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Tourists lift British inmates’ spirits at Thai prison

Bangkok — Julian Gilbey bounds along the corridor of the so-called "Bangkok Hilton" with a sweaty face and a wide grin, excited by the rare treat of contact with the outside world after seven years behind bars.

"Sorry I’m late, I’ve been exercising," said the 42-year-old Briton — convicted of heroin smuggling by a Thai court in 2002 — as he peers through a thick glass pane and two sets of iron bars in a prison visiting area.

While this is no obvious tourist site, visits to inmates have become popular in recent years, with visitors ranging from curious young travellers to charitable retired foreigners living in the city.

Gilbey is one of a number of foreign inmates at Bangkwang jail, Thailand’s most notorious prison, who has benefited from the visits arranged by the British embassy in tandem with a group of committed expatriates.

"They understand it’s not so easy, they bring some shopping. It can make a real difference to your month," says the former gas engineer, one of 100-130 Britons in Thai prisons at any one time.

He has unsuccessfully appealed twice against his life sentence and will be repatriated later this year, he said, and re-sentenced under British law, but for now he welcomes any visitors.

"Some definitely come in to tick it off their list of things to do but it’s still welcome. There are always a few crazies who have been on a bender, woken up in a bar and decided to come. But it’s better than nothing," Gilbey said.

The group that works with the embassy to arrange the visits is headed by 62-year-old British retiree Gale Bailey, who says she was "hooked" after her first trip to Bangkwang four years ago.

"I just felt I had to go again, a weird feeling," she said. "They have already been judged, haven’t they? So I’m not judging them. I’m so anti-drugs but I don’t actually think about that. They don’t ask for pity, just to someone to be a friend."

She is helped by Katherine Biggs, another retired Briton, who says they are just providing friendship on a regular basis.

"They would talk to us probably a lot more than they would talk to (the consular staff). They are probably a lot more relaxed with us, they see us like surrogate mums," said Biggs, also 62. "Communication is one of the big things. And that’s where we come in. We will send messages back to families. Keeping in contact is very, very important to them.”

Many potential volunteers are put in touch with the group by the British embassy, where pro-consul Jeff Mitchell says they can get five or six casual walk-ins a week, often backpackers.

"A lot of them are quite young and it is quite hip, and the Lonely Planet mentions it. There are some posters up in the Khao San Road area (Bangkok’s tourist haven) trying to recruit would-be visitors," he said. "Some of these backpackers turn up inappropriately dressed, in vest, shorts, flip flops, some of them turn up drunk."

Conditions in Thai prisons are not always as bad as they are reputed to be, he said, adding: "We have a prison transfer scheme, and many of our prisoners choose not to transfer to the UK, which says quite a lot really."

Most of the British prisoners receive financial support from their families, he said.

"Some of these prisoners have their own masseuse, they get people to do their laundry, they have a cook for them. It’s just like another village inside a wall, and people with most money get the most benefits," he said.

While some prisoners encounter problems caused by their lack of local language skills, boredom is one of their biggest enemies while in Bangkwang — which is why visitors who "break the day up" are so much appreciated.

"You just have to buy a loaf of bread, a cup of coffee, a carton of cigarettes — you can actually make someone elated for a day," he said.

Gilbey, the inmate, agrees: "It’s a break from the monotony. Inside everything is the same. You do the same thing day in, day out. It’s nice to have a break."

Rachel O’Brien/AFP/Expatica