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I Spent 6 Months In A Thai Prison For Shoplifting. Here's How It Changed My Life.

This name card was given to Emilia Semrau when she arrived at the prison in Mae Hong Son, Thailand. During her incarcera
This name card was given to Emilia Semrau when she arrived at the prison in Mae Hong Son, Thailand. During her incarceration she placed the card on top of her bedding each morning to reserve her sleeping spot. The card states her crime (theft), her age (25) and the length of her sentence (6 months). 

I left my home in Olympia, Washington, in January 2018 to undertake a two-year global journey I hoped would help me to discover more about the world and, subsequently, myself. I had just divorced a wonderful man ― and the equally wonderful life that came with him ― after being married for six years.

I left everything I knew ― and anything I couldn’t fit into a 60-liter backpack ― because I realized my true path was to travel by myself and share my knowledge of yoga and holistic health. I booked a ticket to my first destination, Thailand, and as I flew towards my new life, I was full of faith in the unknown and I trusted that I was honoring my true path. Little did I know that one unwise decision would radically change my perspective on everything I thought I knew about myself and who I am.

It was 2:00 in the afternoon on a Friday during the first week of my adventure and I was in Pai, a bustling hippie tourist hub located in northern Thailand. I entered a shop I hadn’t noticed before during my four days in town. Its doorway was covered with a vibrant silk cloth and its interior revealed shelves stacked with handmade jewelry and leather goods. The displays were beautiful and obviously tended to with great care.

I remember the next moments with absolute clarity. The owner sat with his back to me at his desk, which was placed precisely in the middle of the shop. I was the only customer and, while browsing, my eyes fell on a beautifully handcrafted leather fanny pack studded with laborite and citrate. I liked it and I picked it up off the shelf and put it in my bag. I say this casually, but my stomach lurches at the memory. I grew up stealing small things ― apples and single rolls of toilet paper ― as I came from a poor home and I was frequently hungry and forced to go without simple pleasures (or even necessities) as a child. The need to survive soon grew into a vice that continued into my adult years. I would take makeup from Walmart just out of habit, but this was first time I’d stolen from an independently owned shop.

His inquiry about what was in my bag took just a second, his retrieval of the fanny pack took another and then I saw a look of disbelief flash across his face. He grabbed my wrist and in just those three seconds my future shifted dramatically.

The owner turned his head, fully registered my lingering presence, and stood up. One look at me and he seemed to know exactly what I had done. His inquiry about what was in my bag took just a second, his retrieval of the fanny pack took another and then I saw a look of disbelief flash across his face. He grabbed my wrist and in just those three seconds my future shifted dramatically.

The police were called, along with all of the owner’s family and the owners of neighboring shops ― Thailand is big on community and so there were a lot of people present in the aftermath of my theft. I was brought to the nearest police station a few miles away where my mugshot and fingerprints were taken. I was advised by the arresting police officer to plead guilty ― and I did ― since I was caught in the act and because he claimed I would supposedly face only a small fine and be free to go after being held for just two days.

He lied. I spent the night at the police station in a filthy cell with two other women who had been arrested for allegedly smuggling methamphetamine over the Myanmar border. The next morning I was taken to a small courtroom where I appeared without a lawyer and I was sentenced to six months in a prison in the nearby town of Mae Hong Son. After being sentenced, I was refused the right to a lawyer, a call to my family, or an opportunity to pay bail. I was only allowed a local call to a friend from Oregon who I reconnected with while we were both traveling through Pai. She reached out to my ex-husband, who contacted the U.S. consulate and did all he possibly could to get me out of Thailand. But he was unable to help in any way besides staying in contact with the consulate and keeping my friends and family updated about my well-being.

So I was sent to prison for six months for stealing $200 worth of merchandise. Perhaps that seems harsh to some people ― and maybe it doesn’t seem harsh enough to others ― but, regardless, in Thailand the magnitude of a criminal’s punishment is based on the moral worth of the crime and in a Buddhist country, stealing is a big deal.

The cell in the Pai police station where Semrau was held for five days before being transferred to the prison in Mae Hong Son
The cell in the Pai police station where Semrau was held for five days before being transferred to the prison in Mae Hong Son.

Before I was transferred to the prison, I was terrified and I hoped my time there wouldn’t be as horrendous as I imagined it would be. I anticipated intolerably dirty living conditions, lice and routine illness, sharing space with dangerous criminals, a complete lack of communication with my loved ones, inedible food, a language barrier and the need to quickly grow thick skin. Upon arriving at the prison five days after I was arrested, I was relieved to discover only a fraction of my fears became my reality.

During my six months in prison, I was housed with 79 other non-violent women who were almost all there for crimes related to meth ― smoking it, dealing it or smuggling it. I sewed floral embroidery on shirts for nine hours every day ― a task required of all of the inmates. I ate the same meal of pork soup and rice every day. I showered with all of the other inmates every afternoon using a small plastic bowl I dipped in a long trench of water while wearing a self-stitched shower dress. I slept shoulder to shoulder with the other women while lying on a single folded blanket placed the hard concrete floor with harsh lighting blasting through my closed eyelids. I was treated fairly and I was given lots of space, as I was the only foreigner there and consistently misunderstood by the other women in the prison.

I quickly recognized that each day in prison passed exactly like the one before it and my life became stagnant. After my optimistic “this isn’t so bad” approach I clung to during my first week faded, I decided I needed to focus my mental energy on self-development and I made the space for exercise, yoga and meditation in my new routine.

I found four books in English on Buddhist meditation in the prison’s dusty library and I devoured each of them three times. The books described the practice of Vipassana, also known as mindfulness meditation ― or the watching and knowing of the mind ― which can supposedly help remove suffering by eliminating desire. As I was in prison for stealing, which is, when you think about it, a product of greed and desire, I decided to dedicate my time to incorporating Vipassana in my life. I had meditated many times before I traveled to Thailand, but I’d only feel a sense of calm and lightness and internal quiet for a short time before it left me. As I meditated in prison, I discovered I was able to go much deeper because I was so desperate to find peace.

Semrau on a hike to the "White Buddha" in Pai. This photo was taken two days before she was arrested.
Semrau on a hike to the "White Buddha" in Pai. This photo was taken two days before she was arrested.

Soon after I dedicated myself to a daily meditation practice, my understanding of “self” completely shifted. I soon came to believe that there is no such thing as suffering in the present moment. It only exists when we think about the past and the future ― or with the wanting, analyzing and worrying that often accompanies thinking about them. I realized that the source of my many previous problems was greed ― my greatest expression of desire.

I had spent so much of my life wanting more and I came to understand that my desire took many forms including gluttony, selfishness and a constant dissatisfaction with the abundance that I already had. I began to journal about my meditation practice and the questions I had about who I was and how I had lived my life before getting arrested.

Day 15 of 180. A few questions that surfaced during my morning meditation today: Why is it that I’m selfish? Why is there such resistance to my giving when I know it brings me so much joy? Why do I lie, compulsively, fabricating an existence that I haven’t lived ― and wouldn’t want to live? Why do I steal, when I’ve always had enough? Why is it so hard for me to give, when that is my most significant purpose? It feels good to write these things, to admit to their existence. I lie. I steal. I take. These are the things I would like to shed.

After a few weeks, I felt calmer, less angry and even less desperate for my time in prison time to pass. I came to understand that it doesn’t matter where my body is ― suffering and happiness exist only in the mind. Realizing this helped me regain my freedom, if not physically, then at least internally. I could, for the first time in my life, tap into my memory bank, into every moment I had lived before. I could close my eyes and be on top of a mountain I had visited in the Annapurna range in Nepal or cuddled in that hammock on the San Juan island where I had watched orcas play in front of me. My body was in prison, sweating and uncomfortable, but my mind was elsewhere and my heart was with all of my loved ones.

Mentally traveling to my best-loved moments in my life helped me stay sane as I served my sentence. I meditated every day, no matter what distractions I faced. I practiced yoga, even if only a few sun salutations, every day, no matter how little space I had or the awkward corners I crammed my body into so I didn’t kick anyone in the face.

I continually tried to progress. I counted my gratitudes and practiced love and kindness to keep the stress of being locked up in a foreign prison at bay. Still, it didn’t always work. On my 42nd day in prison I wrote the following in my journal:

The sun is shining, the birds are singing, I am fed, rested, clothed, with space to stretch my spirit and exercise my body, yet I’m unsatisfied and crave more ― more food, people, adventure, freedom ― due to the constant chattering of the mind and its manifestations of the emotions and desires that defile and clutter the mind. Why must the mind want? I would be content in this simple existence if not for the mind.

I knew that one day my sentence would be served and I’d be set free, I just had to hold on. As time passed I began to find gratitude for even the smallest things, for the simplicity of living in moderation and for how much worse life could have been during those six months in prison.

I learned how damaging an excessive amount of greed and desire can be ― not just for myself, but for the people I had stolen from or hurt in other ways throughout my life ― and how unnecessary they are for true abundance.

I began to teach English to some of the other inmates in exchange for Thai massage lessons and I taught yoga on the weekends. I learned to speak Thai. I learned how damaging an excessive amount of greed and desire can be ― not just for myself, but for the people I had stolen from or hurt in other ways throughout my life ― and how unnecessary they are for true abundance. I learned about the parts of myself that I don’t like and how to work on changing them. I discovered how to calm my mind and I came to understand that karma is real and must truly be respected in order to live a productive life.

During my six months in prison, I often dreamed about the day I’d be released and what I would do when I was free. In the beginning, my daydreams were filled with the food I would eat, the places I would go and the people I would be reunited with ― all very reasonable things to fantasize about when you’re locked up thousands of miles away from the comforts of home. But, as I continued to serve my sentence, I began to understand there is far more to life than those things and promised myself to be grateful for what I had, no matter how little it might seem at any given moment, and to rebalance my karmic bank by giving back whenever I could.

I was released from prison on July 24 and deported safely back to America over a nine-day trip. Since arriving home, I have continued my journey of healing myself ― and whenever possible, others ― through practicing and teaching yoga and meditation. I now have far more gratitude for the simple things in life and not only have I stopped shoplifting, I try to always keep only what I need ― and nothing more. 

I believe that my time in prison gave me the opportunity and space to learn about myself and do the work to clear what didn’t serve me. My sentence was truly a just karmic consequence, it was rightly deserved and I am taking what I learned from those unbelievable six months and using all of it to make the most out of the rest of my life.

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