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The man in the cage by Garth Hattan
From time to time some of we Western inmates here in Bangkwang Central Prison are blessed with unexpected visits from foreign travelers who have gotten our names from our embassies, billboards at guesthouses, word of mouth, or a website. Most of the guys here are receptive to these visits, since they provide an inviting diversion from the ceaseless monotony of prison life. Some, however, eventually feel reluctant to go out and meet these casual tourists because there are some who seem to view a visit to Bangkwang as simply another novel attraction on their itinerary of killing time at the Crocodile Farm, the Floating Market, Buddhist temples, and the notorious Patpong Road while awaiting their trains, boats or buses to outlying destinations.

I've experienced such encounters and felt a bit like a caged lion at times. I'm not sure exactly how I felt when some girls from Canada asked me to take off my shirt. I still wonder if they were serious. You get all kinds here.
I'm generally inclined to welcome visitors because, aside from satisfying the curiosity which has compelled them to drop by in the first place, it gives me the unique opportunity to deter others from making the same ignorant mistake I did and consequently finding themselves on this side of the bars.

Unfortunately, I receive the occasional visitor who eventually starts in making subtle queries concerning where to buy, how much to pay, and the best methods of transporting narcotics. It's truly disheartening to witness the inflated confidence, rash ineptitude, and the reckless disregard for their own invaluable freedom a precious human commodity that no one should gamble with.

The most disconcerting aspect in dealing with these sanguine wannabe entrepreneurs is my own personal recollection of shattered illusions and thoughtless self-destruction. Their disturbing zeal for pursuing the proverbial quick buck evokes an anger and regret I no longer care to think about. What I see in them now an abundance of hauteur and daring coupled with an absence of knowledge and experience; That was me eight years ago.

Ironically enough, I'd come on holiday back then intending to visit a friend of a friend who was being held here in Bangkwang. He'd been arrested a few years earlier for trafficking heroin, and his friend had grown increasingly concerned after sending a large care parcel and receiving no word as to whether it had arrived. Shortly after landing in Bangkok I rang the consul of his embassy for details on how I could visit him. Unfortunately, I could only leave a message on an answering machine. The call was never returned.
It's rather humbling to tell this now, because like the more enterprising travelers who visit here, I'd already heard of Bangkwang, albeit vaguely. I was oblivious, however, to the fact that Thailand practiced a severe policy against drug-related crimes, and that the man I'd halfheartedly attempted to visit was in Bangkwang because that's where they send prisoners sentenced to at least 30 years, and more importantly, I had no idea he was serving a life sentence.

Furthermore, had I made a real effort to see him, I would have been enlightened regarding a few of the horrifying realities of residing in a maximum security prison in a developing nation. I'm sure I would have been apprised of just what it's like to constantly border your lunatic fringe as you cohabit with 850 murderers with whom you can only marginally communicate; constantly wonder where your next meal is coming from when you're struggling to survive on under $2 a day; strive to maintain calm as you discover that yet another personal possession, article of clothing or food item has been stolen; bathe in muck that produces prickly, irritating reminders that it's doing more harm than good; attempt to recall even the vaguest display of human warmth and affection, (unless you capitulate to the immediacy of your surroundings as so many lonely men in here do); claw your way from yet another abyss of chronic depression while dimly feigning joviality for the scant few who appear to care; or note the burgeoning neurosis in those around you and suspect that you may be mentally lapsing as well.
When I finally met the guy I'd originally planned to visit on his side of the bars this time I told him of my failed attempt to see him. Following an extended pause to check his overcome emotions he emphatically conveyed the fact that had I met with him prior to my arrest, and shared with him my criminal intentions, he would definitely have discouraged me from proceeding. It was a poignant yet matter-of-fact revelation of what he knew in his heart to be true. I believed him, for at the time he was in a wheelchair following a stroke he had suffered not long before I had meant to see him. He remained in that chair until finally receiving a medical pardon a couple of years later.

Now, for any of you hardcore X-travelers who are contemplating a theoretically lucrative venture into narco-tourism, and especially if you already envision yourself strolling away from the scene of the crime clutching a bursting-with-cash custom graphite briefcase, I urge you to confront yourself. Before you take that fateful leap, humour me with a visit. Perhaps Bangkwang's frigid atmosphere contrasted with the unbearable heat and humidity will offer a hint of just how badly you don't want to be here. Take advantage of the opportunity I was too tragically hip to take and make the time to see for yourself the probable consequences of your actions. I may not be confined to a wheelchair, but I am confined. Besides, if you don't make me feel like a caged lion, I might just take my shirt off.

Garth Hattan
Building-2 (Now Released on Transfer Treaty)

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