'Angel' makes a career in kindness at the 'Bangkok Hilton' prison
Susan Aldous is a friend of inmates and guards alike.
As the iron-plated gate is bolted drearily shut behind the petite blond visitor entering the courtyard of the notorious "Bangkok Hilton" prison, a dour guard turns away from inmates shuffling by in heavy leg irons.Skip to next paragraph
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"Susan!" he hollers, suddenly sunny, waving at the woman. "You look beautiful today!"
She laughs and teases back in fluent Thai: "Only today?"
For over a decade, Susan Aldous has been coming to Bang Kwang, as the maximum security prison is officially known, several days a week to make good a promise to herself "to turn this place around by getting a smile out of every guard and prisoner.
"It's working, you see!" she beams.
But smiles are the least of it. The Australian woman's humanitarian mission is deeper than that, bringing a shaft of light – a bit of humanity – into dark, forgotten corners. The prison is just one of them. For two decades, the unaffiliated, unpaid volunteer has been a constant presence at Bangkok women's shelters, hospital wards, slums, and upcountry orphanages, tending to the needy, the abandoned, and the despondent – men, women, young, and old.
Today Ms. Aldous is visiting Jaganathan Samynathan. A Malaysian of Tamil ancestry, he's been here for 17 years – practically his entire adult life. Sentenced to death in 1992 at age 24 for attempted drug trafficking, he was given reprieve in the form of a life sentence.
No one but Aldous has visited him in all his years in this overcrowded, disease-ridden institution where packages and help from outside often tip the balance between life and death.
"Susan is making life bearable and worth living," he says from behind a double row of iron bars in the visitors' section.
Thanks to Aldous, says Samynathan, he sleeps in a bed (not on the stone floor) and has more to eat than the prison's twice-daily staple of rice and bamboo-shoot soup, supplemented on better days with poached rats. He can even study online vocational courses, enabling him to "travel in his mind."
Samynathan is one of many inmates Aldous has embraced in this and several other prisons in Bangkok. She lobbies friends and acquaintances for small donations for hard-up inmates, appears in court on their behalf for royal amnesties, and pops up in holding cells to counsel arrestees and in police rehabilitation facilities to nurse junkies. She's laid on feasts for prisoners, got guards new walkie-talkies, and obtained medicine and equipment for the prison hospital.
"In between," Aldous says, "I try to do my laundry and brush my teeth."
She's a single mother with no income other than small donations from strangers, friends, and the relatives of prisoners to pay for her $120-a-month apartment that she shares with her 17-year-old daughter. A youthful sprite of a woman, Aldous wears only hand-me-downs and cheap backpacker-style trinkets. She eats curbside meals and walks a lot to save on bus fare. Her neighbors often slip money in envelopes under her door. Besides, she adds, "What do I need? I'm 31 years down the road with this [humanitarian work], but I haven't yet missed a meal." (Though she's come close.)
Her goodwill has earned Aldous the epithet "Angel of Bang Kwang" among prisoners – which she dislikes. "I'm not a Little Goody Two-Shoes, or a saint," she insists. "But I believe every life has a purpose, and that I can be a link in a chain of events that may help improve lives – one life at a time with the one life I have to give."
Aldous, testifies Talya, her daughter, "doesn't flitter above us all with angelic melodies to thrill all who suffer. In fact, she's tone-deaf and a terrible singer. [But] she's the most unselfish being I know."
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Aldous loves to kiss and hug. Everyone: HIV patients, abandoned women, world-weary transvestites, even a journalist she's just met. She also loves to laugh – guffaw – by throwing back her head in a throaty roar. She creates camaraderie wherever she goes.