Citylife’s Gratest Hit: ‘Damage Undone: inside a Women’s Prison’
Over the past fifteen years (180 plus issues), a number of writers have contributed to Citylife (formerly Chiang Mai Newsletter). Throughout 2006, to celebrate the publication’s 15 year anniversary, we will bring you a pick of the past every month. If you would like to see a particular article reprinted please email email@example.com
As the – shockingly slanderous – Damage Done, and seen films like the Bangkok Hilton, must admit that the idea of spending time in a Thai prison would rank pretty close to the prospect of being skinned alive, hung, drawn and quartered with a bit of Chinese torture added for good measure: basically, your worst nightmare.
Most of us living in Chiang Mai must have driven past those high white washed walls trimmed with barbed wire near the Three Kings Monument, surrounded by a cheerful moat of Canna flowers and secretly shuddered at the imagined horrors beyond.
In early 2000, the new prison opposite the Provincial Hall was completed and nearly 2,000 men were moved from the centre of Chiang Mai into the new facilities. Four hundred women remained in what was previously a mixed prison and thousands more soon arrived from throughout the north of Thailand. Today the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution houses just under 2,300 women between the ages of eighteen and eighty three, and is the only female-only penitentiary institution in the north of Thailand.
One woman, called mae (mother) by prisoners and officers alike, is in charge of the entire institution. Director Nawarat Tanasrisutarat has been in the penal business for thirty six years and has been in charge here since the men were relocated. A well groomed, slim and attractive middle aged woman, Nawarat has spent the past three years creating a prison environment unlike anything we Damage Done readers could imagine.
“The government subsidises our basic needs such as food, medicine, sanitation, bedding, security and housing. This amounts to about fifty percent of our current expenses, the rest we generate ourselves,” said a proud Nawarat.
Through her belief in her work, her dedication to her job and her continuous optimism and hope, Nawarat and her visionary team have created a forward thinking reform prison. “The women wake up at six in the morning,” Nawarat begins to describe the daily routine, “they have an hour to dress and shower before breakfast is served. At eight o’clock we all gather to sing the national anthem before everyone is dispersed to classes or work. New inmates normally have an orientation day and the mornings are also reserved for personal counselling. Every day we have dozens of women who wish us to help find ways for them to reduce their sentences, find homes for their abandoned children on the outside, give personal counselling for grief or depression as well as seeking career and educational advice, among a myriad of other problems. At three o’clock it’s exercise and aerobics time and supper is at 4:30 p.m. They have to be in their cells by six o’clock and the television is turned off at ten.
“My one complaint about this prison is its size. The beautiful one hundred year old buildings were not meant to house 2,300 people. A small ten by eight foot cell with one public toilet, a ceiling fan and a coloured television is shared by seventeen women. The new prison has the same number of people in rooms four or five times the size.” Nawarat is rightly proud of her prison. Sukotai University and Nareerat Suksa School both have programmes available in the institution. Every day hundreds of women take classes from literacy classes (mainly hill tribe women who have had no educational opportunities) through the pratom and matayom system to undergraduate degrees. There are currently thirteen women studying at university levels in subjects as varied as political science, law, tourism, agriculture, and food industry.
Those seeking vocational skills can be trained in sewing, embroidery, mechanics, wood carving, gardening, massage, beauty computing, bakery and many other skills Not only do inmates learn new skills, most are also generating an income, which they can choose to spend while they are in prison, send out to their loved ones or, save for the day they see freedom. Many of the officers working in the prison have masters degrees in the educational field and do the teaching themselves and local school teachers and university lecturers often volunteer to help teach courses.
“You see, the government doesn’t pay for all of this,” continued Nawarat. “Last week a businessman who owned a shop in kam tieng market approached US to sell him cuttings of the Canna flowers as he saw how fine they looked as he drove past every morning. We are now talking about supplying him with many more flowers and saplings. A Japanese foundation donated hundreds of sewing machines to us and I contacted a company in Lamphun Industrial Estate which is now ordering thousands of items of clothing every month. Our massage school, open every day between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., received over twenty five tourists this past Sunday! We have so many programmes at this point that the women are feeling pride in their achievements as well as in their ability to make money. It also helps us to provide good rehabilitation support for new comers.”
Six months before the end of every woman’s sentence, their routine is changed. A six month intensive readjustment programme is implemented. The prisoners will be given more opportunities to work outside the prison, either in the shop across the street, in the gardens or hired out to companies or government offices. This is to allow them to become accustomed to the outside world and to allow them to feel trusted and that their fate is in their own hands. No one has ever abused this privilege said Nawarat. “We treat people here as if they were all a part of one big family. Considering there are seventy one officials, most working in administration anyway, and over two thousand inmates, we would be suicidal to treat them badly, a ratio of nearly fifty to one in the prison area means you don’t want people to be mad at you,” continued Nawarat.
As we walked around the prison compound one thing which was most noticeable was how clean and tidy everything was. There were beautiful potted flowers and As we walked around the prison compound one thing which was most noticeable was how clean and tidy everything was. There were beautiful potted flowers and flower beds everywhere (all planted for sale, as every square inch of the prison is utilised in a most efficient manner). The large factories saw hundreds of chatty women sewing, weaving, baking, and doing their daily tasks, under very light supervision. The classrooms had books, televisions and computers among other interactive teaching mediums. The nursery, where thirteen babies live with their mothers until satisfactory homes are found for them, is a pleasant area and the hospice is clean and well equipped.
We are not talking a happy perky fantasy land here, but it is also a far cry from the Bangkok Hilton. Nawarat runs the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution like the CEO of a large corporation. It is super streamlined and efficient. The conditions are, if not pleasant, then comfortable. And the ultimate goal of rehabilitating criminals so that they learn self worth, understand their own abilities and move forward in a positive direction with their lives is certainly working.
“We have had no repeat offenders,” beamed Nawarat. “Factories come here and hire those who are paroled and who have skills. One girl went to work for a Lamphun factory and is now earning B 12,000 per month after only a year’s work. Another girl has her own curtain business and has two cars and a house. She now comes to help fit curtains for us here for free.
“My heart’s desire is to have the prison moved to a location in Mae Tang where there will be more trees, more space and provide a less stressful environment for the women to learn and to work.”
However, not all is rosy. Nawarat would like to appeal to the public to donate books, especially Thai school books but also English learning books and magazines as the current library is sadly out of date. Old computers are also eagerly sought after and any kind of support, sponsorship or work orders would always be greatly appreciated. “It is like managing a company, we have cash flow problems, we have to do marketing, we have lots of HR issues,” laughs Nawarat. “However, it is going well, many women are leaving here with enough money to give them a basic jumpstart back into life. There are some prisons in Thailand which are struggling with this system as they end up bankrupting projects or getting into financial quagmire, but we are doing well. Our women are leaving with the hope of being of use to themselves, their families and society.”
support, sponsorship or work orders would always be greatly appreciated. “It is like managing a company, we have cash flow problems, we have to do marketing, we have lots of HR issues,” laughs Nawarat. “However, it is going well, many women are leaving here with enough money to give them a basic jumpstart back into life. There are some prisons in Thailand which are struggling with this system as they end up bankrupting projects or getting into financial quagmire, but we are doing well. Our women are leaving with the hope of being of use to themselves, their families and society.”
Director Nawarat Tanasrisutarat remains at the helm of the women’s prison, which now houses 1,169 inmates. The good news is that today 27 inmates are enrolled in higher education.
Most of the inmates are drug offenders; mainly dealers, as women are not as rampant users as men. The longest sentence term is twenty years as heavier offenders are housed in Bangkok. Oddly enough the majority of twenty-year-term inmates are drug dealers while murderers – whom mae whispered to me were mainly husband killers – generally received shorter sentences.