Hope behind bars
For several years now, I have been involved with the works of the Corrections Department. I am glad to report that the agency many take for granted has progressed in leaps and bounds in recent years, thanks to the strong determination and efforts of all officials involved. Gone are the days when prisoners were treated inhumanely or even abused and locked up simply to bide their time. Several self-improvement and training programmes have been initiated to help prepare them for the day they are released. And the success rate is one that we can very much take pride in.
As the last link of the justice chain, the department lies hidden in the twilight zone and there is practically no news of it unless there are prison breaks. But behind those formidable walls, things are changing rapidly for the better, though few may be aware of it.
The agency today upholds a philosophy that "people can change". Its two primary visions are to become outstanding in the area of treatment of offenders and to return productive citizens into the community. To achieve this means providing offenders with professional skills and rehabilitating them through meaningful and effective activities.
Under the supervision of former director-general Natti Jitsawang, the department has initiated several activities. Sports contests are held regularly among the prisoners, bringing both fun and joy to the inmates and their wardens.
In rare news reports, we catch a glimpse of the smiling faces of inmates, and their relatives beaming at the chance to see their loved ones engaging in sporting activities. Viewers too can't help but feel happy for them. At the very least, these people might come to realise that they are not worthless after all - not junk shunned by the society, and although they are locked up behind walls, they are not alone. They still have a chance and society has not deserted them.
Indeed, a miracle happened this year when the department, then under the head of Mr Natti, held boxing matches for male and female inmates.
Thanks to the department's determination to promote the sport by providing professional training, a female prisoner, who had served seven years of her 10-year term for dealing amphetamines, practised hard, with the ultimate aim of contesting for the world championship. Although she did not succeed the first time, neither she nor her trainers gave up.
On a makeshift ring at Khlong Prem Central Prison on April 3 this year, she beat Japanese contender Ayaka Miyano and won the World Boxing Council's women's light flyweight gold medal, the first for Thailand. It was only then that the world came to know Siriporn Taweessuk, alias Samson Sor Siriporn, a 24-year-old from Lop Buri, the world's first prisoner to win a world boxing title.
Apart from her personal dedication, the initiative of the department had everything to do with the victory.
Even after Mr Natti has gone, the Corrections Department continues to uphold its noble philosophy. It is as determined as ever to bring our fellow human beings who have gone astray back to a normal life. Its motto today is: control with the heart, correct with mercy and progress to international levels.
Although physically jails are not so far from the rest of the community, mentally there is a harsh line between the people inside and the rest of the society.
Apart from sports training, several other projects have been implemented to help change people who have gone astray to recognise their mistakes and return to society.
Starting in 1984, the department has encouraged prisoners to pursue their studies through its partnership with Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University. The prisoners can choose to study in 10 fields, including law, communication arts, economics, science and technology, and liberal arts.
The subject taken up by the most prisoners is law. From 1994 until 2005, 242 inmates graduated in this field, followed by management science (134), agricultural extension and cooperatives (120), communication arts (75), political science (63) and liberal arts. In all, as of 2005, 691 prisoners had completed their bachelor's degrees in prison.
The figures are something to be proud of, both for the endeavour of the prisoners themselves and the assistance provided by the department. These people should be able to start new lives after they are released.