When she was inmate 5770102414 in a Thai prison, Prontip Mankong had ample opportunity for despair. Each night she slept with 70 to 80 other women, mostly drug offenders, on the linoleum floor of her cell. Her sleeping space was just over a foot wide; not enough room to lie on her back, so she slept on her side. For bedding, she had three sackcloths: one for a pillow, one for a blanket, and one to cover the floor. The fluorescent lights stayed on all night.
Daytime wasn’t much better. The inmates were awakened early and herded into open showers, where they stood under a pipe with holes in it for 30 seconds. Then they ate a rushed breakfast of rice, vegetables, and some tough chicken. “It was like animal food,” Ms. Prontip recalls. After that they worked in sewing factories, earning as little as 8 baht (23 cents) a day. They were punished if they didn’t meet their production quotas.
Months after seizing power in a 2014 coup, Thailand’s military government – the National Council for Peace and Order – had convicted Prontip of criticizing the Thai monarchy, a serious crime in Thailand.
So every day in prison, she did what was required. She kept her head down. She endured. But all the while she had a secret. In quiet moments, when the guards weren’t looking, she was keeping a diary. She stole pens and wrote on pages of Genesis that she tore from a Bible. She found ways to smuggle them out. If she had to be in prison, Prontip resolved to use the experience as research.
In 2016, after two years and 10 days behind bars, Prontip was let out. Today she is using her freedom to champion reform. And she’s using her illicit diary to write a book about Thai prisons.
“I wanted to keep my memories,” she says, four months after her release. “I wanted to keep everything I learned, all of the stories. I had to write something.”
As a woman, Prontip was more likely to end up in prison in Thailand than anywhere else in the world. No country incarcerates women at a higher rate. Thailand’s total population of women prisoners – 39,336 at the beginning of 2017 – ranks fourth in the world, behind the much larger countries of the United States, China, and Russia (though women are still only about 13 percent of the overall prison population in Thailand).
Yet prison was the last thing on Prontip’s mind when she arrived at an airport in southern Thailand on Aug. 15, 2014. Prontip, then a 26-year-old political science graduate, had saved her money and obtained a visa for Australia, where she planned to spend a yearlong working holiday. Her future was a blank page.
Then an airport immigration officer inspected her passport and told her she couldn’t fly. Two police officers escorted her to Bangkok. Her crime, she learned, was directing a satirical play almost a year earlier about a fictional kingdom.
Prontip had staged it on a Bangkok university campus with a political theater troupe. Now the new military government was accusing her and another actor of insulting Thailand’s monarchy – a crime punishable by 15 years in prison under Thailand’s century-old lèse-majesté law. Since the 2014 coup, the Thai government has prosecuted more than 60 lèse-majesté cases, which are handled in military courts. The military has used the 2007 Computer Crime Act to compound the sentences in some of these prosecutions. In 2015, a man in northern Thailand was sent to prison for 30 years for posting comments on Facebook that were deemed critical of the royal family.
As is typical in lèse-majesté cases, Prontip was denied bail, so she remained incarcerated during her trial. Finally, four months after her arrest, she pleaded guilty to insulting the crown. She was sentenced to 2-1/2 years at Bangkok’s Central Women’s Correctional Institution.
By then she was already accustomed to her thin, clay-colored uniform. She had memorized her prisoner number. And she was already learning the unspoken rules of survival in Thailand’s prison system.
“I knew I had to learn,” she says. “So I learned. I learned for life. I’m a survivor.”
Thailand imprisons 130 women for every 100,000 women in the population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit based in Northampton, Mass., that opposes mass incarceration. The US has the second-highest rate at 127 per 100,000. India, by comparison, incarcerates just
3 women per 100,000.
Globally, these rates are rising. The US imprisons eight times as many women as it did in 1980. Thirty percent of the world’s incarcerated women are in US prisons. Analysts point to America’s war on drugs to explain the increase. The mandatory minimum sentences and tough-on-crime law enforcement policies have had lasting social consequences and escalated incarceration rates for both men and women.
The total world prison population has increased by about 20 percent since 2000, but that growth has disproportionately affected women. According to a report from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, a London-based research and advocacy group, more than 700,000 women and girls were held in prisons throughout the world in 2015. That number has increased by about 50 percent since 2000. (In that same time period, the world’s population grew by just 18 percent.)
Female incarceration rates rose highest in Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, with dramatic increases in Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Colombia, Cambodia, and Indonesia. The offenses that send women to prison are often closely linked to poverty, with many women resorting to low-level, high-risk crime to support their families.
Thailand’s high female incarceration rate is rooted in some of the same causes as other countries. “The reason is probably our drug laws,” says Chontit Chuenurah, a policy analyst for the Thailand Institute of Justice, a government agency that oversees the prison system. “We got that model from the United States. We base the charge on the quantity of drugs.”
Thailand has long been a hub for drug trafficking. The country was once part of the opium-growing Golden Triangle. Now synthetic drugs are king. Methamphetamine tablets called ya ba, or “crazy medicine,” are rampant. Thailand’s 14-year-old war on drugs has filled its prisons, but failed to decrease drug use. Seventy percent of Thailand’s male prisoners and 82 percent of female prisoners are serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, according to a recent report by the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights.
“Most of the time they’re not big-time drug dealers,” Ms. Chontit adds. “We have harsh laws for drugs, but at the end of the day we have small-time drug dealers in prison.”
According to the Thailand Institute of Justice, the vast majority of women prisoners are mothers and the primary caregivers for their children. Most are first-time offenders serving two- to five-year sentences. Few have finished high school.
Imprisoning women creates ripples throughout Thai society, but is most keenly felt by children. “When women go to prison, the men often leave,” Chontit says. “Children leave school early. They are vulnerable to abuse. Some end up in prison themselves.”
As a result of high incarceration rates, Thailand’s prisons are at 224 percent capacity, according to the International Federation for Human Rights.
The staff-to-prisoner ratio in Thailand’s women prisons is 1 to 20, far worse than the internationally recommended level of 1 to 3. And while the International Committee of the Red Cross advises at least 37 square feet of personal space per prisoner, the Thai Department of Corrections mandates less than 12 square feet for women. In practice, many prisoners get only half that.
Overcrowding was just one of the realities Prontip chronicled during her time in prison. The crowded conditions made for easy transmission of disease, but health care was limited. Prontip says she saw three people die from untreated conditions.
“Some people die and nobody knows,” she says. “There’s no value. They just die.”
Prontip’s cell had two ceiling fans, but in summer it got so hot that the inmates smeared themselves with camphor to stay cool. In winter the cold seeped up from the floor. And in the wet season, rain swept into the cell through the barred windows.
Her fellow inmates were women of all ages. The youngest was 14, although her paperwork listed her as 20 so she could stay with her mother, who was also in prison. The oldest was 88. She couldn’t move. Prontip says other prisoners had to carry her wherever she went.
Prontip quickly learned that although the guards controlled the prison officially, the real power rested with the meh bahn, or “mother of the house,” the lead prisoner who served as an informant to prison staff. Prisoners who crossed her could lose their visitor privileges or access to the doctor.
“She treated us like slaves,” Prontip says. “We couldn’t walk up to her to ask something. We had to crawl on our knees and sit like we would at a temple. If we wanted to go to the toilet, we had to ask her first.”
Prontip saw fights between prisoners. Occasionally the guards would tell one prisoner to beat up another. There were also love triangles. Some women set up little families and played roles of father, mother, and children. When women were caught having sex, guards would pour water on them and make them stand in direct sunlight all day.
In accordance with prison policy, Prontip could only receive visits from a list of 10 approved people. Prisoners are often incarcerated far from their hometowns, making family visits time-consuming and expensive. Prisoners are strip-searched before and after visits, a practice discouraged by prisoner rights groups. All inmate correspondence is censored.
Prontip’s life improved when she learned that she could buy better treatment. If she paid 500 baht ($14) a month to the right prisoner, she could shower longer. She could get a foot and a half of sleeping space. She could go to the toilet when she wanted. And if she gave coffee to the prisoner who oversaw the washroom, she would get enough water to wash her clothes.
Prontip’s other survival mechanism was mental. “I gave myself a mission every day,” she says. “Maybe I needed to learn something, or find something. Maybe I had a meeting. Some days I’d steal a book from the library. Some days I’d take a pen or a paper cutter. If you have a pen or a paper cutter, no one wants to have a problem with you.”
Ironically, Thailand is credited with helping draft the first international standards for the fair treatment of women prisoners.
That effort began when Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol, granddaughter of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, visited the Central Women’s Correctional Institution in 2001. The visit inspired her to start charitable programs to improve conditions for women inmates. Those programs became the basis for 70 rules outlining the humane treatment of women prisoners, which the United Nations adopted in 2010. Because of the princess’s work, the guidelines are called The Bangkok Rules.
“I think it’s a good initiative,” Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, chair of Amnesty International Thailand, says over a bowl of noodles in a Bangkok shopping mall. “But it’s cosmetic, and the implementation has no substance.”
Thailand’s women’s prisons currently violate many of The Bangkok Rules. Because they were never adopted into Thai law, the rules have no legal teeth. And when the Thailand Institute of Justice interviewed senior prison staff in 2014, some didn’t fully understand what The Bangkok Rules were.
Ms. Pornpen says Thai prisons have very little oversight from nongovernmental organizations. Access to prisons became even more difficult after the 2014 coup. More transparency would help, she says, but the surest way to improve conditions in women’s prisons is to imprison fewer women.
Thailand has yet to implement recommendations to reduce its population of women prisoners, such as substituting fines for lesser offenses, using electronic monitoring for pretrial detainees and parolees, or giving judges more discretion in sentencing.
“The court has limited options,” says Chontit, from the Thailand Institute of Justice. “They follow the law. That’s why we need to change the law.”
Eventually, Prontip benefited from the one method Thailand does use to reduce its prison population – the royal pardon. Every year on royal birthdays, the sentences of eligible prisoners are commuted. Prontip received a pardon and was released five months early.
Last August, Prontip walked out of prison conflicted. She was free, but her friends inside were not. In January, I met her in a gated house in north Bangkok. As we sat on cushions on a tiled floor, she told me about her imprisonment.
Prontip doesn’t look like an ex-con. She has shoulder-length black hair, a bright smile, and a playful nature that makes her seem younger than her 28 years. She is an artist and a playwright. And now she’s a vocal campaigner for prison reform in Thailand. She recently submitted a report on Thai prisons to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. It was based on her own all-too-personal experience.
Even as a former political prisoner, Prontip continues to advocate democratic changes in Thailand, in spite of the risks. Besides writing a book about Thai prison conditions, she’s started a group to support women inmates after they are released. Prontip is also active in pro-democracy social movements. She recently spoke at the Asian Youth Leadership Forum for Democracy conference in Gwangju, South Korea.
“The democracy movement is a marathon,” she told the audience. “I plan to help prepare young activists to be effective political prisoners, productive political refugees, and also to support those who are released. I have to tell them that imprisonment can’t destroy our ideologies and spirit.”
Prontip’s own prison sentence may be behind her, but she’s not turning her back on the women in prison in Thailand.
“I have many friends in there,” she says. “I can’t leave them behind.”