Thailand’s tough sentencing for drug offenders is well known worldwide – what is less well known is the Thai Red Cross Society role in rehabilitating offenders and bringing a ray of hope to those who may not see the outside word until they are in their 70s, if at all.
Take Nipa (all names have been changed). When she found herself in jail 10 years ago she had little clue she might have to stay there for the rest of her life. A small-town girl who sang in a restaurant, she sold ecstasy and crystal methamphetamine to supplement her income and help pay for her one-month old baby.
When she was arrested by the Thai police she took all the blame, protecting her husband so that her baby would be cared for. “But my husband disappeared and never visited me or saw my daughter again. My mother take cares of my baby who is now 10 years old.”
Nipa received a life sentence, which was reduced to 40 years following royal pardon. With 30 years left to tick by, she is one of 4,000 women doing time in the Central Women’s Correctional Institution in Bangkok.
The Thai Red Cross began its youth training course 1995 to help young male and female prisoners to adjust to life in the prison and to help them lead a productive life once they are released. Almost 25,000 female prisoners from 40 Provincial Correctional Institutions nationwide have already taken part in this programme.
“We teach them basic first aid knowledge and skills, about health care in prison, and about Red Cross youth volunteer programs that are available to them” said Thanaporn Songsaeng, Chief of the TRCS Youth Bureau. “In the future we plan to train female prisoners to become trainers themselves We also hope to integrate training on some of the most difficult challenges faced by young people: avoiding drug addiction and safe sex practices.”
Pitcha Pongpongsri, a trainer from Kunnathee Nutharam Wittayacom School, who has taught TRCS Youth Bureau training course since the beginning says the Red Cross preaches tough love: “we teach them that they must look after themselves well. I try not to create a strong bond with them; otherwise they would get too attached to me. The goal is to foster good, independent judgement.”
“But I do encourage them and always tell them that one day when they are released from here they must rely on themselves and be able to stand on their own; otherwise they can’t survive out there in society.”
“I had never heard about these Red Cross activities before. But other prisoners who have been here longer told me about them,” said Nipa who started taking Thai Red Cross Society training in 2004. She arrived at the prison with only a sixth-grade education. Today, she has nearly completed courses for a bachelors degree.
Asked how she felt about the 30-year sentence in front of her, Nipa said,
“In the beginning I was depressed, especially when I missed my daughter and was worried about her future. But it’s been 10 years now. I am tougher. Now I want to finish my BA.”
Sirima, a 28-year-old university student arrested for possession of ecstasy, has been in jail for nine years. She began participating in Red Cross training courses in 2001. “I’ve learned to become more patient with strict rules and the life of a prisoner inside the walls. What I really get from the training is mental support,” she said.
Sirima wants to study Home Economics and one day opens a small nursery of her own. “With a 30-year jail sentence I was really hopeless,” recalled Sirima. “Before I thought I meant nothing and had no future.”
“We are often told by Red Cross youth trainers to think positively as we do have value and we can still contribute something to the prison here,” said Sirima. “I’ve learned that I must have a goal in life and not look back to the past.”