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Oct. 20, 2022

What is Prison Like in Thailand

Hello. Have YOU heard about the Bangkok Hilton?

What is Prison Like in Thailand? It’s not quite what you’d think.

Some call Thai prisons the Bangkok Hilton and, while it is the name of two local hotels, it’s also a satirical term  for Thai prisons.

But there’s no air-conditioning, room service and pools here, only human misery. 

You will read today how 20-year-old Lisa Marie Smith, the only child of an insurance millionaire, ends up in a putrid prison cell in Klong Prem Prison.

What is Prison Like in Thailand

What is Prison Like in Thailand

Barely out of her teens, Lisa, a catering student, is our first stop on our tale of Bangkok Hilton prison nightmares. 

From Bangkok’s backpacker district, to the islands of Greece, and the Guinness-soaked streets of Dublin’s party zone, this is a taleof great fortune and bad luck. 

You will learn how a wealthy girl born in Melbourne, Australia, ends up in the hell of Klong Prem Prison, aka the Bangkok Hilton. For five torturous months, Lisa is detained Klong Prem’s horrorific women's prison.

This is her story and that of others who survived the Bangkok Hilton.

What is Prison Like in Thailand


The Bangkok Hilton


But Escaping Bangkok finds student Lisa Marie Smith entering a busy Bangkok bar called Paradise.

She is at the end of a two-month backpacking trip. It was reportedly a Christmas gift from her parents, Terry and Robyn Smith.

But she is about to get more than she bargained for in the country known as the Land of Smiles.

As she makes her way into Paradise bar, Lisa meets a group of men drinking Thai whiskey.

What is Prison Like in Thailand


What is Prison Like in Thailand

Lisa doesn’t know she’s talking to the men who will entrap her, and send her into the hells of the Bangkok Hilton. 

I couldn’t help but wonder: what if she went to another bar that night? What would her life be like now?

What is Prison Like in Thailand

Perhaps she might have instead taken a tuk-tuk motorcycle to the Grand Palace or went shopping for Thai silk, instead of walking into that bar.

The group meets in the hubbub of Kao San Rd, (pronounced CowSan rd), the backpackers mecca of Bangkok.

What is Prison Like in Thailand

It’s a cheap and cheerful destination for westerners and the perfect place for a backpacker low on cash to chill.

What is Prison Like in Thailand

This is where Leonardo DiCaprio first landed in the 2000 movie The Beach, where he books a cheap and nasty hotel room, but finds his new friend, Daffy, dead in his room the next day. 

“We’re going to take your soul,” Leonardo was told later in the movie.

That’s exactly what Thai prisons do to many of the poor souls stuck inside them.

How do you end up in the Bangkok Hilton

During the last 40 years, however, Khaosan Road has developed into a world-famous "backpacker ghetto". 

But what seems so welcoming can come crashing down in seconds. Just ask Lisa.

What is Prison Like in Thailand

Taking that bag was a big mistake. Huge. Instead of Japan, she has a one-way ticket to hell. 

At the time, there were 1,500 foreigners serving drug-related sentences in Thailand's jails. Most of the incarcerated women were there for drug offences.

And so Lisa was soon just another woman on her way to the Bangkok Hilton.

What is Prison Like in Thailand

Every Australian passport carries a warning about the drug trade and the possible consequences of overseas trafficking.

Despite the caution, many young people, in particular, get into trouble overseas and are shocked when no foreign Government can help them.

Because being caught for a drug-related crime anywhere in Asia is a nightmare. 

We are not making excuses for drug trafficking. Rather we are shining a light on the conditions in Thai prison.

You will hear the facts about a justice system which has the world’s highest incarceration rate of women.

What is Prison Like in Thailand

At the same time as Lisa is preparing for the flight to Japan, 30 year old Brit Sandra Gregory was about to be sentenced in a Thai court for drug trafficking.

Her case has a resemblance to that of Lisa’s because she was also going to Japan and was arrested at the same Bangkok airport.

Nick Cater from the Daily Telegraph reported Both women came from “well-to-do families, both were due to travel to Tokyo and both claim they were tricked into carrying drugs by men they had met in Thailand”.

The difference was Sandra’s new friend was British and he had a significant heroin problem.

Speaking in 1996, Sandra broke down as she described the conditions in Klong Prem.

Sandra she was facing 20 years in the Bangkok Hilton after being found guilty of trying to smuggle heroin.

She told the court she had been offered about of $1300 AUD in return for carrying the drugs.

Nick Cater wrote Sandra appeared shocked and frightened as she spoke of life in the Bangkok Hilton, the prison where Lisa was housed.

In Australia, the Bangkok Hilton is also known as the name of an 1980s television series starring actress Nicole Kidman. 

Her character was stuck in jail after she was set up with drugs by a charming and handsome photographer.

It’s a tale as old as time.

What is Prison Like in Thailand


What is Prison Like in Thailand

What is Prison Like in Thailand

Lisa’s jail was a severely overcrowded and underfunded maximum-security facility. The facility houses both local and foreign prisoners. It has a reputation worldwide for being one of the very worst prisons due to extraordinarily unfair sentencing and inmate abuse.

Other problems relating to conditions of imprisonment include extreme over-crowding and lack of adequate food, Khao San Road are after your cash., and medical care.

Moreover, new prisoners had to always wear shackles for the first three months, even though Amnesty International says it is not permitted under Thai law. 

Up until 2012, squad execution was used but was replaced with lethal injection.

Lisa’s first bail request is refused by a judge. According to the Daily Telegraph, she arrived at Bangkok's Central Criminal Court in the back of a caged pickup truck, her face hidden beneath a red towel.

Wearing faded jeans and a crumpled white T-shirt, she was met by an Australian Embassy official and led shoulders hunched into a holding cell clutching a transparent plastic bag of personal possessions.

Earlier, as Smith left the central city police station where she has spent the past six days, police went to unusual lengths to keep newsmen at bay, a sign of the sensitivity with which the case is being treated.”

So Who is Lisa?

After completing high school in the UK, she attended Eastleigh College, Southampton to study catering, where she was the 1994 student of the year.

By the time she finished her schooling, Lisa was said to have been working in Hong Kong's Wanchai area where her parents had moved to from the UK.

They thought the world of Lisa, their only child, and for Christmas 1995, it was reported they bought her a ticket to Thailand for the ill-fated holiday.

Police said she travelled up-country to Chang Mai before returning to the backpacker bars of Bangkok's crowd where drinks, food and drugs are plentiful.

Like many her age, Lisa was a bit of a party girl and on that fateful day in 1996, she has a promising life and career ahead of her.

What is Prison Like in Thailand

But fun and frivolity in Thailand can have a dark underbelly in Thailand. There are cons, scammers and human leeches on Kao San Rd.

Born in Australia, Lisa also has dual UK nationality because her insurance executive father, Terry, is British. 

It is her UK passport that is the key to her future freedom - it will allow her to settle and work throughout the European Union.

Barely out of childhood, the catering student is our first stop on our tale of Thai prison nightmares. She was just another female locked up inside a Thai prison.

A former inmate of another Thai Jail, Warren Fellows, wrote this about his time in custody in his book "The Damage Done”:

I was well aware of Bang Kwang's reputation as quite simply the most feared prison in the world. While doing my business in Bangkok, I had been aware of the possibility that, if caught, I {might} be sent to Big Tiger. But somehow it had seemed a distant chance -- I did not belong in Bang Kwang. It was a place for the lowest, most hopeless forms of humanity. Nobody thinks of themselves in that way. Not even criminals."

We will be speaking to his son the writer Adrian Simon in episode four of this podcast.

But destiny has other plans and Lisa is about to spend decades out of sight from international law enforcement. 

It’s important to understand why most people may not be able to face a long jail term in the Bangkok Hilton.

As with all new prisoners, Lisa is shackled in leg irons for the first three months to supposedly reduce the risk of suicide.

According to its website, Klong Prem Central prison is a maximum security facility in Chatuchak District. It has several separate sections. Then there’s the compound houses with up to 20,000 inmates. 

Things were rough for Lisa and other prisoners  in the jail, inhumanly difficult. It was absolutely no picnic.

Inside an enclosed dormitory on wooden stilts housing 120 women, she likely sleeps on a mat near the open toilet in the centre of the room. 

In the pecking order of the women's prison, Lisa, once a star student, now rests next to the stinking hole.

As a result, the new inmate will then get her spot & Lisa will move up in the Klong Prem Central prison hierarchy.

What is Prison Like in Thailand

One of the biggest issues in Thai prisons is official corruption. 

A prison officer was jailed for life in 2019 after being convicted of attempted murder. His sentence was part of a crackdown on  standards in the nation’s troubled Corrections Department. Six prison officers were also fired.

According to The Thai Examiner: “Thailand’s prisons have long been reported as places were corruption and malpractice are rife. Corruption that some suggest includes drug dealing, mobile smuggling, and even the attempted murder of inmates for knowing too much. 

When she gets bail, it was the last time Thai and Australian officials saw her.

And how does someone like Lisa just vanish into thin air from the Bangkok Hilton? 

Up Next on Escaping Bangkok, Lisa turns up in Europe, but manages again to leave law enforcement in her wake. Literally.

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Until then, this is Lisa and don’t forget to ask yourself: could you survive the Bangkok  Hilton?