There are a few hundred foreign inmates amongst almost six thousand Thai prisoners at Bangkwang Central Prison, serving long-term sentences, or whom are on death row. The retribution of foreign prisoners is two fold: while they are serving out their convictions, they are unwittingly subjected to a unique type of segregation by default. In a foreign land, amidst a foreign language, under foreign customs and within a foreign justice system, these persons bear the cumbersome weight of unfamiliarity, breeding a deepened sense of isolation, hopelessness and devaluation.
For foreign inmates, Bangkwang can be a place where the human will and spirit faces its biggest challenge: to remain intact. Inmates commonly succumb to depression, psychological disorders, suicide, and sometimes –ironically- to addictions to the very vices that landed them there.
With the exception of family and loved ones, this population is easily forgotten from the outside. But for Heather Luna-Rose, Executive Director and founder of Luna-Rose Prisoner Support (LRPS), that world remains connected to this one.
The Canadian non-profit has worked tirelessly for the past nine years providing support visitations, counseling, financial assistance, tangible support (such as food and other necessities that prisoners must fund themselves), lobbying and advocacy.
Her mandate was born of the understanding in the flaws of retribution: absolute punishment is dehumanizing, devaluing, and ultimately detrimental to society as a whole. An avid social justice activist equipped with vast experience and credentials in critical pedagogy, violence prevention and humanitarian action, Heather has also worked extensively with facilitated arts and creativity-based workshops, aiming to empower marginalized communities such as those in Bangkwang.
In so doing, she’s faced a myriad of challenges, but years of fostering trust and relationships within some of Bangkok’s prison systems has permitted her access otherwise denied to outsiders. This past February, her continued work at Bangkwang was united with another promising cause.
For the past four years, Art for All, a Thai non-profit organization whose mission is to offer free art instruction to underprivileged populations was granted permission to offer an art program to a few dozen Thai inmates at Bangkwang. As an exercise in rehabilitation, the art program essentially brought color into an achromatic life, both literally and figuratively. The classes have played an integral part in nurturing creativity and inspiring expression, allowing an opportunity for personal transformation rather than simply vying to exist.
Aside from personal works, this year the inmates are creating a mural project on the inside wall of Bangkwang, providing a positive return on the art program as it continues to shed light on the benefit of creativity-based programs. The program provides a means of quelling the deteriorating effects of imprisonment by re-establishing self-worth, which has a direct effect on mental and emotional states, and subsequently the status of the prison population.
Many inmates cite the lack of mental stimulation as one of the greatest challenges in incarceration. As of 2012, visitors were prohibited from bringing in items such as clothing, food, toiletries, medicines, and most notably, books, magazines and similar materials. Computers and cell phones are prohibited. Consequently, there are limited avenues of mental reprieve and emotional release. Each day can undertake a monotonous rhythm as incarceration leaves little room for inflection even in the most mundane of daily rituals (of which there are very few). As such, life inside becomes a battle against being broken, and it’s a battle that many lose.
Since the art program’s inception, only one foreign inmate has been permitted to participate. Felix Cheremnykh is an Ukranian whom came to Bangkwang on a death sentence. Felix was not an artist in his life before incarceration. At his trial, he did not speak, read or write any Thai and was not afforded a translator. In his cell, he created a defense document of stick figure drawings, taking responsibility for his crime in the form of picture versions of the events. He was sentenced to the death penalty, but has since received a reduction to 40 years due to his ‘Excellent Class’ status, and several King’s amnesties over the dozen years he’s been incarcerated.
To fill his time, Felix began sketching evocative scenes of prison life on any materials he could acquire or donated supplies from LRPS. Crude drawings eventually gave way to impressive sketches that did not go unnoticed. After considerable appealing, and likely due to Felix’s ‘Excellent Class’ status, Felix was allowed to join. His self-taught talent earned him the chance to formally present his work to the Prime Minster Yingluck Shinawatra during her visit last year.
Heather has been a familiar face from the outside for Felix (his family is financially unable to visit him), and she has exhibited and sold his artwork in Canada, putting 100% of the proceeds back into his prison account. One year the sales of his artwork totaled $2900, allowing Felix to not only support himself inside prison (inmates must purchase their own food, clothing, toiletries, etc.) but also send money home to his family through Heather. The estimated cost of sustaining bare necessities for a foreigner in a Thai prison is roughly $100 per month, and it is money they cannot earn inside the prison but must rely on outside help for.
While incapacitation, deterrence and retribution are common justifications for imprisonment, the theory of modern prison systems as places of art rehabilitation are still somewhat novel in Thai men’s prisons. “It’s exciting that Bangkwang prison supports the possibilities of art and creative expression as rehabilitation to allow the prisoners to start contributing to their fellow inmates, and moreover back to society,” Heather reiterates. “I see this as an opening for the prisons to not just be seen as places of punishment, but as a movement towards a new model.”
While pieces created in the Art for All program are solely owned by Bangkwang and not available for exhibition or sale, Heather independently curates prisoner art exhibits and sells works by several inmates she supports, and has done so for three years in Canada. Because of her experience, she was invited to consult with the Art for All class this past February, and lectured on other prisoner artwork from around the world.
Heather’s cause is independent of the Art for All program, but their parallel natures will hopefully cultivate future collaborations, and the possibility of expanding creativity-based programs. In the interim, in addition to supporting art she continues to provide emotional, spiritual and psychological support to imprisoned foreign nationals.
Heather’s work remains largely thankless in its grand scheme, with the biggest obstacle being funding. LPRS is without government funding and subsists solely on Heather’s personal funds. She spends half of the year in Vancouver, Canada, exhibiting art and fundraising for the costs of returning to Thailand to continue her mission for the latter half of the year. While in Bangkok, countless hours are spent either bringing support to inmates in Klong Prem Central, Bangkwang Central, and Bangkok Remand, or completing the innumerable tasks involved in coordinating her efforts, and those she completes on behalf of inmates. The list is daunting, as Heather vigorously seeks means to sustain administrative tasks, translation services, meeting with Consular officials, lobbying Embassies, purchasing inmate necessities, establishing contact between loved ones overseas, curating exhibits and a variety of other tasks.
Information regarding inmates and their conditions is strictly controlled, and the marred history of Bangkok’s prison systems has often spurred a defensive stance against publicity. Likewise, sensationalism does little to further the mandate of LPRS. In gaining access to the inmates, Heather has had to tread delicately in her humanitarian mission, for fear of backlashes to the progress she’s made in developing positive relationships with the prison officials. The hope is that focusing and sharing the positive changes happening through art and through inmate support may perhaps be the start of something bigger.
Heather’s collaboration with the Art for All program in Bangkwang is in its infancy, but she’s optimistic in the furthering of the relationship, possibly expanding its reach to other inmates, or the introduction of additional programs. Supporting arts is a confident beginning, but it remains a fleck within the larger framework of advocating growth, restoring dignity and hope, providing compassion and inciting positive transformations of the inmates.
For more information about Luna-Rose Prisoner Support or to contribute to the cause, please follow Facebook at Luna-Rose Prisoner Support.