September 2002 - Foreign inmates refer to Bang Kwang Central Prison as the “Big Tiger” because of its brutal conditions, and the fact that it houses serious offenders who are mostly serving sentences of 30 years to life, or awaiting execution on death row.
The maximum-security jail in Nonthaburi province, just outside Bangkok, recently celebrated its 72nd anniversary with a series of musical performances and a beauty contest which belied its reputation, as well as an exhibition of archaic torture implements and the original machine-gun used to execute convicts.
“She had a long history of previous offences, and killed
an infant, packed its body full of heroin and then tried to carry it across the border to Malaysia. What can we do with people like this?”
Pittaya Sanghanakin, the prison’s director, said of the
festivities, “We wanted to commemorate 72 years of the inmates and guards being together. And the people of this province have supported us, so we wanted to do something in return.”
He is quick to point out some of the improvements in the jail over the years, such as the banning of “dark rooms”. In these tiny hellholes, groups of inmates would be kept in complete darkness for 23 hours and 55 minutes a day for months on end. Many of them, writes Australian drug- trafficker and former inmate Warren Fellows in his autobiography, The Damage Done, caught cockroaches, and mashed them up with fish sauce to supplement their meagre food rations.
Another improvement, Pittaya says, is that 100 inmates have now completed correspondence courses to earn their BA’s, with instructors coming into the jail to oversee the final exams. Now they want to introduce master’s programmes into the prison curriculum.
The biggest problem facing the Thai penal system today, the director explained, is overcrowding. Ten years ago, there were 90,000 inmates housed nationwide. Today, there are a quarter of a million (around 70 percent on drug-related charges). The Corrections Department is trying to remedy the problem by arranging early releases for the elderly and those serving less than 30 years.
The celebration had the atmosphere of a Thai temple fair, complete with food stalls and vendors hawking everything from machetes and other rice-farming tools, to teddy bears and a local brand of handbags called “Hunny Bee California”. Across the street from the prison was a stage, where comedy troupes hammed it up, beauty queens strutted, and Thai-style country singers wailed, in front of a sizeable crowd.
The convict’s hands are tied together so he can
clutch three unopened lotus blossoms, a like number of joss-sticks, and a small orange candle,as if he were going to pray at a Buddhist temple.
By far the most popular attraction over the weekend was
the exhibition of torture instruments, like rattan whips, pillories, nooses, hooks, and tiny coffins, once used in Siamese jails. Curled up inside a rattan ball with rows of sharp nails protruding from its interior, sat a mannequin. The excruciating torture began when an elephant kicked the ball around. This form of punishment was outlawed a century ago.
Chaoweres Jarabun has been the executioner at Bang Kwang Central Prison for the last 30 years. During that time he has executed 40 inmates.
Although he believes that the death penalty has not brought the crime rate down, he insisted that it’s still necessary in Thailand. Chaowares cited the example of one of the two women he’s executed. “She had a long history of previous offences, and killed an infant, packed its body full of heroin and then tried to carry it across the border to Malaysia. What can we do with people like this?”
Beside the torture instruments was a series of photos showing two guards leading a blindfolded prisoner clamped in leg irons into the execution chamber.
This is the way the death penalty has been carried out since beheading was banned. A sign out in front of the prison, which is lit up at night, says that there are now 364 inmates on Bang Kwang’s death row, with no chance of a reprieve.
In the execution chamber, the convict’s hands are tied together so he can clutch three unopened lotus blossoms, a like number of joss-sticks, and a small orange candle, as if he were going to pray at a Buddhist temple. The guards tie him to a wooden cross and put a blue screen between him and the machine-gun. A doctor puts a target on the screen around where the prisoner’s heart is, so the executioner can take aim and fire.
The prison’s director said that Thailand will probably switch over to lethal injection within the next year.
A few months ago, Pittaya and a Thai task force visited Texas, the home state of President George W. Bush, which has more prisoners on death row (and executes more) than any other state. There, they watched an execution by lethal injection.
“A muscle relaxant and a sedative is given to the convict shortly before they inject him with the lethal dose, so he’s already asleep and doesn’t have any convulsions,” Pittaya explained. “It’s a much more humane form of capital punishment, and only takes about four minutes in total.”
Asked if he’s happy about death-sentences being executed with needles rather than a machine-gun, Chaowares said, “Yes, very happy. Because I hate guns and I’m going to go down in Thai history as the last executioner.”
Then he cracked a grin and laughed.
Building-2 (Now Released on Transfer Treaty)