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.
My 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.