clench of his brick jaw that seemed to make the cracked paint fall from the walls.
“You come back at 13:45.”
As I sat and waited, a giant sweaty man, shaped like a bowling pin and obviously a foreigner, filled the room with his bellows at the guards, who seemed not to mind, as the raucous man stormed around the place and into their office as if he owned it and was undertaking some important assignment. I could hear all of his sentences punctuated by the foreign English speaker’s mutation of the words fucking – “farkin’” – and bullshit – “boolsheet”. He also seemed to have an uncontrollable tendency to scratch his groin like a dog on heat. Being the only other foreigner in the room I knew it was only matter of time before he would come over and ask me...
“Where you from?”
He asked and offered me dried apricots from his giant dank hand.
“You have some,” he coaxed until I took them from him. Without a breath of hesitation, he asks me several questions one would normally not feel comfortable answering to such a man visiting somebody in prison; then scratched his groin.
I ask the same questions in return. I discover he is from Israel but lives “everywhere”, used to own a shop in Adelaide, South Australia selling poultry and is in the prison visiting three times a week. He tells me he has seven friends he has detained in the prison.
“It is very hard for me to come here so often in the heat and all, you know farkin.”
I ask the obvious question:
“What’s today’s friend in for?”
“He killed his wife.” Pause.
“He slit her throat,” he says mimicking with his index finger the motion his friend most likely carried it out.
“Then he cut her up into pieces and put her in the freezer next to the frozen vegetables...farking crazy man – hey whiskey man!” he yells out at one of the guards while I’m wondering if people like that still eat the frozen veggies. Scratch of the groin.
While at the beginning of the conversation it seemed we both had been watching our step, it now seemed he deemed me harmless enough to confide in me his life story, and the life of “the bloody bitch”- his ex-wife.
“I donated $350 thousand to casinos because of that crazy bitch - I came to Australia with this much money to buy a house but instead she put it all into the pokies...can you believe it!” he says shaking his head.
“Then I found out that she was with other men and that was it – and the whole time she wouldn’t come near my dick.” The mention of his genitals sits even more unsettling than meeting a convicted criminal.
I ask him how he came to know seven people in the prison. He only replies with a smirk, a wink and a scratch of his groin – “poultry,” he says nodding his head like somebody implying that there is more to the word he is using, something sinister.
He offers a passing guard a piece of cake from a Tupperware container who accepts gratefully.
Finally, an amplified nasally voice begins to list off names and a woman holding the hands of her young son and daughter lets out an elated scream. She is going to see her husband.
After I pass under the barbed wire framed entrance of the main prison compound, the clank of the lock as the gate is closed behind sounds like shattering coffee cups and is as haunting as the cry of crows.
We hand in all of our possessions and guards with slicked back hair and more tight uniforms tucked into polished boots lead us through a small opening to a giant vault-like door that has eyes darting left and right through a peep hole. Another clank of another lock and the small heavy door is pulled open with a scream. On the other side we are frisked and the food parcels brought for the prisoners are searched. I’ve filled mine with several meat dishes, a bag of biscuits and a packet of prunes. Several guards are standing around not doing much at all other than acting as ushers for the visitors.
Finally, we enter a long courtyard lined with palm trees and pots of pink and purple flowers - nice touches to reassure the visitors of how wonderful prison is, I assume. Lining either side are partitioned booths with numbers on them. I’m assigned to one of them where I wait and fiddle with the phone and my thoughts on what questions I’ll ask, how to introduce myself, the ice breaker that I had rehearsed but now forgotten. It was at this point I realised how quickly I would become some big hairy guy’s bag scratcher in this place.
A knock on the window opposite me interrupts the conversation I’m having with myself. I pick up the phone as the guard on the other end instructs. “Hello,” I squeak into the receiver.
“You must go back to the office- there is a problem,” with that he hangs up on me and I do as I’m told.
The guards at the office tell me that the Australian I am looking for does not exist. I discover later that he has been moved to another building. Not ready to go home, I ask the guard if I can speak with another English-speaker. He glares at me confused, but after much persuasion, he motions for me to follow him. He takes me into a room where an overweight man in a tie is having an animated conversation in Russian with a prisoner who is seated behind two panes of thick glass with a narrow passageway dividing them. The guard picks up the phone and instructs a man waiting on the other side to do the same: “Do you speak English?” the guard asks.
The prisoner hesitantly nods his head. I’m handed the phone receiver and I sit down. We spend about a minute trying to orientate ourselves in the random unusual situation we’ve both been thrown into. I have no idea where this man comes from or what he’s done to wind himself up in here. Good things can only come of this I think to myself.
I look across at him through the two window panes that divide us. We both look at each other as if we’re looking in the mirror: Following each other’s eyes, remaining dead still in the same inert posture.
He is dressed in what looks like a blue medical uniform and fills it out like a healthy man should. Not what I expected. His eyes are slightly sunk beneath a jutting forehead that casts shadows at the base of his eyes. His eyes are distinct and compelling in their gaze. His cheekbones sit high, his head is shaved and oddly, I notice he has the hands of a pianist: long, slender. In all, he has the characteristic appearance of a Russian.
“Hi, my name is Jake Moss, I’m Australian,” I feel like I’m speed dating as I introduce myself. I have 20 minutes to get to know this man.
I explain to him that I was meant to visit somebody which in a roundabout way led me to speaking to him. The phone line sounds like it’s a heavy smoker as it crackles and rasps.
He seems pleased to have a visitor and for a conversation. I promised him it would be a normal one.
He tells me his name is Rinant and that he comes from central Russia. Russia – cold war, vodka, president that likes to pose with his shirt off: My mind stops at that, leaving me with very little sensible to say about this man’s country except...
“I would like to visit there one day,” I offer.
“Yes. It is a beautiful country,” he says, looking up as if imagining himself there.
“Your name is Jake, right?” I nod. “What do you do Jake?”
I tell him I’m a journalist and have a smirk on my face while doing so. “Why are you laughing,” he asks me, also bearing a smirk. I feel comfortable in the conversation now, as if I’m chatting with a friend.
He asks me what I write about and I tell him politics, travel, social issues, but I tell him the human stories interest me the most. He stops me mid-sentence and points a finger at me: “Do you like Doestevsky?” he asks me with a tilt to his head and narrowed eyes.
“Yes, of course I do, one of Russia’s best writers.” We had found our commonality that was going to blow the conversation wide open.
He looks surprised- “I cannot believe it, not many people know him in here, he is my favourite writer,” he says with excited eyes before he recites a quote which I assume is from Dostoevsky but unfamiliar to me:
“Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man.” His English is perfect and his heavy Russian accent adds to the drama of the quote.
“So you have come here really wanting to find a story and what it is like to live in here, am I right?” he says. My cover is blown.
“Ask me any question,” he says settling in to his seat as if he is on a quiz game show.
My questioning follows the usual warm-up round - how old he is? (41), how long he had been in prison? (about 10 years), how long he was sentenced for? (life, 50 years) and the question that had been lurking since we had picked up the phone receiver: “why are you in here?”
I couldn’t believe how casually I had asked it.
“I killed a man.”
A pause followed and he looked at me as if waiting for a reaction. “I shot a man in the head,” as if to make sure I understood.
“Why?” I ask.
“There was a bank robbery down in Pattaya (city south of Thailand) and the security guard was going to shoot one of the men, so I shot him first.”
His expression didn’t flinch as he relayed this to me in a way that was a matter-of-fact.
I continued with my questioning: “What’s it like to live in here?”
“I have had time to adopt the life so it is not so bad – I mean all of those stories you hear about prison life is true – there are some bad people in here so you have to do the right thing, and the wrong thing to live in this environment.”
“You also need money in here as there are many things you have to buy. You have to rent your cell.”
“Your cell? You have to pay for the walls that imprison you?”
“Yes, it is very overcrowded in here so you share it with many others as well.” While learning this fired me up, it seemed Rinant was hardened to it and did not mind.
“But it is pretty good in here, we have television and the guards are not so bad.”
“What’s the food like?” I ask, not sure why.
“Hmmm, I’m often just eating rice. The food is often too spicy or just not tasting very good, making you sick,” he said.
“You are not given much to eat either so many depend on the food that visitors bring them – but I have been told they might be stopping visitors from bringing food inside the prison.”
“Why?” I ask.
“So they can use food as power to punish or make prisoners behave on the inside.”
“Do you have many visitors? Do you have family that come visit you?”
“My family cannot afford to come. They are living in my home in Russia.”
“I have an ex-wife also and a daughter, Deanna,” he adds.
“We write letters to each other very often – it’s very good as many fathers in here lose contact with their children when inside.”
I ask him how old Deanna was when he entered prison.
“About 10 years old - she is 18 now; I hope she comes to visit one day.”
“Are you married,” he asks which I quickly respond to with the shake of my head.
“Ah, that’s good at your age - you know, you may not think like it now but when you get older you begin to see a woman as a mother of your child rather than just a beautiful woman.”
We had plunged to the depths of a conversation I had not expected to reach with a man imprisoned for killing another man. But I guess once you have been there, where else is there to go?
Has it been prison that has reformed Rinant? Or did it only take a normal man with morals intact to make a momentary mistake to kill a man? Did desperation overcome the human in him?
I did not pity this man, but I did want to understand him.
I could not imagine him killing anyone. The man across from me seemed human, a father and a lover of good literature. A man no different to me.
A guard tapped me on the shoulder – “I think that’s enough now.” He says. We have gone over our twenty minute limit.
I thank Rinant and tell him I’ll write to him.
“That would be good, perhaps we can talk more about Dostoevsky in our letters,” I nod, give him an awkward thumbs up and we both put down the phone receiver with a clank. I’m ushered out by the guards as I’m the last to leave of the visitors.
On the way out, I’m not sure if the guard patting me twice on the ass is innocently showing me the way out or feeling me up, until it comes a third time with a crude smile.
Feeling slightly confused whether I should feel violated or not, I step back out into the rampant freedom and madness of the Bangkok street. Rinant does not leave my mind and neither does his citing of Dostoevsky’s quote-
“Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time.”