Jailer with a heart
by SONGPOL KAOPATUMTIP
Along with the reforms, Director-General Nathee Chitsawang is bringing a touch of humanity into Thailand's prison system
For the past 27 years of his service with the Corrections Department, Director-General Nathee Chitsawang has consistently pushed for reform of the jail system _ a task that recently put him on the hit-list of mafia gangs whose members are doing their time at the Bangkwang maximum-security jail on the outskirts of Bangkok.
Notoriously known in the West as the "Bangkok Hilton", Bangkwang houses around 7,000 inmates, most of them drug offenders. Working hand in glove with some corrupt prison guards, some of these drug convicts reportedly used mobile phones to run their business behind bars.
Accompanied by armed soldiers, Mr Nathee led a clean-up operation early last month that resulted in the seizure of mobile phones and the transfer of prison guards accused of taking bribes.
Speaking to Perspective in his third-floor office across the street from where he busted the prison drug gang, Mr Nathee said the incident was further proof that reform of the Corrections Department was a matter of urgency. "The operational system inside prisons must be restructured," he said. "If prison guards become acquainted with prisoners, corruption and favouritism are bound to occur."
Corruption is bad. But a greater challenge for Thai prison officials is in improving the conditions of confinement and helping prisoners prepare themselves for normal lives when they get out of prison.
"Eighty percent of the prisoners living behind bars were not convicted of a violent crime," said Mr Nathee. "We should help them turn over a new leaf. We should be their rehabilitator rather than their punisher."
With this redefinition of the department's role, the 53-year-old director-general has set policy priorities for prison reform that was actually begun when he served as deputy director-general during 2000-2003.
In addition to the standard education and job training programmes, Mr Nathee organised meditation classes and boxing matches, and set up a prison choir which has staged several highly acclaimed performances outside the prison. And in a move that gained worldwide media attention, Mr Nathee authorised the Nong Nam Khun open prison in Nakhon Sawan province to set up four "love huts" for its 90 male inmates in May last year.
Those with less than four years to serve and a good behaviour record can book a hut once a month, and get to spend 24 hours_ from noon to noon _ with their wives or family members. They can do whatever they want there _ talking, cooking, eating and, of course, making love.
"The concept is to strengthen family ties," explained Mr Nathee.
"It also helps reduce stress and prepare inmates for when they return to the free world."
The director-general also invites ordinary people, students, officials and businessmen to join a "Visit Your Prison" programme, which is gaining in popularity. Recently, Mr Nathee organised such a tour for a group of Thai business CEOs, who were highly impressed with the improvements in conditions of confinement as well as the rehabilitation and treatment programmes.
One visitor confided to a friend that he went along because he believes it is a good omen for him: he will never become a prisoner because he has already gone "inside" a prison.
Superstitions aside, Mr Nathee believes it will help foster a new attitude among the Thai public about state-run prisons _ still perceived by many as a "twilight zone" _ and minor offenders whose sentences could have been better served outside prison walls.
Try a little kindness
With his appointment as director-general in October last year, Mr Nathee became the second corrections official to have risen to the top job in the 78-year-long history of the Corrections Department. His colleagues hope it will set a precedent for future appointments in the department, which was put under the Justice Ministry in a bureaucratic shake-up two years ago. Previously, the department was under the Interior Ministry, which usually assigned its senior officials to run it.
Neatly dressed and mild-mannered, the bespectacled director-general could easily be mistaken for a university professor or a businessman. But under the cheerful and friendly demeanour, there is a steely determination.
"He's the kind of guy who says 'the buck stops here'," said long-time friend Chalor Kotcharat, who now heads the Civil Aviation Department.
"He never shies away from responsibility," Mr Chalor added, citing Mr Nathee's run-in with the drug mafia as an example.
After graduating from Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Law, Mr Nathee was granted a scholarship by the Civil Service Commission to further his studies at Florida State University, where he received a Master's degree in criminology.
As if by fate, he got his first job at the Corrections Department in 1977 and has served in various positions there for 27 years, except for a three-year stint as a Thammasat University lecturer seconded from the Corrections Department.
As a criminologist, researcher and trainer, Mr Nathee understands that the struggle for prison reform is an uphill task. More importantly, he understands that all levels of the legal system should shift their focus from authority to the service of justice.
It doesn't hurt to become more humanist, as Appeals Court judge Charan Pakdithanakul once said. And Director-General Chalor believes Mr Nathee can make an important difference in the lives of prisoners and for the outside community.
"It's natural for people to resist change," said Mr Chalor. "But you have to do what is best for the country."
For Mr Nathee, the job of the Corrections Department chief is never done, but it has been made easier by the good cooperation he gets from his colleagues and business operators, who accept prisoners for training and employ them after they have served their prison terms.
Job training and rehabilitation activities promoted by the Corrections Department are designed to reduce prisoners' stress and help them gain self-respect and confidence.
"If we treat prisoners as if they are a tiger, they will become a tiger," explained Mr Nathee.
"If we treat them with kindness and compassion, they will respond with kindness and compassion."
According to Mr Nathee, 14 percent of released prisoners go back to a life of crime either because they are not accepted by society or because they go back to the same environment that induced them to commit crimes. This is where the community must step in and help these people to help themselves.
"I often ask prisoners what they want the most, and they all say that they want to have freedom," said Mr Nathee.
"They really do."
Nathee Chitsawang was born on 23 April 1951 in Bangkok.
After receiving a Bachelor's degree from Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Law, he was sent by the Civil Service Commission to further his studies at Florida State University, where he graduated with a master's degree in criminology.
He joined the Corrections Department in 1977 as a penologist. In 1984, he was seconded from the Corrections Department to Thammasat University, where he taught criminology for three years, before returning to the Corrections Department as its Research Division chief.
In 1996, he was promoted as director of the Staff Training Division, and as head of the Personnel Division a year later. After three years as deputy director-general, Mr Nathee was promoted as director-general of the Corrections Department in October 2003. He is single.
Kaopatumtip, S. (2004) ‘Jailer with a Heart’, Bangkok Post , 19 September 2004