A group of women, dressed in blue. Isolated from the outside world. And a little bird, free to fly out. Singer Anouk from The Netherlands once sang a strange song about birds. When I was in the prison for women, this song suddenly made sense.
As part of our activities, the women did a little performance. One of them carried a sign ‘HIV-infected’. Facing her with disgust, another woman took a step back and shivered. We all laughed about it. But in my heart, it made me cry. This time it was a performance, but outside prison it happens every day. Sometimes being yourself is wrong apparently.
Though the women seem happy when we visit them, their faces sometimes show something else. Some of the inmates are young, but look old and tired. Sometimes they smile, but seconds later they sadly stare at the sky. Their minds wander off, who knows what their futures will look like?
A small bird flew into the group and landed on the shoulder of a young woman. The woman told me proudly: “that’s our bird, we take care of it”. I watched how the bird flew to different women and made them smile for a while. It made me think of the song of Dutch singer Anouk. “Birds falling down the rooftops, out of the sky like raindrops. No air, no pride. That’s why birds don’t fly.” I never understood the lyrics, but now I do. When you have been a prisoner and you have HIV, you are considered amongst the lowest of Thai society. With no air and no pride, you are like a bird with one wing. Even your hope can turn into fear.
But hope is strong. And we come to prison to repair the other wing. We come to give back hope and dignity. We tell the women about their value, despite of their illness. We share God’s love and teach them self-confidence. And we hope that one day, when they are released from prison, they will spread out their wings and fly.
HIV in prison: an open secret
She cried: “Can you please call my old mom and tell her I miss her?” Over 2000 women are being kept in the Correctional Institution in Patum Thani Thailand, mainly because of drugs. A lot of them feel ashamed of being in prison and never told their families where they are. They just ‘disappeared’, leaving their families without a clue. This week we paid our first visit to this prison, where we will support HIV-infected woman.
“We started to work in the Correctional Institution this week”, tells Siam-Care’s staff members Ongard. “The prison staff had heard of Siam-Care from other prisons that we work in and wanted us to help them out. All inmates had to do a blood test for HIV/AIDS before we came, even if they did not want to. Some of the women just found out that they are infected a couple minuts before we visited them. The impact on their lives is huge and thankfully we could help them immediately. The women were scared and had a lot of questions: “Will I die? Can I still eat beef?” We gave information about health and living with their infection. Most of the women feel lonely in prison and felt cheered up after we visited them. Especially because we brought them donuts; they are not used to specials treats like that anymore. When you’re in a difficult position small things can give you hope, like aomeone who simply listens to your story or even a donut.
Fighting for the future Coming months we’ll keep visiting the inmates. We usually start with some recreational games, to break the ice. In the meanwhile we will tell them how to use their medicines. The first time the infected women had to come to the hospital, other prisoners looked at them through the bars. Hence everyone in prison knows about their health status. That is why the women feel very exposed and vulnerable. They see themselves as sick and infectious and have a negative self image and low self esteem.. Due to your donations we are able to help them. You enable us to change the attitude of these women towards HIV/AIDS. We want the women to feel confident and show them that they still have a future. Because hope for the future, gives new energy to fight for it. And that can make a big difference in their lives.
This is the story of Chai. He is a 50 year old farmer from a small city near Bangkok with 3 children: Chok (14), Leng (9) and Boss (5). Chai’s father was a farmer as well and so was Chai’s grandfather. A couple years ago an awefull accident changed Chai’s life forever.
Chai was driving his car to pick up his children when he crashed. He broke his backbone and ended up in a wheelchair. Hence he couldn’t work as a farmer any more. He was despirate and didn’t know how to support his family any longer. Then a friends offered him a solution: if Chai would deliver some drugs for him, he would pay all of his bills. And so it happened. Unfortunately it took a turn for the worse and Chai got caught by the police and ended up in jail.
Wife died because of HIVThis happened in 2004, Chai is in jail for 10 years already. He won’t be released in another 15 years. About 6 years ago Chai suddenly started feeling sick and found out he was HIV-positive. And so was his wife, who was still taking care of their children back then. She died 3 years ago. Chai had more luck: the medication made him feel better and now he doesn’t feel sick anymore, though he is still infected.
Share dreamsSiam-Care visites Chai twice a month in the Klongprem prison in Bangkok. We teached him how to take his medication and how to take good care of himself. Also we talk with him about his future and his dreams. We cannot bring his wife back and we cannot release him from prison. But we can accompany him in taking his medicin and taking care of his sick body. No one else will do, unfortunately. But for Chai our help makes a big difference. There is someone from outsite prison who he can talk to and share his experiences with. We are glad that, due to your donations, we can make a difference for people like Chai. Please continue supporting our work, for without your help Chai will be al alone. We use donations to buy basic supplies like soap and tooth brushes for the inmates and we use it to pay for the salary of our prison worker. So again: without your help, we cannot help Chai any longer.
Last Wednesday the prison staff invited us to visit them more often. You need to know that we are the only NGO in Bangkok that is allowed to go into the hospital section of the prison. Just once a month. But if we are allowed to go twice a month we can build better relations with the prisoners. And that is really important. An example what will affirm this, is the story of Derek.
DerekWe just met him for the first time. It is easy for our English speaking colleagues to talk with him because he speaks English. He is from Nigeria, and sentenced for dealing drugs. After they found out he was HIV positive he had to go to the prison hospital. He tells us that the circumstances in the prison are unbearable. The hospital section is a bit better. He also tells us that he feels very lonely. Because he is from Nigeria he does not speak any Thai, while his inmates only speak Thai. He is so happy he can talk to us in his own language.
HIV medicinsWe talked about HIV medicines. Because some of the prisoners do not know anything about medication, our guest speaker first explains the basics. He interacts with the inmates about what sort of infections they have besides HIV and the side effect of the medication. After that there is still time to talk about other things. The prisoners are asked to sit together and draw a picture of their ideal future. Most of them made pictures of the rural areas of Thailand, with a house, wife and some cattle.
Throwing your dreams awayWhen they are finished they are asked to tear up the drawing. They obey and there is nothing left of the drawings. We ask them why they tear up their dreams. Only because we tell them? We want them to always remember that whatever they are told to do, they should keep their hopes and dreams. Having dreams is important. It is the way to survive.
(For security reasons the names used in this article are not real.)
“My name is Joseph and I’m from Liberia. The last 6 months have been the most terrifying months in my live. I’ve been so stupid to smuggle drugs to Thailand. I was desperate for money and then you do unwise things sometimes. I got caught by the police and ended up in one of the most notorious prisons worldwide: The Bangkwan Central Prison in Bangkok.”
“In the Bangkok Hilton – a nickname for Bangkwan Central Prison – you have very little space for yourself. I share my room with about 30 other prisoners. We even take turns sleeping for there is not enough room to sleep at the same time. Did I tell you already we don’t have a toilet in our cell? You won’t be surprised that after a couple of weeks I started to feel weaker. After visiting the prison doctor and waiting for the results, I discovered something awful: I was Hiv-positive.”
On one speaks English“Of course I was shocked by the news. They immediately transported me to the prison hospital where I at least had my own bed. But all the other inmates were Thai en no one could tell me what I should do. The nurse gave me some basic information about my medication but I didn’t quite understand what she was telling me. Thankfully the nurse told me about Siam-Care. This NGO visits the prison hospital twice a month. I was very happy to see them for the first time; finally someone who spoke English and could tell me more about my infection.”
More knowledge about Hiv “I spoke with one of the staff members of Siam-Care for quite a long time. He gave me more information about Hiv and about how and when I should take my medication. He also explained why it is so important for me to take my medication. I know a lot more about Hiv and that gives me more peace. Of course my situation is still very bad and I’m not even sure how much longer I need to stay in prison. It might be 20 more years. But at least I know there is someone I can talk to about my situation, someone who’s really listening. Siam-Care has been a great help for me in prison and I’m definitely more relax now.”
Would you help us to keep on supporting people like Joseph? Please donate money, so that we are able to keep on hiring someone to visit the prison hospital as much as possible.
(For security reasons the names used in this article are not real.)
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