On May 24th, 2018, I attended the final art class for prisoners of Klongpai Central Prison, a high security prison in Thailand. Around fifty-five prisoners participated in the two and half month long art program designed to help inmates build skills and contribute to their quality of life. This was my first time in a prison and we were restricted to the educational area created for inmates.
This area of the massive prison compound had gardens, a library and an outside area where the inmates, sitting cross-legged on the floor, worked on their art pieces. Because it was the last day of the art classes, the art teachers instructed the inmates to do draw or paint whatever they chose instead of the specific projects assigned to them throughout the course. As the inmates began to draw or paint on the floor, it was easy to forget that we were within a “super max” prison designed for drug offenders and violent criminals. Many of the men were covered in tattoos from head to toe with some who had face tattoos. This intimidating sight was contrasted by the fact that many of the men seemed shy about their art while they joked around and teased each other.
We interviewed several inmates who all talked about how positive their experience in the program had been and how they were proud to have participated. There was a wide range of abilities ranging from the very beginner to some truly talented artists. As one inmate sulked about how his drawing didn’t turn out the way he had hoped and another inmate painted his friend’s head, it felt more like an elementary school art class than a state prison. After the inmates had finished their pieces, the Department of Corrections officers presented participants with a certificate and as they viewed their certificates the participants beamed with pride. It was only when, out of the corner of my eye, I would see uniformed officials carrying three-foot long bamboo sticks that I would remember we were in a prison setting.
At the end of the day the inmates were lined up and counted and then marched back to their prison cells and I wondered what their every day conditions were like.
It made me conscious that, despite whatever crime they had committed, it was important that inmates were given as many chances for rehabilitation as possible and that they were treated with dignity.