Thursday, October 19, 2006

book review: when prison is a crime

'The Damage Done: Twelve Years of Hell in Bangkok Prisons' by Warren Fellows. (1998) ISBN: 184018275 - review by marco polo

Reading this book is a highly distressing experience. It tells the story of the author, an Australian working in a pub in Sydney in the mid 1970s when he was in his early 20s, where he meets a shady but likeable character, and ends up working for him as a drug smuggler/courier. He does a few runs bringing back hashish from India, and then moves on to heroin from Thailand. In 1978 at the age of 25 he gets nabbed in Bangkok, bang-to-rights with several kilos of heroin. Then begins the twelve years of hell.

It starts immediately: the arresting officer is a sadistic thug, who enjoys inflicting pain and trauma on Fellows. This continues for 37 days in the "Police Interrogation Unit", where Fellows endures torture, hatred, and constant fear of immediate death. Thankfully he doesn`t go into detail, but does say that after those 37 days he has already been permanently changed: the damage is already done; but there are another 12 years to go.

Whilst in there he signs a document implicating another Australian who wasn`t involved in his case, and makes the important point that confessions and statements extracted under torture aren`t worth the paper they`re written on: most people will sign anything to stop the torture.

Then he`s transferred to his first prison, and is horrified by the conditions: 20 to 30 blokes crammed into cells just big enough for them to lie down on straw mats, stiflingly hot, insects everywhere, and one hole in the floor in a corner to excrete into, which is infrequently emptied, so the cell stinks. They`re locked in there for 18 hours in every 24, with one bucket of dirty water next to the "toilet".

The prison food is inedible, dirty rice and slop, but in one of the few considerations of the Thai penal system, prisoners who have money are allowed to withdraw it from their prison account and spend it; there`s a meagre shop in the prison so Fellows gets basic food from there. (Bear in mind this is his first relatively "soft" prison, as he hasn`t been to trial yet).

Here he`s fitted with heavy iron shackles and chains on his ankles (see cover photo), which remain with him for most of the next 12 years (which is illegal under UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners). He soon learns that if the prison blacksmith doesn`t like the look of a prisoner, his clubhammer "accidentally" smashes and breaks ankles. The guards are also ruthless, beating prisoners savagely for the the slightest real or imagined infraction.

Then he`s transferred to another prison for 3 years. This one is harsher, as it has a sadistic governer, with correspondingly even more brutal guards, "a cesspit of blood and excretement and death and cruelty". It`s overrun with vermin, i.e. lice, fleas, ants, mosquitoes, cockroaches and rats (all of which are present to some extent in the other prisons he serves time in).

Once again he`s locked in a stifling packed cell with 20 to 30 blokes for 18 hours per day, but because the governer and guards are more brutal, many of the prisoners are injured and bleeding, which adds to the smell and horror.

Then it gets worse, Fellows is mistakenly assumed to be planning an escape, and is placed in a "punishment cell" (his first of many). These particular windowless cells with no light are so crowded that there`s no room to lie down or even stretch your legs, they all have to sit hunched up, the toilet is one bucket in the corner which soon overflows, the smell is appalling, and they`re only allowed out for 5 minutes in every 24 hours to have a quick wash and drink with filthy water and eat dirty slop.
Most foreign prisoners die in the punishment cells (a fact that isn`t reported in the mainstream media), mostly through malnutrition, injuries, disease or insanity, but in this one most Thais survive by eating cockroaches, which Fellows naturally finds repulsive, but reluctantly joins in in order to survive.

One night in this cell a prisoner goes into a mad frenzy and stabs another prisoner to death with an old nail, amidst plenty of screaming and blood-splattering. They all have to sit in stinking horror for 18 hours before the guards finally come in. When he gets out after 10 days he tries to commit suicide with an overdose of valium from the prison hospital, but is taken to the hospital by prisoner friends and recovers.
These punishment cells are illegal under Thai and UN law, so whenever a government or foreign official visits the prison, the punishment cells are temporarily emptied.
Shortly afterwards he witnesses for the first time a brutal guard beating a prisoner to death for a simple misdemeanour, which he sees many more times in the following years.

In the next few months he learns Thai from the Thai prisoners, and comes to respect the Thai traditions and common people (if not the brutal prison officers and police).
After about a year in prison he starts taking heroin, which is available from some guards (not all of them are brutal savages), and from prison visitors, and gives an intelligent overview of the absurdity of the drug laws, the most obvious being that he`s banged up for smuggling heroin, yet prison guards are supplying it. He points out that the tabloid hysteria and school "education" about heroin is highly inaccurate; heroin has valuable properties, such as temporarily removing physical and mental pain. Most of the foreigners in Thai prisons end up taking heroin to escape the pain and suffering.

[The most damaging things about heroin in the West are its high price and the adulterants added to it by the time it reaches the streets; if it was legally available cheaply in its pure form from chemists these serious problems would disappear, as would most heroin-smuggling operations].

Meanwhile the sadistic governer beats, tortures and kills prisoners on a regular basis in a variety of horrible ways. It later emerges that he moonlights as a taxi driver in the evenings, and one night drives a Thai girl to the edge of town and brutally rapes her. About a week later he`s found lying outside the prison gates, battered and barely alive, with his severed right hand placed on his chest.

However the barbarity continues, with one young Thai inmate who was foolish enough to hit back at a brutal guard being forced into a wooden cage so small that he has to crouch, which is suspended from the ceiling and covered with a dark cloth, where he remains for 3 months. Fellows doesn`t go into detail, but presumably he excretes from where he is, and is given enough food and water to stay alive. When he gets out he`s a physical and mental wreck, and soon disappears, presumed dead.

After about 3 years Fellows finally goes on trial, is sentenced to life imprisonment, and sent to another prison, Bang Kwang, apparently "the most feared prison in the world". In fact conditions are much the same (they could hardly get worse), it`s overcrowded and overrun with the usual vermin, except that this one is "hot with fleas". As usual the food is disgusting, which Fellows reckons is intended to weaken the prisoners. However in this prison the inmates eat rats, and once again Fellows reluctantly joins in in order to survive. Also as usual many of the guards are savage, beating prisoners to a pulp or to death in front of the other prisoners. Apart from the physical damage, this savagery is also mentally damaging, and many prisoners never recover.

At this point Fellows realises that this punishment is far worse than the crimes most of the inmates are in for; there are of course some prisoners who are hardened criminals, but most of the others are just petty thieves or drug smugglers/dealers who hadn`t enough money or influence to bribe the police who arrested them. And some of them are natives from neighbouring countries who have merely entered Thailand without the relevant passport and/or paperwork. [There must be thousands of more-or-less innocent prisoners suffering in harsh prisons all over the world]. Also there`s the irony that many of the prison staff are murderous criminals, far worse than most inmates.

One day Fellows is caught with heroin and sentenced to 3 months solitary confinement in another punishment cell. These tiny cells are underground, bare concrete, dark and cold. Here he attempts suicide for the second time, but fails to hang himself. He reveals that to his knowledge at the time of writing, he`s the only foreigner still alive who has survived 3 months in a punishment cell, the others having died of malnutrition, injuries, disease, insanity, heroin overdoses or suicide.

Another day a German prisoner goes mad and starts lashing out at the guards, so the guards proceed to beat him mercilessly, so badly that Fellows intervenes and also gets beaten. They both get put into solitary confinement for a month, in the usual tiny concrete cells next to each other, with extra punishment, the first being that his shackled ankle is padlocked to an iron ring on the wall, so that he cannot move around or get "comfortable". The second punishment is that every day he`s taken next door to see the German, who has had no medical attention and is lying in a pool of blood and excretement, with broken bones and a smashed face, obviously dying. Although Fellows doesn`t elaborate, it seems obvious that the German died of his injuries and neglect.

The relentless grimness is slightly relieved in the mid-1980s when prison visit restrictions are relaxed, so that prisoners are allowed more visitors, many of them sympathetic foreign tourists.

The years crawl by, with almost daily incidents of ultraviolence and horror, and plenty of prisoners are killed by the guards or die of heroin overdoses or disease. The most imaginative method of murder involves the victim being forced into a spherical bamboo cage, placed in the empty prison yard, whereupon an elephant is led in and encouraged to kick the ball around. The Thais know all about elephants: after some time kicking the ball around the walled yard, the elephant gets bored and stamps on the ball.

In 1989 Fellows`s best friend in the prison dies of contaminated heroin, and Fellows is so upset that he stops taking it.

By 1990 he has been brutalised, tortured, hungry, thirsty, thin and weak for nearly 12 years (the front cover photo must have been taken very early in his ordeal; at the end he`s like a walking skeleton), shackled and chained most of the time, and most of his prison friends are dead or have gone insane.

Fellows is near the end of his tether when he finally gets a King`s Pardon and gets back to Australia, but there yet another ordeal begins, as he has great difficulty readjusting and coping with his memories. Also he`s hounded by the press, and gets badly beaten up.

He has plenty of psychological problems, the foremost being his hard-wired memories of violence, abuse and suffering; dreams become nightmares; sometimes he dreams that his homecoming is a dream, and he wakes up in a stinking cell. Also he cannot stomach violence of any kind, including film violence, and cannot understand why free people should wish to create violence (a very valid point).

This book is very well written, a remarkable feat considering what he`s been through. He concludes by saying that if one single person is dissuaded from drug smuggling through reading this book, then his suffering has not been in vain. And Fellows will never be free of his memories.

'The Damage Done: Twelve Years of Hell in Bangkok Prisons' by Warren Fellows.

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