Thai prison, like all prisons, reveals the dark side of a person's soul. It is how people behave when there are no constraints and outside limits are nonexistent. All the fury of the Thai people against the neo-colonial economic imperialism of the West is directed fully at Western prisoners; in the provincial prisons, at least, where little or no oversight exists. The prisons in Bangkok are somewhat less deadly, as the personnel from the foreign embassies visit regularly, making sure that the worst of abuses are curbed.
But still...heroin addiction is rampant, madness is a regular side-effect, and no one emerges from the experience unscathed. A U.S. State Department study found that every year spent in a Thai prison is equivalent (in damage done to body and mind) to five years in a standard U.S. prison. The five-plus years I did are therefore roughly equivalent to doing twenty-five years in the U.S. prison system. (I was then given a treaty transfer and served an additional eleven years in U.S. federal prison).
Thai prison is a surreal place. Like Thai society itself, it's a strange mixture of casual brutality and indifference to human suffering, while being placed side-by-side with stoicism, introspection, and humor in the face of death.
In retrospect, that cauldron of viciousness and cruelty brings forth the whole spectrum of human behavior--from great evil to transcendent kindness, and mimics what I would assume those who survive a war must experience.
I have witnessed hundreds of deaths up close and personal. In the vast majority of cases (mostly of Thai peasants and Hill Tribesman from the jungles of the Golden Triangle), their death was a dignified one; an amazing testament to the strength of the human spirit (of South East Asian people, anyway) under the worst sort of conditions. It so greatly affected me that I transformed from being an uncaring and rather self-centered American into someone deeply connected with social justice, global inequality, and working to make the world a kinder and more compassionate place.
The violence and malice I have witnessed are sadly the same as the violence and malice everywhere else; as human evil is, indeed, banal in its repetitiveness. I've watched guards and trustees beat prisoners senseless, and on occasion, to death. I've seen inmates attack and attempt to murder each other (sometimes successfully) on a daily basis, with the causes ranging from the laughably petty--a slight perceived as an unforgiveable personal insult--to drug and gambling debts--or just the simple rage at fate in a system that results in random acts of senseless violence.
The varieties that human cruelty takes are endless...but in the end, are all the same. They amount to denying a person their mandatory needs, so as to make them suffer; or inflicting the greatest amount of pain humanly possible. Decent food is denied, medical care is made unavailable; as are the thousands of other ways that people have found to hurt each other. Torturing the body and mind to the limits of endurance is a perverse art form that's often refined to its highest degree by authorities in prison.
But Thai prison is far less violent than the U.S. prison system, as Western societies are far more obsessed with domination and control; which thus makes our prisons more coercive and subject to destructive outbursts.
As for any sense of transcendence, it still makes its presence known. A starving man sharing his last morsel of food with someone even closer to death than himself; a person providing a stamp and writing a letter home for an illiterate, penniless prisoner on the edge of death, having that stamp represent a priceless resource; giving comfort to a man dying alone and in agony on a cold, damp floor; and the simple decencies of things shared between friends and comrades in extremis. In respect to more profound kinds of transformation, you have people discovering their own humanity and electing to follow a path of integrity. They care for and share with others out of a sense of rightness, without any thought of personal reward. All that is present, but it is of course the exception and not the rule.
Is there a lesson in this? Some meaning that emerges from surviving the most hideous kinds of punishment?
There is, but it is of the simplest, almost clichéd sort. It is that cruelty, violence, and coercion only breed more of the same, and if what we seek is a world without crime, then we need to teach people how to build healthy relationships and learn to satisfy their most basic of needs (and not to inflict a greater level of brutality on those being brutalized). With the addendum that we are all the same when stripped of life and liberty--no one is better than anyone else. The only request anyone makes is for food, shelter, a modicum of comfort, and a little respect--something most people of our planet usually go without.
T.M. Hoy is the author of Rotting in a Bangkok Hilton: The Gruesome True Story of a Man Who Survived Thailand's Deadliest Prison.