Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Live with Big Tiger

By Bixi Tian
Copy edited and produced by Hilary Johnson

Russian Felix Cheremnykh spends several hours drawing, sketching, learning English and working out in Bang Kwang Prison. He still has 30 years to go.

Bang Kwang is a men's prison in Nonthaburi Province, Thailand, 7 miles north of Bangkok. It is also known as “the big tiger”.

Housing 8,000 inmates, Bang Kwang has a capacity of 4,000. Each cramped cell houses 20 inmates. Each inmate has only enough space to lie flat. Every meal is white rice and soup; the only bucket in the corner of the cell serves as toilet. Inmates spend 15 hours locked in cells. Contagious diseases spread easily, and it is said that one in ten inmates has mental issues.

Felix Cheremnykh's drawing capturing life in Bang
Kwang Prison in Thailand. / Heather Luna-Rose
But Cheremnykh is still sane and reasonably happy. Cheremnykh started talking to British and American inmates to practice English and began working out every day. But what he is most proud of is his art.

With papers and pencils provided by visitors, Cheremnykh sketches and draws prison scenes. He is now trying to sell his art to earn money.

In Bang Kwang, every inmate has an account, and uses money to buy necessities from the prison shop. Some earn money by working for the guards.

Cheremnykh can sell his art thanks to Heather Luna-Rose, a Canadian single mother who started a website called Luna-Rose Thailand Prisoner Support, seeking donations.

Luna-Rose visited Bang Kwang seven years ago with her daughter. She talked to a Dutch-Canadian inmate serving a sentence for possession of drugs. She kept returning and talked to more inmates until she ran out of money.

She now works hard for 8 months and spends the rest of the year in Bang Kwang, bringing both material and mental comforts to her “Bang Kwang guys”. When not around, she writes to them every week.

"You still have value as a human,” She said, “no matter what you've done "

Prison conditions are widely covered in both western and domestic media, but for different reasons. Western media focus on criticism, Thai media use the coverage as a deterrent.

Dan White is a British freelance writer in South-east Asia. Despite all the media coverage, situation in Thai prisons has not improved much. He says, “The Thai authorities like to advertise their jails. Prison stories are on sale in the bookshops.”

Some of Cheremnykh's work called "Big Tiger 2011"
/ Heather Luna-Rose
Many in Bang Kwang are international tourists imprisoned for drug-related cases. Some countries have treaties with Thailand to extradite nationals back to their own countries. America is one of them. Most western offenders thus come home to serve much lighter sentences.

But not all people consider Thai prisons grisly. Kriengsaks Chareonwongsak is among those. Having received his bachelor and doctoral degree in Australia, a master’s degree at Harvard, and a post-doctoral degree at Oxford, Chareonwongsak thinks western media coverage on Thai prisons is dramatic.

“It is similar to western prisons, but it is crowded. There are too many drug criminals, and it is certainly not a deterrent. About mistreatment, again, it prevails like any other prison.”

No comments: