Hard Time in the Big Tiger (Jack Magazine. 2002)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

In April 2002 Julian Gilbey from East Grinstead in Sussex woke up in the middle of the night his body pressed next to a dead man. Packed into a small cell with 72 other men, there was only enough room to lie sideways. Fetid, stinking body pressed next to fetid stinking body in a sweat bath of filth and disease lit by a never dimmed fluorescent tube. The man, who shuddered his last, tortured breath, next to a horrified Julian succumbed to tuberculosis. The guards left the dead man in the crush of still living bodies until morning. They only hauled out the soiled and stinking corpse by its feet at daybreak. Thailand may actually be the most beautiful country in the world. Every year millions of tourists enjoy the grace of its legendary hospitality. But this is Bangkok Central Prison and a few of those guests are looking at a separate menu.

Like 70% of those languishing in jail in Thailand Julian’s offence is drug related. Thailand is in a life or death struggle for the soul of its culture and the very existence of its society. The enemy is the scourge of rough speed and heroin that is fast engulfing the nation. Those caught selling or smuggling drugs are usually sentenced to death by firing squad. For westerners that sentence is usually commuted to life, but there is no guarantee. Julian claims he was duped into being a mule for a smuggling gang. They convinced him that he would only be carrying contraband diamonds. He now admits that it was “an amazingly stupid thing to do.” He was arrested at the airport along with the pair assigned by the gang to watch over him – a shifty Dutchman and his prostitute girlfriend. When the police tore apart the suitcase Julian was supposed to take on board the flight they found four kilos of pure heroin in hidden compartments.

It was the Austrian police who tipped off the Thai Narcotics Suppression Bureau of the impending shipment. They had already busted the gang in Vienna. It was made clear by the Austrians that Julian had very likely been duped. During this process the shadowy presence of Americans from the Drug Enforcement Agency was never far away. The information from Austria was ignored and Julian was thrown into Klong Prem jail to await trial.

Chucked into a cell full of murderers, madmen, rapists and drug addicts it is ironic that the first sight that greeted him was that of other inmates blowing heroin into each others veins through a straw attached to a well used syringe. Arguing and fighting over who has had a fair go on the mixture they were watched from the doorway by a prison guard. Cowering in the corner with his head in his hands, contemplating the firing squad and his own naivety Julian wept, lost in a confusion of misery and shock.

Julian was put before a court with no jury, no translation and a defence lawyer who appeared to be as intimidated by the process as the petrified and confused Gilbey. Again, important evidence from Austria that had a direct bearing on the case was disallowed. Convicted and sentenced to death, quickly commuted to life imprisonment, Julian was hauled off to Bang Kwang, 15 pound leg irons welded around his ankles.

Bang Kwang High Security Prison is more usually known as the ‘Big Tiger’. Why? Because it eats you alive, that’s why. This maybe Thailand, but there is nothing Buddhist or enlightened about Bang Kwang Prison. A decaying complex in the northern suburbs of Bangkok, here rehabilitation is not on the agenda. It is simply a place of mindless, squalid vengeance and slow, crowded, harsh, grinding punishment.

Julian joined a non-exclusive club. Thailand gets ten million tourists a year. There are thousands of Europeans, Americans and Australians resident all over the country. They flood in to enjoy the resorts, the full moon parties the women and the good life. Some will head down to the islands to spend their days on some of the world’s finest beaches. Some will go to the cities where many find work teaching English or doing business. A naive few will run out of luck, money and common sense and engage in the high-risk activity of narco-tourism in order to turn a buck and maybe find a way out. One such was Garth Hatton. A dope smoking American surfer who got way out of his depth in unfamiliar waters and ruled himself out of full moon parties for the next eight years.

The world he entered he describes as one of, “unrelenting heat,” in a place where the lights are never dimmed and the noise never ceases. The screams of the insane and the moans of the sick make sleeping a talent to be learned only with time. Garth talks of the claustrophobic proximity of bodies that defies, “every law of your heterosexual ethos,” yet the complete, “absence of warmth of the human kind.” He talks of having to wash in filthy water drawn straight from the nearby Chao Phraya River- one of the most polluted waterways in the world. The filth causes skin diseases and sores that fester in the claustrophobic humidity.

Using the toilet ‘facilities’ is a trial of the senses. The toilets are open, as are the sewers. In the rainy season the whole prison floods and the sewers overflow. Another prisoner says with a bleak chuckle….. “You have to get used to walking through your own shit for a couple of hours.” Locked in the cramped cell for fourteen hours a day from 4pm to 6am the only relief is a bucket in the corner. One bucket for twenty men. Even if the bucket is not full, “you will invariably find yourself desperately crossing your legs and turning pale green ’cause some inconsiderate wanker is crouching out of sight having a none-too-leisurely rocket polish.”

Some of the horrors of prison life can be alleviated if you have money. Everything is for sale in Bang Kwang and nothing is for free. Even the little patch of sleeping space in the cell must be paid for. “It’s two quid a month for the sleeping spot and I pay another three quid for a bucket of fresh water to wash in the morning,” says Julian. Most of the westerners have access to a little money from friends and family, but not all. One inmate serving a life sentence for heroin trafficking was on the edge of starvation for his first two years. “The only thing they give you free is a bit of dirty rice and something they call soup. It smells like it’s rotten and it looks like dishwater. If you’re lucky you might find a fish-head or a chicken-foot floating in it. I couldn’t eat it because I would throw up just to smell it. So I starved and begged what I could. After two years an English geezer from the outside saved my life. He still does. He sends me a few quid a month so that I can buy decent food. He’s a diamond.”

Those prisoners without money have to work or run scams to make ends meet. The Nigerians, the biggest group of non-Asian inmates, run the thriving prison drug trade. The Hong Kong Chinese are the lock smiths. Others will run books on the fighting fish, Bang Kwang’s biggest gambling sport. Some will be carpenters or take in washing. Quite a number of the Thai inmates paper over the gaps of a society without women. Desperate for, “a little extra chicken with their rice,” many otherwise hetero men transform themselves into, “Bang Kwang barbies.” Their fluffy pink bras and lace red panties festoon the clothes lines.

All this trade is fueled by corruption. A prison guard earns only fifty UK pounds a month. It is interesting that many of them wear a lot of gold and drive expensive cars. If the money is right they can get you a mobile phone, facilitate drug deals both in and out of the jail or get a blind eye turned when a blind eye is needed.

When a prisoner gets sick they are sent to ‘hospital’. Brian Mounsey, a scouser now transferred to finish his sentence in Parkhurst, spent time on the wards. Tuberculosis and AIDS are endemic in Thai prisons. Treatments are primitive or non existent. The screams of the dying are met with cries of, “die you F*****r! Die!” from other patients no longer able to bear the sleep deprivation caused by the noise.

Garth Hatton admitted his guilt and after serving eight years in hell is being transferred back to an American prison under an agreement that sees most prisoners get out on parole within weeks. Julian Gilbey was either very stupid or fooled by ruthless men and is facing at least thirty years behind bars. That’s three times the probable sentence he would get for murder and ten times the punishment he could expect if he had raped a child. But there is another man who has been rotting away in a Bangkok jail for thirteen years who the British government believes to be innocent of all charges.

Alan John Davies is a man of sixty two years of age. From Poole in Dorset he appears an unlikely heroin trafficker. He comes across more as a stalwart of the village golf club or one of your Dad’s mates banging on in the pub about politics. It is accepted by the British home secretary that John is innocent. 70 British MPs have signed a petition asking for his release. In 2001 the British government applied for a royal pardon on his behalf, but they made a mess of the paperwork and only got a reduction of sentence to 25 years. There is now a chance he may be released because he is over the age of sixty, but there remains no guarantee. Alan has spent thirteen years of his life living in hell for a crime that he may never have committed.

It is not just the inmates who condemn the unspeakable conditions in Thai prisons. Amnesty International released a report in 2002 condemning Thailand as a country of multiple human rights abuses. It talks of torture to extract confessions, the illegal practice of shackling prisoners in heavy leg irons, chronic corruption amongst prison staff, overcrowding beyond the capacity of the prisons to cope, the neglect of the thousands suffering from the epidemics of AIDS and tuberculosis and violence by the guards and ‘trusties’ – inmate stooges charged with keeping order in the cells.

Alan John Davis is widely acknowledged to have been falsely convicted. Julian Gilbey was sentenced by a court that refused to hear legitimate evidence that may have cleared him. They are both living in hell yet they are no more than ‘collateral damage’ in the war on drugs being fought by the US Drug Enforcement Agency. Even when guilty, those doing hard time are usually the petty dealers and the hapless mules. The real culprits remain at large protected by complex webs of corruption and unimaginable amounts of cash to keep the wheels oiled. And once the DEA has its scalp and the Thai authorities have another glorious, token bust then, innocent or guilty, the little fish are thrown to the tender mercies of the Big Tiger. It is a primitive animal in a country that trumpets its culture, tolerance and civilisation. Welcome to the Land of Smiles.

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