Published: 3 Feb 2013 at 00.00 Newspaper section: Spectrum
Writer: Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai
Facing societal discrimination, many transgenders have found unexpected liberation and acceptance in prisons. While the reality on the inside remains grim for most, 'Spectrum' spoke to and read letters from former and current inmates as well as rights activists who say that an absence of bars should not be mistaken for freedom
'I am writing to let you know that I am doing great. Even though 10 years sounds like a long time ... I am enjoying every moment of my time here."
It reads almost like a postcard, yet it is anything but; rather it is an excerpt taken from a letter sent by a ladyboy currently serving time in Phuket Provincial Prison.
Bee (not her real name) is in the prison on drug-related charges.
Prisoners there are not allowed to have direct contact with anyone other than immediate family. But Spectrum was shown a revealing set of letters by one of Bee's good friends on the outside.
Mee, also a ladyboy, used to receive letters from Bee each month. Initially the letters were pessimistic about her future, but after about three months the tone changed dramatically and Bee began writing of how she'd found comfort in her new life behind bars.
"Bee went to prison for a drug related offence a couple of years ago. She was sentenced to 10 years. At first we [friends and family] were all worried about how she would survive in there; we weren't sure if she would be safe or be able to adapt to prison life," Mee said.
"Bee used to write me a long letter once a month telling me how her life was. But I don't receive them that often any more. The latest one she sent me mentioned how her life had changed, and I was pleased to hear that."
In the letter, Bee wrote about the happiness she had found in her new life.
"You wouldn't believe how my world has turned upside-down. I remember how we [ladyboys] were treated with no respect in the outside world. But in prison, we're accepted and recognised," she wrote.
"All the ladyboys here live together with male prisoners. They don't separate us ... I felt intimidated at first, but that's not the case any more.
"Outside prison, people look at us like we're part of a freak show and treat us like criminals. They judge us even before they know us. But in here, male prisoners treat us like queens. We get a lot of respect and people want to talk with us."
LOVE BEHIND BARS
Andaman Power is a Phuket-based group that works directly with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the area. The group helps educate LGBT people who work in Phuket's night entertainment venues about safe sex, and gives them access to regular health checks and medical treatment.
Sompol "Vicky" Sitthiwatch, the group's vice-president, said Bee's case was not unique.
"I have heard many cases of ladyboys who've found happiness in prison. Personally, I think many of the ladyboys who are in prison feel liberated even though they have lost many of their personal freedoms. They feel free to be themselves, free to live and free to think, and get more respect from other people," she said.
Behind bars, love and romance is not unusual between male inmates and ladyboy inmates.
''I know of several cases where transgender inmates have found long-term partners inside prison. I think this is why many ladyboys who have been released try to find a way to be sent back to prison again, because their lives are happier there,'' Ms Sompol said.
''I have often asked myself how a person can enjoy being in prison where everything is restricted, and I believe the answer is clear _ ladyboys feel they are more respected as human beings in prison.
''I am a ladyboy myself, and I have been through a lot. Even though I have never been involved with the sex trade, the drug trade or other criminal activities, I feel that there is a strong issue of discrimination against people like us.
''There are people who do bad things all over the world, but people shrug it off as normal. But if those criminal activities are conducted by a ladyboy, the issue seems to be highlighted.
''There is a saying among my ladyboy friends that 'When a ladyboy falls, they make more noise than a straight person would.'''
THE TOURIST TRAP
Patong, particularly around Soi Bangla, is Phuket's most thriving nightlife destination, home to dozens of resorts, nightclubs, entertainment venues and restaurants. The area draws millions of tourists every year.
But with more tourists comes more trouble.
''Many people get robbed every day here in Patong. If the robbery is committed by a straight person, it seems to fly under the radar. If it's a ladyboy though, it becomes a big issue.''
Several years ago, Kathu police station, which oversees Patong, implemented a policy to register all ladyboys who work in the night entertainment industry. ''They believe ladyboys are troublemakers and need to be managed somehow,'' Ms Sompol said.
''As the leader of an LGBT group in Phuket, I couldn't accept this. This was clearly a case of discrimination. Only ladyboys were being forced to register. Those who did not were considered illegal and not allowed to work in Patong.
''After we raised this issue with police, the situation improved. Now everyone who works in the night entertainment industry _ regardless of gender _ is asked to register to avoid any undesired problems.''
Everyone in Patong who works after hours is required to register for a colour-coded card. Blue cards are used to identify male workers, and pink cards for females and ladyboys.
''The colour-coded cards are called 'passports' by people in the industry. People who have it are legal, while those who don't have may face fines of up to 1,000 baht,'' Ms Sompol says. ''With all this discrimination from people in society, I believe this is why ladyboys feel safer in prison.''
Kathu police inspector Nikorn Chuthong worked in Patong for many years, and admitted there is a perception that ladyboys are responsible for a disproportionate number of crimes.
''We started this campaign by registering only ladyboys first, because they seemed to be the group most frequently involved with criminal activities in this area,'' he said.
But he said the campaign was never intended to be discriminatory _ there was always an aim to get everyone registered, it was simply a matter of starting with the worst offenders first.
''It took quite some time for us to register all the ladyboys. Then we moved on to female and male workers. Now everyone who works here must be registered,'' he said.
''This policy was also part of the Patong Safety Zone project that we launched this year. We just want all tourists who come here to feel safe. If anything bad happens, we now have records of everyone and can trace them easily.''
Pol Lt Col Nikorn conceded that ladyboys probably receive an unfair reputation for criminal behaviour. ''I think the reason people think ladyboys are dangerous is because of the media. Stories are always more interesting if the main person involved is a ladyboy.
''I notice that many of the ladyboys who get arrested are usually the same faces. They get arrested, released, and they come back and do the same thing again. But although this does seem strange, I don't accept that there are people who would rather stay in prison than outside,'' he said.
Som (not her real name) is a 21-year-old ladyboy originally from Nong Khai province. She now works as a freelance sex worker on Soi Bangla.
She has served one month in Phuket Prison for stealing personal belongings from a foreign customer.
''I dropped out of school and came to Phuket when I was 18. I heard from my friend that ladyboys are more accepted here and I can actually make a living. I applied for a job at many places, but no one wanted to hire me. So I became a freelance entertainer on the street,'' Som said.
''I went to prison for stealing a gold necklace from one guy I went out with. I was in need of money at the time and I couldn't earn it any other way. I ended up in prison for a month and I have to say it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.
''In prison, male inmates never made fun of me. People in prison respected me and made me feel like a real lady.
''It was a strange place, where obviously most people don't want to be, but for me it was not that bad. Of course, I don't want to be in prison. But if I have to go back at some point, I wouldn't mind.''
INTO THE MIX
At the Phuket Provincial Prison, inmates who identify themselves as transgender and have already undergone gender reassignment surgery are put in the same area with female inmates.
Prison chief Rapin Nichanon says prisoners who identify themselves as ladyboys and still have male sexual organs are kept with the male inmates.
''We treat them no differently than any other male inmates. They are required to cut their hair short,'' he said.
Chief Rapin agreed that many of the ladyboys inside the prison may have some sense of satisfaction at being accepted in a jail community.
''The male inmates may think that ladyboys are the closest thing to a woman they can find in prison, and the number of male inmates is much higher than the number of ladyboy inmates.
''For this reason, ladyboy inmates are given a lot of attention by male inmates. We never encourage this kind of activity but we don't stop it from happening either since it is human nature and it is not against the law.
''We have no policy to separate ladyboy inmates from male inmates. First of all, we don't have enough room to do that. Our prison can handle 800 prisoners, but we currently house around 2,000. I also think the prisoners prefer to live this way,'' he said.
Some transgender inmates in other parts of the country have complained of sexual harassment and verbal and physical abuse suffered while behind bars. Excerpts from inmates' letters published in a Prachatai article in August last year detail being forced to strip in front of others, being subject to constant heckling and verbal and physical aggression by other inmates.
Responding to concerns over such abuses, the Corrections Department issued an edict to all prisons throughout Thailand stating that post-op transgender prisoners must be sent to a segregated area at Klong Prem Central Prison once court proceedings in the areas where they committed their crimes were complete.
While their court proceedings are under way, post-op transgender inmates stay in isolated cells or hospital wards within their prisons.
Corrections Department deputy director Kobkiat Kasiwiwat said that prisoner safety was the main reason for the move.
''We separate post-op transgender people from other male inmates to keep them from being raped,'' he said of the situation at Klong Prem.
Mr Kobkiat said that while there are no exact statistics, he estimated that transgender inmates account for about 5% of Thailand's overall prison.
Suma, 45, a retired ladyboy sex worker in Pattaya, explained how prison affected her life.
''Ten years ago my life turned upside-down. I was arrested by police for using drugs while I was with my customer. So I went to Pattaya Remand Prison where I served one year and six months. It may sound horrible, but I was actually not unhappy there.
''I have already had the operation, so physically I am all female. They put me in the nursing ward with other post-op transgenders and some other HIV-infected inmates. However, that was only where we slept.
During the day, I went into the men's area where we had career training from Monday to Friday. On weekends, we were allowed into the men's area for leisure activities. Instead of attending the regular activities, ladyboy inmates took the chance on weekends to sell ourselves for sex just like when we were outside.
''Just imagine; there were close to 200 ladyboy inmates and more than 2,000 male inmates. I did not get to have a boyfriend like other inmates who serve longer sentences, but I did get to do what I do best which is to have sex for money.
''Inside the prison, money is not allowed. So I received payment in cigarettes. Each time I sold myself, I got 10 to 30 packs of cigarettes. Then I could trade cigarettes for money with the prison guards later. For one carton of cigarettes [10 packs per carton] I got 600 baht.
''During the 18 months I was in prison, I made at least 60,000 baht. I actually made more, but I gave a lot of cigarettes to my friend in the prison. He needed the money more than I did. Another friend who served about 10 years in prison walked out with one million baht in her account. It all came from being a prostitute inside the prison, but the sad part was that she contracted HIV there too.
''Out of 10 ladyboy inmates who went to prison, three came out without HIV. I was lucky not to be infected. Condoms were very hard to find there.
''If you ask me about my experience in prison, I would say I felt OK with it. It wasn't as scary as people think. Part of it was because I felt like a movie star inside _ everybody liked me, everybody wanted me and I could do anything there. There is no place like that in the world outside. In terms of acceptance, I felt more like a human being than I did outside of the prison.''
IT'S A MAN AND WOMAN'S WORLD
Jetsada 'Note' Taesombat is the coordinator of the Thai Transgender Alliance (Thai TGA), which was established in 2010 to promote the rights of transgender people in Thailand.
Ms Jetsada said rules and regulations in Thailand are created only to support male and female genders.
''I am not only talking about gender discrimination in prison, but the issue is spread across all institutions in Thailand such as school, the military, or even hospitals. All places in our society are divided based on sexual organs, not gender preference,'' she said.
According to the Foundation for Sogi (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) Rights and Justice, transgender people are faced with rates of violence as high as 38.4 %, higher than any others in the LGBT group.
''Thai society is like a big prison that is designed for males and females only. This big cage is used for locking away freedom of thought and the right to express one's individuality,'' Ms Jetsada said.
''Our society recognises only male and female as the two genders. Social construction in Thailand frames us to think people who are different are wrong. Those who are different have no freedom to express who they are,'' she said.
''There are special sections in Klong Prem Central Prison that are reserved for ladyboys. But still, transgender people there feel like they have been neglected and abandoned.
''On the other hand, many ladyboy inmates in Phuket Provincial Prison feel happy being inside. I think this is a reflection of our society. I don't believe that there are people truly are happy by being inside the prison. I think what those people try to say is that they feel more accepted and people there value ladyboys as human beings.''
Ms Jetsada said it was time for the government to reconsider the public corrections system. ''They need to focus not only on reforming prisoners, but also on ensuring they can fit back in with society once they are released. No matter what the gender of the person, they should have the right to reserve their pride and dignity as an individual.''
BY THE NUMBERS
There are 1,798 male inmates in Phuket Provincial Prison. Of those, 87 are pre-op ladyboys, while two have had gender reassignment surgery.
An officer from the prison's registry department said that ladyboys are mixed in with male inmates, sleeping in the same cells and sharing the same common area. Those who have had the surgery are also housed with the men, though they sleep in a separate segregated cell.
Nationwide, the Corrections Department says that as of Dec 1 there were 209,776 male and 37,919 female inmates in prisons nationwide. Ladyboys are counted among the men by the department, with only individual prisons distinguishing between them and the rest of the male population.