A Man with a Flashlight

Susan Aldous interview part 1

Our conversation with the the recently-published prison rights activist begins! Uncut, uncensored, unplugged. Here goes.

Hi Susan,

No problem, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for the blog, I consider it quite an honor. Here are the first questions I have for you, just respond however they strike you:

Thanks Jonathan, kind words for sure. Yes, I’ll just sort of free fall here and see what comes out.

The book tells your life story. Reading it, I was struck by how far- fetched and unpredictable your journey has been. Can you say something about what guided you to Thailand, and to the work you do now?

Surely my life sounds bizarre and totally unpredictable and especially if you know me personally, you’d realize just how incredible that is. I like to do the daring, crazy and adventurous, but I am a deeply pragmatic person who also appreciates a bit of stability so these two sides sort of play themselves off against each other and then final mix comes out to be some significant care giving.
My work, I believe it to be nothing short of a calling and my passion, the thing that I was born to do. I knew from a very early age that I needed to make a difference and searched for it in all the wrong places until at 16 the challenge came to “give my life away instead of throwing it away” and a volunteer calling ensued. My work has taken me to 18 countries over the past 30 years, most of which have been in Thailand.
I’d been in SEA for almost 5 years, I’d visited Thailand a few times, and I was working on shipments of donated goods for refugees along the Thai Cambodian border so I had links. For some time I fought with myself over moving to Thailand, I knew I was supposed to, but worked to drown out those thoughts when they pestered me. I think I was afraid as I sensed that such a move was going to change my life drastically. Eventually, those inner whispers were becoming relentless and deafening, additionally, circumstances provided an opportunity to visit and I could no longer fight what was happening or was supposed to happen—so I went with the flow.
I believe in destiny, I believe in choice and when they work in unison, well miracles burst forth. Little did I know what lay ahead and what an adventure it has been so far!

I’ve been trying to think of a way to sum up the charity work you’ve done, and it hasn’t been easy. You have worked in hospitals with paralyzed and dying patients; in prisons with murderers, rapists, and drug traffickers; in hospitals for pregnant women with HIV; and much else. What ties it all together?

The heart strings of love tie it all together, the desire to make a difference and crazy Don Quixote like spirit. I go through any open door that I feel right about, I go for short periods, long periods or one offs…I just go, I do and I follow the leadings that come to me. Some projects I work on for years, others are as simple as a few hours spent with a single person. But the common thread is compassion and caring being bought to a needy world and a desire to be a part of the solution instead of the problem.

I’m struck by the fact that you haven’t done much political agitation or lobbied to change government policies in Thailand. Is this a fair statement? What made you choose this focus on addressing problems “one life at a time,” instead of at the level of government policies?

If we can change one life, then we change a very significant part of the world and naturally that starts with ourselves. If I can inspire one person, he or she may be a Gandhi or a Mother Teresa in the making, or perhaps a politician who can change laws and a country’s outlook on life and the wellbeing of its citizens. I work by sample, I let that speak and I do believe that through my consistent actions I have made significant changes and affected officials to do more to care for their own. At least some feedback tells me this.
The media has been great and due to good coverage there has been changes wrought and folk spurred into action as well. Additionally, there have been times in which I have put pressure on individuals or organizations and in a small degree, some governments and government bodies. However, it’s the one on one I often work with and that’s where I feel I can have the greatest impact.

Prison life is hard anywhere, but in Thailand it’s particularly gruelling. For those who haven’t read your book yet, tell us a little about the experience of prisoners there, both Thai and foreign.

Ha, Jonathan…now that’d take a book, it did and in fact, I could not even begin to cover all the experiences and heartbreak that one meets when hearing of inmates stories. Suffice it to say though, life in a Thai jail is basically hopeless. You can endure difficult situations, deprivation, cruelty, indifference, rejection, injustice and the likes if you know there is an end in sight. But when you have to think of enduring such things for 50 years or the rest of your life…well, where do you go in your head to cope? Where is the place of escape in your mind?
It’s a walking death at times, a constant struggle full of despair with no way out, up, over or around it. Many folk fluctuate between wondering through their sentences like lost souls to flamboyantly contriving unrealistic plans and expectations of how they will bring about their own releases, both poles being futile. It’s heartbreaking, and juxtaposed against such a dark background, there is nothing as joyful as watching a man walk through those gates to freedom.
There are so many nonsensical variables to deal with as well. For example, murderers and rapists will often get out before drug cases. Some countries have exchange treaties so that their inmates can go home and serve some time in their own countries. This could translate anywhere between 4-8 plus years in Bangkwang and then home for however long the home country deems it fit that you serve. And again this home sentence varies so dramatically. If you are from the UK, you serve 2/3rds of your sentence in a maximum security horrible prison back in freezing England. If you went home on a life sentence, you’d serve less than someone who went home with 50 years. Life is natural life in Thailand and it’s about 20 in the UK. So you pray for a life sentence versus a numbered sentence if you are going to use the exchange system. It’s inconsistently crazy. The American returnees may serve bout 3 months in a detention center and then you are out on parole. Very few re-offend either. Australia is yet another deal as are the European nations. Then there is poor Nigeria, some inmates get out right away and others because they are sent to state prison serve incredible amount of years after their return in prisons worse than Bangkwang. And all, for the most part, small amounts of drugs which would not have warranted long sentences or even any sentence in their own countries.
Even if life looks like a complete free for all, anything goes, fair, you’d have to be crazy to do/courier/sell/get near drugs in Thailand.

Thailand seems to contain all the contradictions surrounding drugs in modern society. On the one hand, it’s famous among young people for wild full-moon parties which feature the consumption of every drug known to man, if the tales are true. On the other hand, Thailand’s laws on drug use are extremely strict. Drug traffickers can be sentenced to death, and in a nation-wide drug crackdown in 2003, police shot dead over a thousand suspects, in what many view as executions without trial. You write about experimenting with drugs as a teenager, and you were married for a time to Garth Hattan, a man you met while he was serving a heroin-trafficking sentence in Bangkok’s Bang Kwang prison. What is your view on the international war on drugs?

Don’t even get me started Jonathan…
I do not use drugs anymore, I am higher now than I have ever been and it’s totally natural so I am not speaking from a need to party view point. I do not like what a negative use of drugs can do to people, their lives, their families and societies resources; I do drink a bit, but also hate what alcohol can do to folk and again the world in which we live. However, it’s all in the user and the reasons behind their use of whatever substance that determines whether it be a good or a bad thing.
I feel some of the big drug companies and their dealer doctors are the worst blood sucking criminals on the face of the earth, and arms dealers aren’t my favorite folk either by the way, ha! Medicine also has a good place in our society, but when it’s brought down to the level of billions of dollars in profit as being the goal, then it’s wrong and especially when it’s prescribed by your friendly GP to finance his trip to Barbados, forget it…and forget the guy who selfishly wants to get a bit of cash as well off the backs of junkies—both are selfishly plundering the lives of those they have no right to.
Amazing when governments or big companies deal drugs or guns, it’s ok, aye? Hmm, not right and neither is the war on drugs…it’s a bunch of rubbish and a joke. Some folk may really be sincere in trying to suppress the production and sales of illegal substances, but it’s a lost war, a waste of time as there is much corruption in the whole money making façade that if they, the smaller law enforcement individuals or a few naive politicians, really do a sincere job they are at risk of ‘disappearing’ or being sacked. I could go on forever citing why I feel many substances should be legalized and why the war on drugs is a lie, but we don’t have time for that today…in short, it’s not working anyway and it’s highly hypocritical and many lives are also destroyed in the process.
If only we could all learn to really care for each other and take responsibility for our actions then the need for a war on drugs would be a moot point. Greed, self destruction and profiting by another’s demise are ugly in all and any field. Be they legal or illegal!
I guess you can see that I am never going to run for Mayor, ha!

Thanks again for your interest in this. When you’re through with these, I’ll send the next batch through.


Cheers, take care,

There is some back-and-forth still to come in parts 2 and 3, so please do send in any questions you’d like me to squeeze in. And thanks very much to Susan for spending this time with us.

Susan Aldous’ new book is The Angel of Bang Kwang Prison, published last month by Maverick House. Maverick House also published the memoir of Chavoret Jaruboon, Thailand’s last prison executioner, The Last Executioner.

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[…] writers, The East The last round of questions with our favorite Thai prison activist. Read Part 1 and Part 2. And check out Susan’s new book. It’s an eye-opening look at prison life in […]

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