Written by Laura Davies
Bang Kwang Prison is a living hell. Locals call it “The Big Tiger” for its habit of eating men alive, and it’s earned its nickname. Not only does it house Thailand’s only execution site for death row inmates, but prisoners have also died from beatings, neglect, disease, and starvation. Some have literally been eaten by maggots.
The majority of those incarcerated are Thai nationals, but it’s also common for foreigners to wind up in Bang Kwang facing language barriers, unfamiliar legal systems, and sentences that are drastically longer than they would be in their home country. Of course, conditions are usually much worse, too, inspiring Bang Kwang’s more ironic nickname, the Bangkok Hilton.
Becoming an Inmate
So how do you end up in a place that tops almost every list of “World’s worst, deadliest, or most brutal prisons”? Well, you’d have to commit one of the most serious crimes in Thailand, something that would earn you a sentence of more than 25 years. This could be murder, although that’s a gamble, as in 2014, a man killed a woman, chopped her up, stuffed her in a suitcase and threw her in a river. He only got 8 years after pleading guilty.
No, the most surefire way into Bang Kwang is drug trafficking. Sentences for possession alone can get you 10 years. For smuggling a package of heroin across the border, you’d be looking at life or possibly even death. At first, this might seem completely illogical. I mean, surely dismembering another person is worse than carrying a suitcase through an airport. However, there is some logic behind it. A murder destroys one life. A shipment of heroin destroys hundreds. Drug dealing in Thailand is essentially viewed as a form of mass murder.
As you might be aware, Thailand has a bit of a drug problem. Around 80% of prisoners in the country are there on drug-related charges, and with such long sentences for these crimes, the consequence has been the catastrophic overcrowding of prisons. Between 300,000 and 400,000 people are currently incarcerated in the country. The official prison capacity is 120,000.
It’s not hard to see the effects of the situation in Bang Kwang. It was built in the 1930s with a maximum capacity of 3,500. Today, it holds around 8,000. Guards are outnumbered 50 to 1; cells are stuffed to capacity, and cooking, washing, and sanitation facilities are stretched to their limit.
To envision what this level of overcrowding looks like in practice, picture a room 8m (26ft) by 5m (16ft), about twice the size of an average living room. In Bang Kwang, this would be considered large enough to house 50 prisoners for 15 hours a day. Not comfortably, obviously. There’s no room for beds, so a roughly person-sized rectangle is drawn on the concrete or lino floor with chalk for each man. They’re crammed so close together that laying on your back with your elbows at your side would mean touching your other inmates. Some ex-prisoners report laying on their side for hours, frozen in fear, because rolling over and touching someone could start a fight. Others say that not touching anyone wasn’t even an option.
Feeding the population of the severely overcrowded Bang Kwang is another major issue. Obviously, more so for the prisoners than the authorities. Inmates are provided with one bowl of rice and one bowl of soup per day. If they’re lucky, there may be a piece of rotting vegetable, rancid meat, or chicken neck floating in it. If they’re unlucky, it’ll contain rocks, maggots, or other insects. For anyone wanting something more substantial, or slightly less rank, there are two options.
Prisoners with money can buy and cook their own food. Of course, this requires an income from family, friends, or, in some cases, charity, and luxuries like fresh meat or even ketchup don’t come cheap. The richest inmates often use the situation to their advantage and employ the poorest as servants, paying them with food.
The other option for a few extra calories is to eat the sewer rats that infest the facility. These grow to be as large as a small cat, with the potential to make a somewhat satisfying rat stew. Previous inmates claim they were even farmed as livestock, presented for sale, freshly flayed, and could fetch as much as a pack of cigarettes.
The last meal is served at 2 pm each day, and cell lockdown runs from 3 pm til 7 am, which leaves 16 hours a day with no food at all. Unless you fancy catching and eating cockroaches.
The catering situation often comes as a particular shock to the foreign inmates, who rely heavily on donations from family or charity. Some embassies also provide vitamins, as a diet of nothing but white rice isn’t exactly good for you. Unfortunately for locals, they don’t get this luxury. In the past, this wasn’t such a problem as only the foreigners would be fed white rice, and the locals would eat more nutritious red rice. However, when foreign governments questioned the policy on the grounds of discrimination, all prisoners were switched to white, which is still the situation today.
What might surprise you is that the sanitation situation at Bang Kwang is actually terrific. Oh, wait, no. Horrific, I mean, horrific. Remember each cell? The 50 guys laid elbow to elbow in a room? Well, right in the centre of that room is a squat toilet. So all urination and defecation occur in full view of all cellmates. Not only is this hugely unpleasant for the spectators, but it does massive damage to each inmate’s mental health and self-worth.
Of course, the sewage isn’t then flushed away hygienically. Instead, it flows outside in sewage ditches, lining the inmates’ outdoor spaces. This creates two problems. Firstly, the smell, which is described as overpowering by both prisoners and visitors. The second is linked to the shower facilities, and I use that term loosely, as the water provided is unfiltered and straight from the river. All showers are outside, so, in heavy rains, the sewage channels overflow and the contents end up floating around the inmates’ feet as they attempt to wash.
As you can probably imagine, a nutrient-free diet, combined with severe overcrowding and appalling sanitation, means prisoners are often sick. Plus, thanks again to the 50-man cells, when one gets sick, every cell mate gets it too. Colds, flu, pneumonia, COVID and TB frequently surge through the population, and HIV and hepatitis are rife amongst IV drug users and those who are sexually active.
Unfortunately, medical facilities are as drastically underfunded as every other part of Bang Kwang, receiving only 200 Baht per patient per year. Thai hospitals are usually partly supported by donations, but as many believe drug suppliers are undeserving, no one donates to the prison hospital.
The few doctors working there have been dubbed the “two-minute doctors” due to the fact they rarely have any longer to spend with a patient. Even if they could make a diagnosis in that time, there’s such a severe medical supply issue that paracetamol is usually the only thing they can prescribe. Tragically, this means inmates are dying from preventable diseases and infections, and HIV is progressing to full-blown AIDs.
Funding isn’t the only reason for prescription issues. Due to the prevalence of IV drug use amongst the inmates, the Governor decided to ban all injectable medication. Exceptions are made occasionally, but the delivery is a bit unorthodox. The inmate is made to drop their trousers and present their backside to a wire fence, through which the doctor administers the injection. Understandably, most prisoners find this method to be completely dehumanising.
There are also too few doctors to provide 24/7 care and those unlucky enough to fall ill overnight or at the weekend are left until the next working day. One ex-inmate described how he’d wrap dead bodies in his cell with a bedsheet if they died on a Saturday or Sunday as the corpse would be left there until Monday. He saw 97 dead bodies in Bang Kwang during his relatively short 27 months, killed by beatings, starvation or illness.
Those who fall seriously ill end up in the prison hospital, which in the beginning, didn’t even have mattresses. Patients are shackled to their beds and left to stare at blank walls for days, fully aware they may be about to die from something a simple antibiotic could fix. A reality brought into sharp focus as they watch fellow patients be taken, one by one, to the chilled room that passes as a morgue.
Most ex-inmates would advise you to avoid the hospital at all costs, but there’s one place worse – solitary confinement. Essentially, it’s a 5-by-7-foot hellhole with no windows or light, and prisoners get just two hours a week outside. Most official bodies deem the punishment inhumane; others say it’s only acceptable for up to 15 days at a time. Bang Kwang isolates prisoners for months.
During one particularly long stint, British inmate, Johnathan Wheeler, spread toothpaste all over his body and left it to blister to get just a couple of days on a bed in the hospital. Those who’ve suffered through months of solitary describe it as the darkest and most soul-destroying periods of their time in Bang Kwang.
With so many confined to such close quarters in gruesome conditions, violence is an unfortunate inevitability. Fights are frequent, and guards simply lack the numbers to control them. Previous inmates report brutal assaults, rape and torture. On one occasion, Wheeler witnessed a man attacked with a lump of metal in the shower. His assailant kept beating him until his head was smashed like a pumpkin, and his brain was hanging out.
Sometimes though, prisoners are able to organise and demonstrate their anger at the authorities rather than fellow inmates. This was the case in 1985 during a “Meet the Relatives” day. The majority of prisoners were allowed out onto the grounds to picnic with their families, but the lifers were denied the privilege. They demanded equal visitation and, when their request was ignored, they started a riot that lasted more than 30 hours.
Armed with tools from the carpentry workshop, they fought off guards and started fires. Unfortunately, when the fire threatened to spread to the workshop, authorities felt they had no choice but to retake the prison by force. Thirty were killed in the rain of shotgun and machine gun fire.
Another fun feature of Bang Kwang is the use of metal ankle shackles. Pre-2013, these were fastened onto every inmate for their first three months to hamper escape and suicide attempts. Each set weighed between 0.6 and 5 kilos, with the lightest reserved for those who could provide a well-timed bribe. Bribes were also useful at the tightening phase, as this was done with a sledgehammer, and a blow to the shins was often thrown in for good measure.
All of the shackles caused cuts and sores that had the potential for infection, and the scars lasted for years. Once installed, they inflicted constant pain and made exercise impossible. Every step was agony. Inmates who wore the chains for months claim they were less about preventing their escape and more about breaking their spirits.
Death row inmates had it even worse. As they were required to wear their shackles for the full length of their sentences, guards welded them on. One prisoner recalls seeing a new arrival being shackled with chains that were still splattered with blood from a man who’d been executed just a few hours earlier.
Happily, in 2013, the chains were finally outlawed, and a ceremony was held to demonstrate the removal of the shackles to the general public. However, they are still in use whenever a prisoner is transported and, some claim, more often than that.
While the removal of the shackles has improved life for those on death row, it remains a torturous existence. Under Thai law, once a person has been sentenced to death, they can send a petition to the palace and ask for mercy from the king. At this point, they’re considered under “royal deliberation,” and the king can ponder their fate indefinitely.
While this might sound like a good thing, as it buys those sentenced more time, it actually creates a life living under a shadow where the axe could fall at any moment. This is because if the king eventually decides that the sentence should be carried out, by law, they have to be killed within 24 hours, and, once the message has made it through all the red tape, this gives a prisoner about an hour’s notice. Rumour and paranoia are rife, with death row inmates watching for the arrival of the executioner, and they live mostly in a state of constant fear.
The only small mercy is that since 2003, the actual killing bit has improved dramatically. Inmates used to be tied to a wooden post and killed by machine gun fire. They’d be shot through the back, so they didn’t see the face of the executioner and come back to haunt him.
Unfortunately, the method wasn’t foolproof. In one particularly horrific case, a woman was put to death for her part in the murder of a young boy. She took ten bullets to the back and was pronounced dead, but as her accomplice was being tied to the post, the guards heard her screams coming from the morgue. One guard stood on her back to speed the bleeding, while another attempted to choke her before being pushed away for acting in bad taste. After pronouncing her dead again, they returned to her accomplice, but, on re-entering the morgue, they discovered she was still breathing. They tied her to the post for the last time and used the maximum quota of 15 rounds to finally finish the job.
Thankfully, executions are now conducted via lethal injection and are much less common as Thailand moves slowly away from the death penalty. Since the first death in 1935, 319 have been killed by firing squad, and only seven have faced the injection since 2003. Currently, around 500 remain on death row, and only the king can decide whether their sentence will be reduced to life in prison or they’ll leave the morgue via the small red door known to prisoners as the ghost door.
Now I know what you’re thinking; this all makes Bang Kwang sound like a fantastic place to visit on your next holiday. No? Well, apparently, it sounds good to some, as the maximum security prison has become a fairly popular attraction for tourists visiting Bangkok.
Not only is it possible to visit the site and take in the rich aromas of open sewage channels, but you can actually go inside and meet a prisoner of your choice.
It’s kind of a good deal for the inmates selected, as having visitors is a great way to break up the monotony of a 20-year sentence, and the good ones bring food and cigarettes. Some couples have even fallen in love through the wire mesh of the visiting room.
Unfortunately, though, not all tourists are good. Many ask inappropriate or probing questions, forget to bring gifts, and can basically be complete jerks. For example, one prisoner, who was locked up for heroin offences, had to endure his visitor brag that he was late as he was up all night taking drugs. Others have been asked for hookups to dealers on the outside or even asked to take off their shirts. Inmates now call them “banana visits” because it makes them feel like caged, performing monkeys. So next time you’re in Thailand, maybe give Bang Kwang a miss. Or if you do go, be respectful and bring gifts. But, whatever you do, don’t bring heroin, or you could end up on the wrong side of those bars.
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