Friday, 23 March 2012

Visiting Gary

I thought, four years ago when I decided to write to a prisoner in Bang Kwang prison that it would be a once a month or so exchange of letters, keeping his spirits up and some general chit chat. I chose Gary so that just was never going to happen :-)

My husband and I have got to know Gary so well over the past four years all via the written word.
We sent parcels over to help him and his fellow prisoners, passed on messages and generally did what we could to help “the old man”.

Gary in now in his 60’s and has been in prison for over 9 years. Nine very hard years in “the Bangkok Hilton”. Not many farangs (foreign prisoners) manage to survive for so long especially at his age. Gary really is an exceptional man.

So he is home and in Wandsworth Prison in London. He is hoping to be moved to a more suitable prison in the next few months. He is a category B prisoner “Those who do not require maximum security, but for whom escape needs to be made very difficult”. Hopefully in time this will change.

Gary is at present allowed 2 hour visits a month, but as he had no visits for the first months he has been in prison we were able to have two consecutive hours. The previous blog has described the process we went through to visit Gary but I would like to add that at no point did I feel intimidated, scared, upset or otherwise uncomfortable before, during or after the visit. The other visitors are friendly and helpful, the staff and guards are equally friendly and very
efficient, there is a bit of waiting around while they process everyone’s id but to be honest there was less hassle than flying to America.

The best part of the visit was putting our arms around Gary and hugging. He has such an open happy face, his eyes have a twinkle about them hiding all he has been through and still going
through.

Gary is a real character, he starts telling you about one thing and then whoosh off he goes on a tangent and ten minutes later he has lost total track of what he started talking about lol. We are having to go back and visit to get the end of several stories he started but never finished as he meandered through his thoughts, having so much to share with us.

During the visit we laughed, oh boy did we laugh, he has such a wicked sense of humour and thankfully we all seem to laugh at the same things. He tries so hard to pull my leg but just gets
himself in a tizzy and ends up being put on the virtual “naughty step”.

Being able to have a cup of tea and a snack makes the visit seem very civilised. We held hands off and on during the visit and even had a sneaky kiss (a peck lol). I at no point felt the presence of the guards who were of course watching, they did so from a discrete distance and I never noticed them stopping others kissing and hugging over the table during their visits. At the end of the visit we had more hugs and kisses and left with big smiles, knowing that we will be able to visit him
again. But looking back as we left the room I saw a little old man sitting alone at a table and my heart went out to him. He should not still be in prison.

The move back to a British prison has not been easy for Gary. The cultural shock after living in Bangkwang for 9 years must be very hard for him. Though he is getting medical care it seems very slow coming. He has not yet seen a dentist and what teeth he does have left are in great need
of attention and he needs dentures. He has just had his first visit to an optician and hopefully he will have new glasses soon. His eyesight has deteriorated greatly over the years in Bangkwang and he has great trouble seeing with the glasses he is now wearing.

Gary is in lock down for long periods of time, as are the other prisoners in Wandsworth and he gets little time out of doors. After being in Bangkwang where most of the time he was out of doors or locked in the very over crowded cage, not being allowed outdoors is hitting him hard. It is not the prison systems fault, they are overcrowded and it is a prison, not a holiday camp, but this is an aspect of being back here that Gary is finding hard to get used to. I am sure there are
other problems Gary is finding being in a British jail but Gary being Gary only touched on them as he keeps the conversation on happy subjects and very rarely does he talk of the bad things he has been through or the bad side of his life now.

If anyone who reads Garys blogs would like to write directly to him, even just a post card saying hello would be gratefully received. Or if you would like to send him an email that we will print out and forward on to him then again Gary love to hear from you.

Thank you

Wanda.

So we went to see Gary

So We went to see Gary
We have written to Gary for many years and in the last 6 months we have been fortunate enough
to talk to him on the phone since he was repatriated.

But last week, after a couple of false starts we managed to actually go and visit him. We were always a little jealous of random emails we would receive from some great people about how they had been to see him in Thailand. This is somewhere where we could never go and so our letters had to suffice.

Once Gary was back in the UK we were determined to go see him and set the wheels in motion.
Its a bit of a process but I think we have it sussed.

Firstly Gary had to get what is known as a Visitors Order. This is a request to the Prison to
allow a visit and is at the discretion of the prisoner, its not the Prison who has the final say on whether or not you can go visit.

What we didn’t realise, all three of us, is that once Gary has the Visitor Order number he has to send it to the visitor so that they can organise the visit. That involves ringing the prison to organise it.

You will go into a queue, you will listen to a recorded message. That message will tell you to call back later around tea time as the line is open till 7:45pm and it is quieter then. This is a lie. I was on hold one afternoon at 3:15pm and there was a click and the message changed to “The lines are now closed for the day they are open from 8:00am to 7:45pm” I have tried on other occasions and the lines always seem to be closed after 3pm. Yes the lines are open at 8am, but good luck
getting anyone to answer them till 9. I had the best luck at around 8:50am

To book a visit you will need your visitor order number(s) and Gary's name and Prisoner
number and then you can pick a time to suit you.

Visits are everyday except Friday's between 09:30 in the morning until 16:30 in the afternoon in one hour slots. At the weekend the hours are 08:30 until 16:30.

The way they organise it is a bit weird though. Wanda and I had a number each and so we could
therefore book a two hour slot back to back. However there is a half hour gap between visits to allow people out and back in again, so although we had a two hour visit it actually worked out as 2-3pm and then 3:30pm till 4:30pm which gave us an extra half an hour with the old chap.

Result!!

So on the actual day we jumped in the car and arrived at the prison the required 45minutes
early. Parking looks like a problem unless your on public transport.

To get in you have to first go to the Visitors information centre which is a white building to the left of the Prison. There they sign you in and you are advised that all you can take in is a five pound note, change, and your ID (we took passports, drivers licenses and the marriage certificate). Once you are signed in there you can put all your other stuff in lockers for safe keeping. They then call you and hand you a slip of white paper and you can go to the prison
proper.

Once in through the door you can check in at a desk any items for the prisoners. People were handing in clothes, shoes and all sorts. Its bagged and tagged and the prisoners can collect it later.

Then to a desk to sign in, all male visitors are given a stamp on the hand and a paper bracelet like in an amusement park. You are warned not to lose the bracelet as it will be hard to get back out!

You have to put all your ID and car keys into a plastic bag which is put into a locker for you and you are handed a key. With the key and your money its through a scanner like in the airport, a pat down check and your in.

We were all then led across a courtyard to the visitors area. Its a nice place with a play area for the kids, a little café selling tea, pop and food and rows of numbered desks with one seat one side and 3 seats the other.

The prison guards tell you which table is yours and you sit and wait for the visit to start.

Gary was wonderful, his eyes are bad and his glasses old so he didn’t see us to start with but we knew which he was as everyone else there is young, 20's and 30's but he is in his 60's now. When he saw us he was over the moon.

We chatted and laughed and joked and the 2 and a half hours went by so quickly. Considering the place he has been for the past few years he is in good health. He showed us his scars from the operation to remove skin cancers and they are looking ok. He has been to see the optician and hopefully he will have new glasses soon but he hasn’t seen the Dentist yet.

His mind is still active as ever. It was difficult to get him to shut up for the first hour but he soon calmed down. I bought him a can of coke and he moaned about the cost, I don’t think he quite believed that 90pence for a coke in London wasn’t that bad. I had stopped at a garage outside London and bought one there and they charged me £1.50. He nearly choked when I told him that LOL

When we left it was a simple process to go. We were led across the courtyard and into the room we came in to. The guards took our keys and got our stuff from the lockers and we were away.

I think what struck me the most is how nice everyone was who were visiting. Generally the attitude in London is to ignore you and keep your head down. It was our first time visiting a prison and we were a bit worried about the process but all the other visitors who where there were only to willing to offer advice and a kind word. I suppose it was because we all were in the same situation.

So that was it, we are organising to go again. I will post again when we have seen the old chap.

Jake and Wanda