Justice is a loaded word isn’t it? Does it mean the Old Testament’s eye for an eye or today’s kinder progressive reforms and rehabilitations? The word itself implies a sense of righteousness belied by its application throughout history. An act that can essentially extinguish, or certainly diminish, someone’s entire life in one country or at one time could be an acceptable norm, even lauded, across a border or a few years later — gay marriage, anyone? The confounding duel standard of crime and punishment for the rich and the poor is also a long running and depressing global theme. Foibles and all, each society attempts to create a justice system which not only removes dangerous elements from potentially harming the community at large by holding them accountable for their ill-advised, or downright horrid, actions, but also to set standards and guidelines for the protection and well-being of the majority.
It is the vagaries of what we deem to be illicit that is so frustrating.
But let’s say we get it right, and the law isn’t an ass. What next? Throughout history we have seen as much cruelty perpetuated in the name of justice as in the actual crimes themselves. We have all read horror stories of gulags, methods of torture, cruel executions and other nasty tales of what society deemed acceptable punishment for the perceived wicked. Thailand itself is part of this lore of gore, with our infamous Bangkok Hilton being a cautionary tall-tale fire-side favourite; by all popular accounts, our prison system is truly appalling.
This is probably why one of my greatest phobias is incarceration. Having been subject to horror stories of Thailand’s prisons and how bleak and Dickensian they are, and being human and having broken the law to various degrees throughout my life (calm down, nothing I consider serious!), it was with great trepidation and a bit of tacky voyeuristic excitement that I visited the Women’s Correctional Institute, Chiang Mai recently. My overactive imagination had associated Thai prisons with overcrowded cells, cruel and violent prison guards, cockroaches and rats hunted to stave off hunger, rape and murder. Nothing good could be found in those four tall barbed wired walls, I had always thought with a shudder.
The reason for my visit was to join Her Royal Highness Princess Bajirakitiabha, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Goodwill Ambassador, along with the national and international media on her visit to the prison. As one of the proponents of reform for women’s prisoners, HRH was making her fourth visit to the Chiang Mai prison, which is one of ten women’s prisons in Thailand to have implemented the Bangkok Rules, adopted by the UN General Assembly to set standards to provide for women offenders and prisoners. This rule is called the Bangkok Rule largely because of the initiatives of HRH. We had near-total access to the prison, only barred from visiting the main living quarters.
Sure, there was plenty of coriander being sprinkled (the Thai version of the Potemkin Village, meaning that the prison was spruced up and obviously decked out for our visit, made to look far too good to be completely true), but as you will see in my article about the subject this month, the reforms are being implemented are real. Great strides are being made towards the protection of rights of women prisoners, providing dignity and living standards which are acceptable to international norms, rehabilitation programmes, education and childcare. The prison itself, while not exactly Disneyland, was clean and well run and the prisoners I talked to, past and present, had hardly any horror stories to share.
Considering 80% of the women there were drug dealers, traffickers or users and not violent offenders, it was truly comforting to see guards and administration focusing their approach to prisoners with rehabilitation and reform, rather than punishment, in mind.
If ‘the degree of civilisation in society can be judged by entering its prisons,’ as claimed by Dostoevsky, then I am proud to announce that Thailand is getting civilised.
Ciylife this month:
So much to read! I hope you enjoy our young writer Tus Werayutwattana’s look at the (largely failed) efforts being made to grow Thailand’s independent film industry. Aydan Stuart takes a fascinating look at the frustrations surrounding the growth of Chiang Mai’s startup, as well as taking a jaunt on AirAsia to Udon Thani, a city he wants you all to visit. And our new intern Ainee Setthamalinee has written a rather interesting piece about the world of Thai beauty bloggers. I also interview mover and shaker Narong Tananuwat who is mobilising people and data to forge a brighter future for Chiang Mai.