Written by Jon

Radio 4 Appeal Story

My first experiences of prison life, 

After two days in a police station, sleeping on a concrete floor with mosquitos biting every piece of uncovered flesh, and the smell of urine lingering in the humid, stifled air, I find myself in what I can only describe as orderly chaos; a court room in the heart of the hustle and bustle of one of Southeast Asia’s busiest, hottest, craziest, cities: Bangkok! 

It hit me while I was sitting there like a warm wet slap to my face that my life was about to change in a whole new way, that would test me and try me and push me to my limits. And there is nothing anyone can tell you that fully describes the hopelessness and frustrations of incarceration in a foreign land.

Thailand’s court rooms are the furthest away you could get from Judge Judy: there is no anecdote of how life has handed you a bum hand that would get sympathy from the court. No disfigurement too severe that could prevent you from being taken to prison. People with arms missing, legs missing… I saw one guy with no hands, just rounded stumps where they should be. And it didn’t even look like he was surprised to be there. It almost looked like he had a look of peace on his face. It’s like a sea of trodden and suppressed people that haven’t got a chance of anything that resembles a normal life. This is their world and I am here with them.

After court I was sent to one of Bangkok’s overly populated prisons, with a population a little shy of 9000 inmates. To put that into perspective; Britain’s biggest prison holds 2100 inmates but its footprint is three times larger than one of Bangkok’s finest. 

After a medley of undressing, standing up, sitting down and exposing parts of my body that aren’t normally on display, did we finally pass through the gates to the building that would be my new home for the foreseeable future. I was overwhelmed by exhaustion of a mind scratching and fighting to grasp some sense of reality that could sum up the trail of events that led me here. And I wish I could have said it was all a big mistake and that I was innocent. I didn’t even have that moral high ground that I could find comfort in. I was guilty and now was the time I had to pay my dues. So my only option is to man up and stand tall. Easy. I’m 6’4 so I’ve got that going for me. First positive thought I had all that day. Well, that and the fact that I am glad I don’t have the guard’s job which it is to sit there looking into the orifices of every prisoner who passes through Bombat’s gates. 

I was in for a treat that first night. The prison’s kitchens have about four different kinds of soup that they serve. And one of them, that was to be my first meal, was so perfectly named by a Thai prisoner “exploding fish “. It’s a watery soup with a special blend of chillies, lemongrass, an assortment of spices (pretty much anything they can get their hands on in the kitchen ) and a lot of fish bones with some hunks of meat that may or may not have been filleted using a hammer. And it is ladled into your bowl by a fellow inmate (all flustered and sweating from the sun and the excessive heat produced by a 25-gallon steel pot filled with barely edible cuisine) at such a frantic pace that scolding soup splashes on your bare feet and arms and makes carrying it back to your place more intricate than running the krypton factor blindfolded and with one hand tied behind your back. All served with a block of cold hard rice.

The thing with Thai prisons is they have the prison food that is served three times a day and is barely sufficient in nutrients, and then they have the other food that you can order, which is run by prisoners and comes from outside the prison, mainly by families of the prison guards. The menu of different dishes dwarfs that of most restaurants that I had ever been in. And I was in shock at what could be purchased. Obviously it all has a price (like anything in a Thai prison). But the average bag of food comes in 60 pence bags which is not a bad portion and would satisfy most people. Anything to do with food is a pretty social affair and everyone eats in little groups that they call their family, which is nice! Sharing really is caring when it comes to sustenance here.

And they are mostly based on what area they come from on the outside. So, for foreigners it’s a bit of an awkward thing to find a family to join, as there is no space and, to eat alone or sit alone is just opening yourself up to everyone that wants to come and try his luck with anything you have. Luckily for me I found a great group of friends who I couldn’t have made it through every challenge without. In the wise words of Hellen Keller “walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.”

Amongst all these minor inconveniences and annoyances I couldn’t help wonder that it was probably harder for my parents and family. They were out there with no idea what was going on, or how I was doing. The only means of communication is through snail mail. There are no phones in Bombat and there aren’t even any smuggled in mobile phones. There are, however, visits that are available and it’s not too complicated for people to book them. Unfortunately they don’t normally last any longer than 20 minutes, and they are through a piece of glass reinforced with steel that you wish you’d have had your tetanus booster before touching. You speak through a phone and there isn’t any segregation between anyone visiting so it does get pretty loud and hard to understand what your visitor is saying.

Prisoners Abroad was a massive help to me while I was contained and confined inside the high walls with razor-wired trim and the clanking of iron on iron that echoes off the cold bare walls that never seems to subside 24/7. After signing up I received books and a newsletter which had many stories of accounts of other inmate all over the globe and all the other horrendous prisons out there. And when someone tells you that there is always someone out there worse off than yourself, believe it! It felt like while we were all being tormented by our own personal demons, we were connected though accounts and stories and experiences that transcend distance and time, that produce strong feelings of compassion and hope and in many cases gratitude that you’re not actually doing that bad. So we find refuge in each other’s humour and strength, knowing that it is not the end. This time will pass, and it will not break us, but make us. Make us better, stronger people. Now, when anyone says that a meal is being poorly prepared, I can truly say I’ve had worse.

I would like to say to any other prisoners out there (may you be in far flung reaches of third world countries, or any place where your personal liberty is ripped from you): stand strong, find humour and smile in adversity. Help your brothers and sisters next to you. And never forget you’ve got what it takes to get through this. 

There are moments in our lives that can define us - moments that can bring clarity and set us upon a different path than what we originally set out on. New goals, new ideas and it is all possible.

Where you are now and what you have been is not the definition of your future. It can be the fuel that burns deep inside you with a flame so bright and fierce and with such ferocity that nothing will quench it. You’ve got to want to do it.