Many tourists, eager to find out more about life behind bars or hoping to
offer comfort and company, have taken to visiting Third World prisons.
This week, Virtuous Traveler Leslie Garrett finds that while some dismiss
it as a fad, the experience nonetheless leaves a legacy of gratitude and
sorrow for those who've been face to face with prisoners doing hard time.
Ari Sharp, a university student from Melbourne, Australia was intrigued by
the notice he spotted in a Thai hostel: "Visiting Bangkwan, Klong Prem and
other Prisons. " The notice promised that it was possible to visit a
prisoner without prior notice and that "These visits allow the visitor to
have a conversation with only a fence...between yourself and the prisoner..."
Sharp, who was backpacking around Southeast Asia, viewed the chance to
talk with a prisoner as "an experience too exciting to pass up." It turns
out he is not alone.
In recent years, prisons have become popular tourist destinations in parts
of Asia. Lonely Planet's guide to Thailand credits the growing interest in
'prison tourism' to the 1999 movie, 'Brokedown Palace', in which two teens
find themselves in a Thai prison wrongfully accused of drug smuggling.
However, those who have visited say that, fad or not, it's a sobering,
worthwhile experience for both them and, they firmly believe, the prisoners.
Other travellers aren't so sure about the ethical implications of visiting
someone with whom you have no prior connection. A post on an Internet
travel forum poses the question: 'How about visiting prisoners you don't
know? Is that a cruel fad or an act of charity?' Another suggests that the
whole practice of visiting prisoners might make the prisoners themselves
feel like 'an attraction' like animals in a zoo.
But what do prisoners themselves think? Garth Hattan is an American who
spent more than seven years in Bangkwang for drug trafficking before being
released to the United States on treaty. He generally met with any visitor
who requested a visit with him, hoping to offer up his life as a
cautionary tale. As he wrote in one of his 'Letters from the Inside,' a
column he wrote for the Thai-based Farang magazine, he hoped that visiting
him might make travelers think twice about "taking the fateful walk from
the conventional wild side into something you feel exudes a truly radical
allure' like an impulsive jaunt into narco-trafficking, for
instance....There's no-glamour here, no-promise of success, no-proverbial
pot of gold to pick up on the other side; just a sweaty, inanimate
existence riddled with the futile dreams of what could've been, mingled
with aching regret of having let so many good people down' especially
Kay Danes is an Australian mother of two who has become a strong, vocal
advocate for those behind bars, calling them "forgotten." Danes herself
was imprisoned in Laos in December 2000 for close to a year after she and
her husband were accused of stealing sapphires, a charge the two
vehemently denied. After extensive diplomatic negotiations, the couple was
released and given a Presidential Pardon. But Danes says the experience
left deep scars. She has written a book about her time in prison, 'Deliver
Us From Evil', and talks openly of the routine torture she heard being
conducted only yards away from her cell. She says that many prisoners are
detained for years without trial and would 'cherish a mere postcard from
the outside,' she says. 'They exist on hope.'
Tony Fox, who works with Foreign Prisoner Support Service (FPSS) is
heartened by the number of "kind-hearted people" who make a point of
visiting prisoners while on vacation or traveling on business. He says
FPSS gets two to three hundred "solid enquiries" each year about how to go
about visiting a prisoner. These same tourists report back to FPSS on the
conditions of the prisons they visit and the prisoners. Danes also
volunteers with FPSS and says that, while most prisoners would welcome a
visit by tourists, she cautions that tourists need to examine their own
motives and ensure that they are 'well-intended and not seeking a cheap
Ari Sharp says his intent was to 'avoid a hedonistic Bangkok holiday.' He
wanted to see how life was for another group of people ' foreign
prisoners'. These people are as much a part of Bangkok as the tuk-tuk
drivers and the market vendors. With that motivation, Sharp followed the
directions offered in the hostel notice and after a 30-minute boat ride
followed by a brief walk he arrived at the Bankwang Prison. In the midst
of the noise and chaos of young families and bureaucrats, Sharp spotted
some Westerners. He approached them and was introduced to Greet, a Dutch
missionary who visits prisoners twice yearly. Greet organized the group of
tourists, including Ari Sharp, and helped them navigate the bureaucracy.
Sharp requested a visit with Jagnathan Samynathan, a Malaysian imprisoned
at Bangkwang, whom he had read about on the hostel's notice board and
thought wouldn't receive as many visits as western prisoners. While there
are more than 7,000 foreign prisoners currently serving time in Thailand
according to government stats, the majority are from other countries in
Asia. The dozens of American, French and European prisoners are usually
held for a period of time that ranges depending on the treaty arrangement
countries have made with Thailand but seems to average around eight years.
They can then be transferred to prisons in their own countries.
Sharp says that Samynathan 'exuded warmth and friendliness'. He spent
about two hours with 'Jag' as he now refers to him, discussing the
prisoner's background, then moving on to news, politics, sport and family.
The tourists seemed more depressed at the prisoners' plight than those
behind bars, says Sharp. The whole experience, he says, gave him a 'much
greater appreciation of the everyday freedoms that I am lucky enough to
have.' He also considers himself lucky to have gained two penfriends with
whom he remains in touch. What's more, the visits taught him about 'the
power of forgiveness and the respect for the ability of people to change.'
Kay Danes would be delighted. 'People make mistakes and sometimes they do
things out of desperation,' she says. 'Those who are guilty already know
they have done wrong. On the other end of the spectrum, there are
prisoners detained for no reasonable explanation, like political prisoners
I met in Laos. They live everyday wondering if they will see their loved
Prison tourism seems to have its genesis in requests by relatives of
foreign inmates who, through tacked up signs in hostels and guesthouses,
encouraged travelers to visit their loved ones behind bars since they
could visit only infrequently or not at all. But, fad or not, prison
tourism seems to have heightened awareness of the conditions under which
some people are held, often without even benefit of a fair trial.
And that awareness works to not only help the prisoners, but might even
keep a traveler from making a similar mistake. Garth Hattan reported that,
more than anything, he missed his nomadic existence and advises travelers
to "Enjoy your travels, and never put yourself in a position that would
jeopardize your freedom to do so."
If you are a traveler who wants to make a prison visit part of your trip,
be sure you behave with consideration and respect. And remember that this
is not a photo opportunity 'cameras are usually prohibited' but it is a
sobering experience opportunity.
If you're interested in visiting a prisoner, first visit
"http://www.foreignprisoners.com" The site offers a list of prisons
around the world as well as prisoners' names and stories. Be sure you
follow the rules and never promise anything that you're not prepared to
deliver -- from sending a letter to contacting a loved one on the
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