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.
Then there is the curious case of whites, either Americans or Europeans. It is a tricky game the Thais play in these situations, because there are embassy officials involved, and the treatment of these prisoners is “supervised” to varying degrees. From Hoy’s account, the fact that there was an element of “accountability” involved is what saved his life. The man from the embassy who oversaw his case would bring him pre-packaged foods and various items, which at least kept him alive.
The prison food was so bad that the huge rat population would not even eat it. The inmates were fed twice a day some rice and “soup.” The rice was boll-weevil infested, and the soup was made out of remnants from a local slaughterhouse that were so hideous I will refrain from even describing it. Allow my previous mention of the fact that rats would not touch it to suffice as explanation of just how decayed and horrid the stuff was. All of the available water was basically untreated sewage.
Add to this the variety of tropical insects that festered in this environment, and you get an idea of how unbearable life must have been. Unless you had the money or the connections to acquire antibiotics, your time in a Thai prison was a slow, torturous death sentence.
Rotting In The Bangkok Hilton is “only” a 200-page book, which I thought would make for a quick read. Not so. I think what I have described so far makes it clear that the circumstances described are as unpleasant as one could possibly imagine. But there is another factor.
T. M. Hoy does not waste words. With almost every sentence, he slams home the points he has to make. The absence of long-winded paragraphs detailing the various situations completely works in this context. It is almost as if one of the most enduring maxims of prison life, “Save your energy,” has been applied to the writing of this book. The text is very tight, very raw, and very real.
After five years, Hoy was miraculously transferred via treaty to Federal prison in the United States, where he served another 11 years before release.
The publication of Rotting In The Bangkok Hilton will probably not change the conditions of Thai prisons, nor was it intended to. But it is without a doubt an eye-opening account of what actually goes on there, and an incredibly absorbing read.