Fed and kneaded by inmates: Thai prison programme offers food and massage

From the street, it looks like any cute, little restaurant in the Instagram-friendly city Chiang Mai. A wooden arch marks the entrance to a garden with outdoor seating among trees and flowers. The waitresses are dressed in pink uniforms, and lovers can pose for a picture on a bench entailed in a heart.

However, there is a sign above the heart, that reminds visitors, that the romantic settings aren’t just any regular, picturesque location in Chiang Mai. ‘Welcome to prison’, it reads.

There are three traditional reasons why society punishes criminals: retribution, deterrence, and reform – to punish, to prevent and to rehabilitate. Every country grants each aspect a different value. This is reflected in factors such as the length of sentences, whether there is death penalty or not, physical punishment and possibilities for parole.

At the Vocational Training Center of Chiang Mai Woman Correctional Institution, reform or rehabilitation is in focus.

The centre serves as a restaurant and traditional Thai massage parlour. What makes it special is, that all your food is cooked and served by inmates. Likewise, do the hands that sternly massage people’s feet and crack their backs belong to prisoners.

Since 2002, the inmates of the Chiang Mai prison have been able to develop their skills and get a break from life behind bars. Through a mandatory rehabilitation programme, those who choose massage and cooking are eligible for a job at the Vocational Training Center. It’s supposed to prepare the women for a return to real life.

“There are no walls here. It’s an open prison,”Archaree Srisunakhua, director of the Chiang Mai Woman Correctional Institution, says.

As for local support for the programme, the response has been very positive, according to Acharee, who adds that people appreciate the effort to rehabilitate convicts.

Makeup and massages

It’s mandatory for the inmates to choose a career path while in prison. It’s part of an extensive rehabilitation programme, which entails about 20 of Thailand’s 143 prisons, director Archaree informs me.

“On average, they start when they have two years left of their sentence. We can allow that they have up to five years left.”

This means that people with lifelong sentences aren’t eligible for the programme, which offers training in more than 20 different skill-sets.

Cooking, massage, beauty, weaving cotton or silk are just a few of the careers the inmates can pursue. 

Apart from learning a profession, the inmates also learn English and Chinese. The illiterate are taught to read and write.

vocational training center prison chiang mai
All food at the Vocational Training Center is cooked and served by inmates. A traditional Northern Thai dish as this Khao Soi Gai will cost you 80 Baht.

For those who haven’t chosen cooking or massage through the rehabilitation programme, director Archaree is hoping that the inmates will have more opportunities to get a break from prison in the future.

So far, the plan is to open a place outside the prison, where those who have specialised in beauty can practice their skills and sell their services.

The women who are learning to weave have the chance to work with the Danish clothing brand Carcel. The brand has all their collections sewn by inmates who in return get a salary, similar to how the Vocational Training Center works. The major difference is, that the job is carried out within the four walls of the prison.

Director of the Chiang Mai Woman Correctional Institution, Acharee Srisunakhua (middle), and two prison guards.

No walk-ins

I am handed a four-sizes-too-big, hot pink shirt and a matching pair of equally large, baggy pants that keep falling down as the string to tie them is broken.

In a large room inside the Vocational Training Center, I lie down on a massage bed, only about a meter from my neighbour for the next while. She’s already being stretched and bent in unimaginable ways.

There are fifteen beds, a couple of which are only for foot massages. All of them are occupied by other trustworthy visitors.

As it’s a popular tourist attraction, massages need to be booked and paid for in advance. So, if you want your foot or thai massage done by an inmate, I suggest you show up early to secure yourself a spot.

Proud prisoners

The aim of the Vocational Training Center is to give the women a smooth transition from prison to freedom while connecting with the local society.

“We promote correction and self-esteem,” prison director Archaree tells me and adds that the opportunity is only offered to first time offenders who behave well.

“They are very proud to work here.”

The programme also gives the women an opportunity to send money back home or save for when they are released.

The inmates at the Chiang Mai Woman Correctional Institution can choose from more than 20 training programmes. Handicrafts by prisoners are sold at the Vocational Training Center.

With a mandatory one day off per week, the inmates work full time and earn 50 percent of the profit from the restaurant and massage.

“They usually make between 10,000 and 20,000 Baht (approximately 300 to 600 Euros),” according to the prison director.

The remaining 50 percent are used for maintenance.

All this taken into consideration, Archaree isn’t afraid that they will run away.

First of all, of the 130 guards working for the prison, there are always five on duty at the centre. Second of all, “they (the inmates) are in the process of returning to society”.

Though Archaree has only been director for the Chiang Mai Woman Correctional Institution since October 2019, with more than 30 years in the prison business of which the past 12 have been as director, she seems to know what she’s talking about.

The real key is trust

In the massage room, it seems that the masseuses have a fixed massage programme. So, those who have arrived at the same time, are massaged synchronously.

Like a choir, hands are chopping away on people’s backs and cracking toes and fingers at the same time.

Traditional thai music somewhat blocks out the background noise from cars and scooters in the street. A few of the Thai inmates giggle as a large middle-aged man moans in agony following his back being cracked by one of the petite masseuses.

There are always five guards on duty at the Vocational Training Center.

My masseuse asks me in English, if I’m doing fine. She must have noticed me cringe in pain as she dug her elbow into my tigerbalm-covered neck.

It’s easy to forget that these chatty women are convicted of some crime which they are currently serving a sentence for.

Though there are lockers for your belongings, it’s hard to keep an eye on the key while keeping yourself on a massage bed. However, no one seems to be bothered by the fact, that their well-being for the next hour or two is in the hands of a convicted criminal.

Forever an ex-inmate

Some of the employees at the centre are on probation, but the majority are still inmates.

Once they leave prison, they also leave the centre.

However, in Chiang Mai alone, there are 12 massage parlours dedicated to ex-inmates. Combined, they employ 200 former prisoners.

“Massages are popular in Chiang Mai, so it makes sense,” Archaree tells me.

These are private places, and so are not run or funded by the prison or state, but the prison has a deal with them. They recommend masseuses once they have served their sentence.

So, if you don’t want to wait in line for an inmate massage, opt for an ex-inmate massage. To my knowledge, their hands are just as firm once they’ve left prison.

The former Chiang Mai Woman Correctional Institution is located across the street from the Vocatinal Training Center. Now, the prison has moved and the old building is collecting dust.

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