BANGKOK – Journalist and Muay Thai enthusiast James Goyder got a glimpse inside a notorious jail when he participated in a boxing match with one of the inmate.
The popularity of behind-bars documentaries like Banged Up Abroad had probably given me unrealistic expectations as I stepped inside the imposing walls of Klong Prem Prison in Bangkok.
I had been ready for riots, drugs, gangs and violence but it soon became clear that life for the 5,246 inmates was much more mundane.
The daily schedule was displayed on the wall:
05:30 Wake Up Whistle, 06:00 Going Out Of Sleeping Quarters, 17:00 Going Up To Sleeping Quarters,19:00 Meditation and Prayer Time, 20:00 Sleeping Time
It was not until we had been shown where the prisoners sleep that the significance of this timetable really sank in. The cells all measured approximately 1.5 metres x 3.5 metres including a small bathroom area at the back which consisted of a tap and a hole in the floor for a lavatory. This was partitioned off from the remainder of the room by nothing more than a waist-height wall.
Each cell held three to four prisoners but there were no chairs or beds. Instead, inmates slept side by side on the floor, and if they were lucky there was a small TV in the corner. They spend 13 hours a day in this claustrophobically confined space.
We were given a guided tour by a well-educated inmate whose story was vaguely reminiscent of that of Walter White in the Breaking Bad TV series which had concluded the previous week. He had learned English by working overseas before being caught producing methamphetamine and handed a 50 year sentence.
According to our guide, regular urine testing ensured that drug use was minimal, at least in the section we were in, while violence is rare and rape absolutely unheard of. The only thing that prisoners have to fear is disease – if someone in a cell contracts something it will inevitably spread to all the other occupants.
Perhaps to compensate for this spirit-sapping night-time regime, prison authorities are more proactive when it comes to keeping the inmates occupied during the day. One block contains footballers who will play together morning and afternoon with Klong Prem famously hosting its own ‘World Cup’ back in 2010.
The block we were shown around was adjacent to a boxing ring where prisoners train together twice a day and occasionally compete in Prison Fight, an event held inside Klong Prem’s walls which gives inmates the opportunity to take on outsiders at either Muay Thai or boxing.
The prisoners I spoke to seemed to be serving sentences of anything from 20 to 80 years, mainly for drug offenses. Many of them were covered head to toe in ornate body art which, according to our guide, prove popular purely because getting tattooed is virtually the only way to alleviate the boredom at night.
We did hear a few light-hearted anecdotes. For instance our guide informed us that if two prisoners had a problem with one another they were sometimes given boxing gloves and told to settle their differences in a supervised setting inside the ring.
We were also told that inmates were allowed to enter into relationships with the ladyboys who make up a small percentage of the prison population, but only on the condition that they informed the authorities first and agreed to an official marriage of sorts.
Once the ‘marriage’ had been approved they would be moved into the same cell and if the relationship eventually came to an end they could seek an official divorce. This emphasis on monogamy is understandable given how prevalent HIV is among Thailand’s transgender community.
In order to get access to Klong Prem in the first place I had agreed to do a boxing match with an inmate. The fight itself won’t linger long in the memory – it was a scrappy affair and I lost a decision – but the sight of the prisoners crammed into those cells for 13 hours at a time is not something I will forget in a hurry.
From what we saw, prison life didn’t seem to be fraught with danger, other than the risk of disease, but the monotony of the daily routine must be absolutely unbearable. It’s difficult to imagine settling into a schedule like that and accepting that it is going to continue for several decades, potentially to the end of your natural life.