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Bangkok prison is tourist draw

BANGKOK, Thailand — With its stark concrete walls, armed guards and electrified fences, Bang Kwang maximum-security prison hardly looks like a tourist destination. But it has become an attraction of sorts to travelers wanting to experience something different — and at the same time do a good deed.

The prison on the outskirts of the capital houses Thailand's death row and more than 7,000 men serving sentences of 25 years or more for crimes ranging from drug smuggling to murder. Among them are a few dozen Western inmates, far from home and happy to be on the receiving end of what might be called prison tourism.

Their visitors are often complete strangers — tourists motivated both by curiosity and by a desire to cheer up a prisoner far from home, living in conditions that are harsh by Western standards.

"It's pretty shocking. I was on the edge of my seat, wanting to hear what he was going to say," said Anneke Wijne, 26, a Dutch traveler visiting her countryman, Machiel Kuijt.

"If he is innocent or not I really don't care," she said. "I just see a man behind bars, far away from his family."

Kuijt was acquitted on drug charges in 2002 but held in custody while the prosecution appealed. He was then convicted and sentenced to life in prison last year, prompting an outcry in the Netherlands. He has become a favorite among travelers. In fact, one recent week Dutch visitors had to wait their turn to see him.

A KLM flight attendant who began visiting Kuijt after she met his lawyer on a flight in December said she has since befriended his family and has encouraged others to visit him. This month, she brought him two tote bags full of Dutch cheese, bread, crackers, sausage and mustard. She asked not to be identified in case it caused her trouble with the prison wardens.

The visits began years ago when relatives of foreign inmates, unable to visit Thailand often, took to tacking up notices in guest houses asking tourists to visit their loved ones. The Internet and guide books spread the word. The 1999 movie "Brokedown Palace" and "The Damage Done," written by Warren Fellows, an Australian former inmate, also raised awareness.

Some countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States, have treaties with Thailand that allow inmates to come home to finish their sentence. Fewer than 10 Americans and 10 Britons are in Bang Kwang, according to their embassies.

Two British probation officers vacationing in Thailand went to Bang Kwang after hearing about the visits from repatriated prisoners.

"We know how much it means to them to get visitors," said Marian Ramsey.

Visitors can drop in four days a week. They sit facing the prisoner separated by fences and are crowded by other prisoners and visitors. Often, they must shout to be heard. Bang Kwang has twice as many inmates as it was built for.

Visitors are advised to dress modestly and to be polite to the guards. They can bring gifts such as food and reading material, but guards are known to seize items such as nude photos.

"There are maybe too many tourists, but it is no problem," said Chaovarej Jaruboon, who retired from his post as executioner and now looks after Bang Kwang's foreign inmates.

Some guards say they find it odd that complete strangers would visit prisoners. It is also a subject of debate among travelers.

"People will say, you know, you'd never go visit somebody back home. So why aren't you going to your local prison in Chicago or Toronto?" said Cameron Cooper, the editor of Farang, a magazine for foreigners in Thailand. "Except it isn't exactly like that. A lot of the guys who are in here are in for incredibly long sentences under incredibly rough conditions."

Cooper said most of the inmates he has met acknowledge that they broke the law and must serve their time. They simply appreciate visitors who speak their language and can ease the monotony.

One prisoner, Garth Hattan, even wrote columns for Farang until he returned to the United States in 2002. In one of them, he said the visitors at times made him feel like "a caged lion."

But he was happy to see them, in part to dissuade them from "making the same ignorant mistake I did and consequently finding themselves on this side of the bars."