Thursday, 22nd July 2004 - Ian Wylie
THE bright eyes of youth are already dulled. Head shaved and legs shackled by chains, Michael Connell manages a rueful smile. "Anything can happen to you," he says. "But the biggest fear is not knowing when I'm getting out. What I am very worried about is people forgetting me."
The supermarket worker from Bury is just months into a 99-year jail term in Thailand for drug smuggling. Originally sentenced to death, the punishment was reduced to life after he confessed and co-operated with the investigation.
He was arrested in November, 2003, after customs officials found 3,400 ecstasy tablets in his travel bag when he arrived on a flight at Bangkok Airport. The pills were hidden in two jars of body lotion Connell said he had bought at a Tesco store in Bury.
Now aged 20, he's one of some 7,000 inmates inside Thailand's Bang Kwang Prison. Known in the west as the Bangkok Hilton, it's the most notorious prison in the world.
The Real Bangkok Hilton: This World is the result of two years of negotiations between TV bosses and prison authorities. Cameras have been allowed in for the first time to record the reality of life in a prison known to the Thai people as "The Big Tiger" - because it eats men alive.
Lawyers say Connell has a mental age of someone several years younger. Before being tried, he claimed he was innocent but had to plead guilty to avoid execution. "The tubs did not look like the same ones I packed."
But tonight's documentary appears to tell a different story. Connell is one of hundreds of thousands of young Britons who visit Thailand every year.
Many are attracted by the availability of sex and drugs. "I just came for a holiday the first time and I enjoyed it so much that when I were leaving, I were heartbroken to go. I wanted to get back. But it's so expensive to come over. I had to find a way to make money."
He recalls the moment the drugs were discovered. "I knew what were going to happen to me. As soon as they found them, I knew I was going to prison."
Held in the Customs Office, his gaze fixed on a large sign warning of execution for drug importers. "I just sat there looking at it, just praying that I don't get the death penalty."
Thai government officials make no apologies for their zero tolerance war on drugs, with no second chance for those caught fuelling the lethal trade. T
he pills found in Connell's bag had a street value of £50,000. The only foreigner in a block of 1,000 and labelled Prisoner 5-158, he faces the prospect of serving half his sentence at Bang Kwang before being transferred back to a UK prison.
Severe staff shortages mean Connell is locked inside a cell with 23 others for 15 hours a day. There isn't room to lie flat. It's hot, humid and dangerous. Over half the inmates have mental health problems and one in 10 is suicidal. Many will die from Aids, TB or other diseases.
The shackles of the 883 death row prisoners are welded on permanently. Until last year they were executed by machine gun. Now lethal injection is used, with just two hours notice for the chosen prisoner.
A local monk gives them the last rites. He produces a bleached orange carrier bag. Inside are unclaimed small pots, containing the bones of forgotten men.
Veteran British prisoner Andrew Hawke has a stick and a sense of humour. Asked what he was arrested for, he replies: "Stupidity." Homeless and suicidally depressed in Amsterdam, he was approached by a stranger and agreed to smuggle heroin in Thailand.
Now bearded and old, he's just one of thousands of men locked away with little hope. Andrew will be 91 before he's eligible for transfer to the UK. "Let's put it this way," he sighs. "A lot of the people in here will never see free air again."
The Real Bangkok Hilton: This World is on BBC2 at 9pm tonight.