As the title Rotting In The Bangkok Hilton: The Gruesome True Story of a Man Who Survived Thailand’s Deadliest Prison indicates, this book is not for the faint of heart. Author T. M. Hoy made what he now terms “A tragic mistake” in not reporting a murder that a friend of his committed in 1995. For this, he was given a life sentence. Before he was given a treaty-transfer and remanded to a Federal prison in the United States, he spent five years in two Thai prisons, the Chiang Mai Remand, and Bang Kwang.
I guess in a way it was a morbid sense of curiosity that led me to pick this book up, wondering just how bad life in a third-world prison would be. As Hoy describes it, it was sheer hell. I do not think I would have lasted more than six months there.
The book plunges right in to just how bad it was with the first chapter, “My Death Haiku.” The haiku was composed at a point when Hoy had completely given up, and accepted the fact that he would die in the prison. There is no preamble, no “I was framed” excuses; we are instantly put into the mind-set of a man who truly feels as if he will not survive much longer, and there is literally nothing he can do about it.
It is a powerful beginning, but then Hoy describes the Thai prisons in fascinating detail. For one thing, there is the strange class system. At the very lowest end of the spectrum were the “Hill People.” These are Thai peasants whose lives were worth less than nothing. Most are illiterate, poverty-stricken men (the women were housed separately), who were caught as “mules” transporting heroin.
They are offered (what was to them) big money to smuggle the drug out of the Golden Triangle, but these people are completely out of their league in this game. Customs agents spot them as if they had bulls-eyes on their backs. They are nervous, and totally out of place traveling in first-class with their shabby clothes. It sounds as if it were like shooting fish in a barrel for the agents. Inside, the Hill People are treated as literal slaves. Their family has no money to bribe the guards to get them any preferential treatment. So they are assigned the hardest jobs in the prison until they drop dead.
According to Hoy, bribery and graft are the name of the game, and for prisoners who have access to any money, life is a little easier. They are able to purchase edible foods, and other basics. Their existence is slightly mitigated by this, but is by no means pleasant.