An Interview with Billy Moore who wrote A Prayer Before Dawn

Q: Tell us about your life and why it’s been made into a film.

A: I went travelling to South East Asia in 2005. It was a backpacking holiday that turned into a nightmare. For me, it was 2 years of living ……… I’ve had to relive an experience…something that you couldn’t invent in your worst nightmares. But I went through the experience and there was a lot of help from charities like yourselves. And there were some Christian missionaries that used to come over as well. There were some resources and support. When I was in the prison, I thought about what I’d seen and experienced…in the brutal and inhumane conditions.  I’d write about it and document the factual information. For my own benefit because I thought this is not happening. This dream is not real. But actually documenting it, writing it, and seeing it for what it really was. I sent a synopsis to a few publishers and one took it on board. We signed the publishing contract and it was published in March 2012 in Thailand. My past experience, however negative it was, I want to turn it into a positive in saying ‘This is what we can do’.

                                                                               Billy with Sylvester Stalone 

Can you describe a typical day in prison?

I got woken up at half past 7, or maybe slightly earlier. There’d be lots of whistles blowing, and everyone would stand at the gate and march out. We would then be marched into a massive compound. It was like a shanty town, with corrugated huts. And then would start mixing rice and making food. And selling drinks, cigarettes, drugs, tattoos etc.

First thing in the morning, everyone would have to stand in front of the Thai flag and sing the national anthem. **BM then sings part of the national anthem** It was constant every day. You’d have to stand there and do it. Every night it would be the same. Different tune, but same anthem.

A typical day was booming hot. There was nothing to do, I was just totally bored. You’d have to make your own entertainment. I got involved in boxing inside because I was always fighting a lot. Imagine crowd control in a football match-it was like that. The mass amount of people that were there-you were always manoeuvring and negotiating. The toilets were also stinking. We had these outside toilets that were so filthy. The stench was awful. Clothes would be hung on homemade lines.

Once a day, you’d get a meal. It was always rice, a liquid of some sort, with some inedible meat. It was chicken head, but still with the eyes, legs, snake soup etc. Stuff that you couldn’t even identify. Nobody knew what it was, they just ate it. The stink was the worst, I often had to hold my nose while I was eating. Sometimes we also got a boiled egg and a sugar cube. All the food was mass-produced and rubbish.

How did the money that Prisoners Abroad gave you help?

I was surprised, because I didn’t know about Prisoners Abroad. Someone that came to the prison once a week put money in my account. She was a Christian missionary called Katherine. I think it was 2,000 bahts per month. I was confused where it was coming from, and she told me it was from Prisoners Abroad. She asked me what I would like with this money. It was just brilliant. It really helped. Then I started receiving correspondence, as well as an annual magazine. I always looked forward to reading that.

Things started to change too. I started some correspondence with someone as well. I wrote to the Prisoners Abroad office many times. I continued writing, and I got myself in the newsletter. I shared my story with the team, and let them know what was going on. I couldn’t divulge much because the letter was coming from the prison in Chiang Mai and they were censored. So I couldn’t exactly explain the horrors of what I was seeing: the people getting raped, murdered, sharing needles, and the threats to myself, and having to walk around in shackles. The shackles were rusty and it was easy to get cuts, tropical diseases, dengue fever, and malaria. I suffered a lot of illnesses. I was regularly in hospital due to poor diet and malnutrition, and also from violent attacks. I had my eyes stitched. They were sewn without any anaesthetics.

Did you have the shackles on the whole time, or was it just the beginning?

It was the beginning, and then it was brought on myself. I was put on punishment with the death row inmates because of the way I wasn’t conforming to their expectations. I was put in shackles for 3 months non-stop. Initially, it was just upon entrance to the prison. But there was the constant torture of people going to bed, and all you would hear was ‘Clink, clink’ every night. It was really unsettling.

Did the shackles make you a target?

No. People wearing shackles were treated like everyone else. You just had walking restrictions. I think you were looked on with pity too. You learnt how to take shorts off with them on too. Initially, I couldn’t take mine off for about a week.

They put your leg in a vice. It’s like an anvil-it’s massive and has two hooks n it, with a metal shackle around it. Then it closes up and you have to turn your foot. It nearly chopped my leg off! To take it off, they put a hook and you can pull it up. It bends the bar, and then you slip it off. It’s very easy to get broken bones, cuts etc. There was loads of blood poisoning too. You had to polish them every day.

Did your physical and mental health suffer from being prison and if so, how?

My physical health deteriorated a lot due to poor diet and the medication that I was on. My mental health was ‘skewiff’. I was suffering with paranoia and fear. I was paranoid that people were talking about me because I couldn’t understand what people were saying. That amplified the paranoia. I had a fear that they were going to attack me, and that I was going to get killed. I couldn’t think rationally, and I wasn’t in a place where I could be rational because of the environment I was in. Physically, I was in pain a lot. I used a lot of medication. There was a British doctor that came over to the prison in Bangkok. He supplied the foreign prisoners with various medicines. I would get the stuff and sell it to the other guys in prison. I would then get money off them to get food. I was having to give up medicine that was helping me recover, just to get enough food. Because I was hungry. So both my physical and mental health suffered.

Can you talk more about the books/writing, and how you found it helpful/therapeutic?

Reading books in there was an escape. It was a different world and it helped me move away from where I was. Having a journal and documenting stuff that was going on. I thought I didn’t want to lose this. I didn’t want to interpret it a little differently at a later date. When I wrote, it was important because when I was writing, it was freeing me. Because I couldn’t communicate that well when I got back to the UK, I wrote about it and shared it with a cell mate. I would read it to him and he would say ‘Oh my god, is this serious?’ It was so normal to me. I would tell people and I’d get funny looks. It became so matter of fact. I didn’t realise I had become so conditioned to see it as normal. To the outside world, it was totally insane, barbaric and inhumane. Someone would probably get stabbed a few yards away from me. I watched a man getting murdered right in front of me. He was stabbed at least 50 times. He was surrounded by a number of inmates who were screaming ‘Kill him!’. Nobody came to his rescue. It was like slow-motion. I watched every knife thrust going in. It was so calculated, there was no frenzy around it. Every knife thrust was like a death target. It was going on his neck, back, chest, legs. I kept replaying it over and over again in my head. I couldn’t sleep for a week. That was the kind of stuff that went on. And you would see something a little bit less, like someone sticking a knife in someone’s neck, with blood squirting everywhere and you would think ‘I just want to get some water now’. It became that way. While everyone’s attention was diverted, I could often get to the front of the queue for a little bit of food.

What made you learn Thai and how did speaking the language change the situation?

It changed the paranoia. Before, I was sitting in a cell with 70 Thais and I couldn’t understand a word. I couldn’t communicate. I couldn’t express how I felt. I couldn’t say if I was feeling sad, hurt, lonely or vulnerable. I just wanted to talk to someone. I was so isolated and locked in my own self. I lived in this mindset without communicating to anyone. It was just torture. I asked someone to teach me the language and every day I learnt something. I kept on repeating words. I would watch people picking up water and the conversations. Then I learnt the language so I knew what they were saying about me. I then understood all the names they were calling me! But when you know something, they don’t like it. They don’t like you being able to understand them. I learnt the slang too, and the dialects. I learnt central Bangkok, southern Thai. I learnt how to read and write but it was useless. But it was useful while I was in there. It helped me get to doctors, and get medication, and explain what was wrong with me. It worked.

Were you getting the wrong medication before, or was it just a miscommunication?

I was getting medication that had no name on it. It just had triangles on it. I was just told it would be good for me. So I would take tablets and I would end up dry, and my tongue would swell up, and my muscles would be relaxing. I had tablets that made me feel like my eyes were burning up. I had other tablets that would make me hallucinate. I ended up taking loads of them because I liked the hallucinations! It felt like I was walking on marshmallows in the prison. I would think I was in a wonderland, until I woke up and realised I was still in a hellhole. I just needed to know what I was getting.  When I spoke the language, I knew what to say and what to ask for. I would tell them that I would contact the British Embassy if the medication wasn’t correct. Once you do that, they can’t treat you like some scum anymore. It gave them a bit of fear too.

It took me 3 years to learn the language. But it only took me 3 months to learn the writing. It was so easy because I could already speak it. They have 44 letters in the alphabet. It was all symbols. It was just nice to know.

How did you feel when you were told that you would be moving back to a prison in the UK?

I felt really excited and relieved. However, British Airways had cancelled my flight. 2 members of Wandsworth prison travelled over. They wouldn’t tell me the date that I was going. I got a phone call through the cell. They came over to me and did this big handing-over ceremony with coffee, biscuits, luxury board meeting room etc. I was told that I would be handed over and sent back to the UK. I was shaking their hands and everyone was smiling. I was ready to go and then I got a phone call saying I had to be taken back to prison. The British prison staff then told me that the flight had been cancelled. British Airways had had a strike. There were loads of riots in Bangkok at the time as well. It was mad. There were marches, and fires. People were burning Bangkok to the ground, and shopping malls falling to bits. And all this was happening while I was trying to get home. This was on the 30th March. The prisons staff then booked a flight for the next day, so I had to spend another night in the prison.

Then the next day, I got transported to immigration. I was quiet. I felt isolated even with the staff. I couldn’t talk. I was just really anxious. I didn’t know what to expect, or how to communicate. Everything was malfunctioning. I went to the British prison and I felt different again. I felt alone. I felt separated even though I was amongst my own because I’d been out of the country for such a long time. I couldn’t fit in and I felt that I was looked upon differently. Even though I was given a nice job. I didn’t have to say ‘yes sir’ or ‘no sir’. I was very submissive. There was this crisis team that came in and checked me out. They just wanted to play cards with me.

That’s when I started coming out of it. I wrote some stuff down. I started to get a passion, to feel free. I started to enjoy what I was seeing, although I was breaking down while I was writing it. I was in tears, and in bits, but it was therapeutic. It was an experience.

How long were you in the British prison before you were released?

I never had a day of release. I didn’t know when I was getting out. They told me I was getting the king’s amnesty. That took 8 months. I was sentenced to 3 years in total and I already had done the whole time. I should have been out 8 months prior to that.

I was in Wandsworth for the whole time. I was released at half past 5. They just came after work and told me ‘Pack your kit. You’re going home’. It felt like I had been hit with a bomb. No warning. Nobody else knew. I walked up to the gate and stood at that gate for about 2 hours. I felt cellotaped to the floor. I didn’t know where to go. I ended up in Bournemouth. Then I ended up in hospital. I ended up nearly dying through getting lost in Bournemouth. I was sleeping on sofas and using drugs again. I was living on an animal level. I was living on sugar puffs and milkshakes. It got to a point where I couldn’t walk and I was in hospital for a month. I phoned my Mum up and I said ‘Mum, I want to come home’. It had been 5 years. I just felt really sad. Lost. I had nothing. No support, no preparation for real life. I was just put outside, alone, with a suitcase, and no direction.

What was it like seeing your Mum after such a long time?

She broke down in tears. I had lost all my weight. My hair was everywhere. I was a mess. I couldn’t walk, I was on crutches. I couldn’t even hug her.

I felt sad seeing her. I was robbed of being reintegrated into society in a proper way. Because I was given no warning. From operations to prisons. The fear of coming back and being separate again. Not knowing when I was coming out. No date. I was just put into society without any warning. I was just lost and thinking ‘What do I do’?

It had been ten years since I had been at home. It had totally changed. My Mum had grown older. I started to build a relationship up with my Dad. I couldn’t build a relationship with myself, let alone them. Then my Dad died of cancer a couple of months ago. Being in a relationship with someone as well for a couple of years has been difficult. I just feel insecure, especially when the vulnerability kicks in.

I feel like there’s a lot of further things to do. Although I’ve read stuff, and experienced it, there are still heavy-rooted feelings from my past. My partner often says ‘How can you talk about this stuff?’ but it’s normal to me. I don’t have nightmares but I don’t understand why I don’t. There’s no fear. Like now, I’ve been feeling all emotional because I’ve been talking about something that was horrible. The stuff that was done to me, getting battered and dragged down steps. Although I can blame myself for creating that problem with not conforming, I don’t think that was justified in any shape or form. Lying on the floor with blood all over you, getting eaten alive by red ants, getting spat at and spoken to like you’re a dog. And I blame myself because of the way I reacted, but I just wanted answers. I didn’t want to be feeling different all the time.

I got counselling. I don’t take any mental health medication, I don’t believe in that. I’ve got a support network now that I can communicate with, and identify with. I know it’s OK to feel vulnerable. I know it’s OK to expose what’s going on in my thinking. I’ve built that up over the last couple of years.

I wouldn’t accept that it was OK not to feel OK. I had to be the man, and not cry. And to think that this experience was normal. But it wasn’t, it was painful, horrific and barbaric. It hurts and it’s OK to say that. I often felt like crying and I did. I remember this guy putting his arm around me and he said ‘you’re going to be alright’. I thought, that’s human compassion. I was like ‘Wow’. I just broke down. He didn’t judge me on it. I knew why their culture didn’t cry. If any of them were hurting, you’ll drown them. Lots of superstition. I was never allowed to be myself because of the face that they all put on. I had never had the opportunity to do that stuff and, when I did, it was nice.

Have you got plans to tell your story in schools/education stuff etc?

Yes. Presentations on the harsh realities of prison life. I’ve been volunteering at different organisations where I’ve been trained in how to give presentations. I now feel confident enough to convey a message to youngsters. To people in colleges and universities. I want to give people an opportunity to really see what it was like. No matter how hard or big you think you are, I’ve been up against the odds. I’ve been in the ring with the biggest and the baddest. And the only thing you can be, all the time, is yourself. You’ve got the responsibility, and you need to take ownership of how you live. It’s your choice, and I’m just here to guide you and offer a bit of my experience. This is what I’d like to do. I’m articulate and I can communicate. I can engage people. I want to share my experience but also be real with it. And be clinical. Not robotic.

I’ve got this hardcase look, with scars, a boxer’s nose etc. I’m not trying to portray anyone else. The biggest war I had was with how I feel. That pride and ego has to be removed. You need humility and acceptance. It’s all about changing direction. I want the opportunity to do this stuff now. It’s been a couple of years. I feel ready, like I’ve got an emotional intelligence now. I now have integrity with it. What you see on the outside, is what you get. I’m not here for effect, or to get your approval or pity.

When someone asks me about my experiences, people often look at me in strange ways.

I’d like to get some funding for the stationery: envelopes and stamps. So I can send these leaflets off to schools so I can highlight what it’s like for prisoners, and the work that Prisoners Abroad does. We can make a difference in people’s lives but I can’t do that without a help in starting.

Find out how you can get involved with our work.

A Prayer Before Dawn will be in cinemas everywhere from Friday 20th July.