Teaching at a Women’s Prison in Thailand

The bars of the women's prison in Chiang Mai, Thailand

A young guard greeted me and without smiling (very atypical in Thailand) she allowed me to enter through the door made of painted metal bars and be seated just outside the second of what I later learned would be a series of identical doors. As I silently sat in the plastic chair provided, it suddenly dawned on me that, other than my trip to San Francisco’s Alcatraz, I had never been in a prison before and that all I knew of prisons in general was from movies like Shawshank Redemption.

Teaching English to Prisoners in Chiang MaiMy eyes darted nervously all around, with my head in tow,  as I took in my surroundings and desperately tried to hide the fact that I was challenging my comfort zone. Blue metal bars stretched from floor to ceiling with padlocked metal doors that clanged noisily when they were closed. A large board with pictures of the inmates and Thai writing (later, I was told this was a work schedule) was displayed to my left and a wooden guard’s desk upon which several walky-talkies were standing up was on my right.

I was eventually greeted by Nuna, a smiling guard who had been working there for 15 years. Luckily for me, Nuna spoke English and seemed eager to practice as she guided me through the checkpoints. She made it clear that I was not to take pictures and I had to lock my personal belongings in a metal locker on the left just inside the second door. After two checkpoints and a pat-down that seemed more for show than for an actual search, I was let in past the big bolted metal door at the back of the building. I was nervously curious to see what lay beyond this point.

Surprisingly, the heavy door opened up into a small garden area with an imposing high prison fence only feet beyond it. We went quickly left, however, and I was led up a plain cement staircase. My anticipation grew with every step. What was awaiting me?

I was told that almost all of the women imprisoned here were found guilty of drug charges, from possession to trafficking and everything in between. I had been informed that there would be 20 students in the class ranging in age from late teens to 50’s. Nuna warned me to prepare myself because seeing a Westerner might be strange and intimidating for many of the women there, as some of them had been imprisoned for over 20 years and hadn’t ever seen a Westerner before.

I tried to absorb as much as I could as I followed Nuna up the stairs and through the bland hallways to our classroom. The walls and floor were made entirely of cement, and painted the same color as the bars throughout the entire building. As we walked inmates bowed their heads and wai’d (Thai greeting) to show respect. We passed a room with old box-style computers, where, as I was told, the women could learn and practice computer skills. As we continued down the hallway I looked to my left and saw a room full of small babies and numerous pairs of shoes neatly in a row outside the door. “This is the nursery”, Nuna explained and continued, “The babies stay with their mothers for one year before the state becomes responsible for them”. As we hurried by, I briefly watched a woman hold and breast-feed her baby and wondered how many months she had left to spend with her child.

Finally, we arrived. After adding my own shoes to the row of shoes in the hallway, I entered and met the class. I had had no idea what to expect. Each woman, wearing a light blue top and dark blue skirt, was sitting in her respective chair/desk combo with hands folded. When they greeted me in unison as I entered the room I realized that they were just as nervous about meeting me as I was about meeting them. Limited by language, the commonality and reassurance of smiles seemed to ease concern on both sides.

And so every other Wednesday, I showed up at the prison, went through the usual checkpoints and a pat-down that got more pathetic with each visit and played the part of a Western massage client. To ensure low rates of recidivism the women can choose from a selection of trades to learn, including cooking, traditional weaving and massage. I was called in to act as a model for the massage practitioner students to practice the English phrases they had learned in class, such as “take off your shoes” and “turn over to your left side”. One of the fringe benefits of such a job was that I got massages and when a student couldn’t remember what to say next, she would keep massaging as she tried to recall – fine with me! A second benefit was watching the students’ English skills improve every time I visited. It was clear they had been working so hard and my smiles towards them grew bigger as I became more impressed by their determination to succeed. By the end, I was truly proud of them.

One Wednesday, shortly after I had arrived, an alarm sounded and all the women suddenly ran to the barred windows in either an excitement or a panic. I couldn’t tell which and perhaps it was both. They all looked up to the roof of the opposite building. No one could explain to me what was happening as their English was limited to massage vocabulary. Eventually, I was told that a woman was on the roof and might jump. The message was given to me though with a smile and even a bit of laughter causing me such confusion. “She does this all the time”, I was told, “She has mental problems”. Just as suddenly as this began it seemed to be over, and where the women let it go and were ready to get back to work, I found that I could not as easily shake off the experience. This was part of prison life.

Once we were running late and music started playing over the loud speakers. I thought of the Mozart piece that Andy Dufresne poured over the loud speakers at Shawshank. Only this Thai version had a different intention: the women had 3 songs to get themselves to lunch, or to their cells, depending on the time of day. I knew we had to hurry as a sense of urgency had been instilled in the air, along with the potent smell of rotting garbage. After careful consideration, I realized that this was the smell of their lunch and I wondered if this smelled at all appetizing to the inmates.

My last visit included a final test of their skills, graduation, where they all got a certificate of achievement, big smiles and even some tears full of pride. The students were then ready to board the daily bus from the prison to the massage center downtown, where the women could experience a little taste of freedom. If you are planning on getting a massage in Chiang Mai, consider supporting the hard-working ladies of the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution. The massage center is open daily from 8:30am to 4:30pm and is located inside the moat at 100 Rachvithi Road, which is a couple minutes walk north of the Sunday walking street. 

Have you ever visited a prison? What was your experience?

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12 thoughts on “Teaching at a Women’s Prison in Thailand

  1. Visnja

    Hey Ligeia,
    I loved reading your experience at Chiang Mai Correctional Facility, particularly since I have had fleeting notions of teaching in prison. I have a colleague who has taught in a prison here in Canada. I have only visited prisons, three to be exact. In the range of a normal life, I wouldn’t have expected to ever say that, but there it is. My ex went through a particularly acrimonious divorce, lost his business, was unable to pay child support, and his ex was quite angry and desperate, and she fought for his incarceration. He was sent to the East Toronto Detention Centre at the same time as Paul Bernardo – the prison was in severe lock-down mode because of his presence there. The first visit – orange overalls, thick plastic to separate visitors from inmates – he said, “Vish, ya gotta get me out of here.” I’d never seen him so scared and nervous. The second prison was in Cambridge. After my Dad died, I moved home to help run the family business, and one of the employees had a history of DUI and other legal issues. He got arrested driving the company van drunk, and I had to get involved in the court case so that we could spring him from jail so that he could come back to work, since he was hard to replace because of his specialized woodworking skills, which were top-notch. So, I experienced a court case and another detention centre, and more orange overalls, but a less daunting visitor experience in a much smaller, older, less imposing jail. The third was the Queen Street Mental Health Centre’s Detention Centre, when a friend that I used to work with had a little attack of paranoia, said something stupid at work and got arrested for uttering a death threat when his coworkers became frightened by his behaviour, and because he had an all-purpose utility knife in his van, was also charged with carrying a weapon. The visitor process was quite elaborate, with all sorts of checks; I had to leave ALL my possessions with the guards, but I did get to be in the same room as my friend, who was very grateful for the visit, since you don’t just serve your time – your release depends on the staff’s determination of your mental health status. Really scary, particularly for an episode that was definitely fleeting and only temporarily present.

    It’s great to hear of your positive experience – it’s just part of your charmed life, Ligeia. I hope that you and Mindy are doing well. The ELP was flooded in Toronto’s downpour last week, and we had a couple of surprise days off. Life in Schomberg is fine – the garden has gone mad in this crazy humidity, but everything here is great.

    I send you my love and a good bit of jealousy at your fascinating, nomadic existence. Hugs to you from me.

    xoxo,

    Visnja

    1. Mindy & Ligeia

      Hello Visnja,
      Thank you for sharing your many experiences of going to prisons. We really enjoyed reading about your memories. Have you considered creating your own blog? I hope that Toronto has dried out a bit.
      Ligeia 🙂

  2. TammyOnTheMove

    I really admire the fact that you voluntarily taught in a prison. I also really like how the Thai government gives the inmates ways to learn something in preparation for life after prison, such as massaging or English courses. This doesn’t happen in a lot of Asian prisons and a lot of people who leave prison fall back into criminality really quickly, because they don’t know what else to do, as most have no labor skills. It is often a vicious circle. You have done a very worthwhile job there and should be proud of yourself!

    1. Mindy & Ligeia

      Hi Tammy,
      I too think it’s great that the Thai government is helping the women towards real rehabilitation and a chance at a real life once they leave prison. I feel so honored to be a small part of this process. 🙂

  3. Em

    I teach at a government school in Chiang Mai, but I am really interested in volunteering at the institution. Do you know how I can get involved?

    Thanks!

    1. Mindy & Ligeia

      Hi Em,
      This was a volunteer project having to do with a research project at Chiang Mai University and is therefore, unfortunately, not on-going. I wish it were, however, as it was a very good experience for all involved. I have since seen one of my former massage students at the massage center downtown and she was so happy about how much her English had improved. I felt so proud of her. 🙂

  4. Rani

    Hey,

    I’m wondering if you know of any NGOs in Thailand that focus on prison work (support, reintegration, educational programs whilst inside etc). It sounds like there isn’t much in the way of education programs inside women s prisons in Thailand. I see that your teaching english program was a one off research project, do you know if there are any organisations providing teaching english to women in prisons anywhere in Thailand?

    Thanks a heap!

    1. Mindy & Ligeia

      Hi Rani,
      I am not aware of any NGOs doing this type of work in Thailand. The prison themselves do offer various programs for the women to help them learn a trade that they can use once they have been released. These include traditional weaving, cooking and massage. I think it would be great if there were an English program should the women want this, which is seemed many of them would. I very much wish this was an ongoing project. If you find (or found) such an organization, be sure to let me know. 🙂

  5. Sasha

    Hello Ligeia,
    Could you tell me how we’re you able to teach there?
    Did you go to the prison and asked if they needed help, or?
    Thank you,
    Sasha

    1. Bounding Over Our Steps

      Hi Sasha, I taught English at the prison through a research program that a colleague was conducting through Chiang Mai University. The research has been completed. Please let me know if you find another way to teach English there as many people have asked about this and I would love to be able to pass along the information. 🙂

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