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.
"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."
• • •
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.
It's Saturday afternoon, and she's just arriving for her weekly rounds of a women's shelter. Aldous waves to a clutch of women – battered wives, rape victims, single mothers – unwinding in the leafy yard. "You're sitting there like in an old folk's home!" she jokes.
The women cackle, greeting her delightedly.
Kids mob her. Aldous hands them toys and chocolates – two each so they can donate one to a sibling or friend. "This way they learn they never lose by giving – if only a smile, a kind word, or a helping hand," she explains.
On weekends, Aldous holds birthing courses here for expectant mothers and "laughing yoga" for the sick, throws parties, and teaches English and dance to the kids. "Sister is so kind to us. No one else cares about us," says Oy, an emaciated resident suffering from AIDS.
Once, Aldous herself might have been a resident here. Raised by foster parents in an upper-middle-class enclave of Melbourne, Australia, she describes herself in childhood as a menace, "jamming pins into kids' butts" and terrorizing classmates. By her teens, in the 1970s, she'd dropped out of school and was, by turns, a spaced-out flower child (like "Mary Poppins on crack," she says); a hell-raising skinhead biker in military fatigues; and a protopunk with tattoos, safety-pin piercings, and shaved eyebrows.
Not yet 17, she was nicknamed "Petrol Head" for her gas, glue, and aerosol sniffing habits. She'd throw tantrums and slash herself with razor blades, she says. "I was angry at the world and rebelled at a predictable life in the suburbs."
But then she had an epiphany. Wandering around Melbourne's red-light district, she encountered volunteers of a nondenominational Christian group. Aldous talked to them of suicide, when one of them suggested: "If you're going to throw your life away, why don't you instead give it away?"
Compassion has been "my drug of choice" ever since, she says of her born-again experience.
A 1985 tour of volunteering in Southeast Asian slums and prisons brought her to Thailand for nine days – and she's practically never left. "My past is my PhD in this work," she notes. Last Christmas, Aldous staged a narrated pantomime of her life for women at the shelter, preaching love and forgiveness.
But, she says, she doesn't proselytize: "I despise spiritual bribery. God is love, but you have to show it before you say it. I believe Jesus can make you a better Buddhist, and I want to convert people [only] to love." She laughs. "I guess I'm a superannuated hippie."
• • •
Aldous's close friend, Chavoret Jaruboon, is a soft-spoken, courteous man, and her most unlikely ally. Until the introduction of lethal injection recently, it was this senior guard's job to execute condemned prisoners in Bang Kwang – with a submachine gun.
He's helped her with projects aimed to improve the lot of the neediest inmates. "Prisoners call us 'the Angel and the Devil,' " he notes drolly.
When Aldous offered to help Thai inmates some years ago, Chavoret recommended obtaining eyeglasses for elderly prisoners who couldn't afford them. So Aldous launched a drive and obtained glasses for more than 150 lifers, the oldest of whom is 98.
"Thai people believe in karmic destiny," Chavoret says. "They say when you visit a prison you should walk in backward [so bad karma stays behind you]. Susan doesn't [believe that]." She heads straight in, he adds, bringing smiles to inmates "who have nothing to look forward to but her visits.
"But I tell you," the executioner adds, chuckling, "she can drive me crazy with her constant requests."