THE VOLUNTEER

“I don’t go to too much effort. I’m only going to prison after all”.

Monika Dettman, 66, chuckles as she briskly swipes a comb through her short practically styled hair. Though small in stature, Monika’s smile is generous and broad, her manner candid, direct and quintessentially German.

“The women’s groups, they just didn’t fit with me. “I simply like to do my own thing.”

As an expat, you’ll often hear the (not so) flattering term – ‘trailing spouse’. Coined in the 1980s by New York Journalist, Mary Bralove, it’s a label used to describe a person (most often female) who follows their partner to another country due to work and (for them at least) career enhancing opportunities. While the notion is that life for a ‘trailer’ is glamorous, the reality can be anything but. Though there’s certainly help raising children and in the home, the chance to travel and meet for lunch on a whim, there are also, quite acutely at times, feelings of loneliness, isolation, confusion and a complete loss of your own identity. ‘So, what does your husband do?’ is more often than not, one of the first questions people ask.

I thought ,’why would I want to do that? Oh my God, how horrible’.

Originally from Berlin, Monika is well versed in navigating this tricky path, having lived in Thailand now for some 30-odd years (with a 6 year break in the 1990s). Though she’s raised two children, speaks and writes fluent Thai, owns a house here with her husband and has no plans to ever return to Germany, it’s Monika’s volunteer work that has given here time in Thailand its deep resonance and sense of purpose.

“I thought ,’why would I want to do that? Oh my God, how horrible”. Monika says, as she recounts how twenty years ago, a friend suggested she join her in a volunteer program visiting German citizens incarcerated in Thai prisons.

“A friend of mine was doing visits and kept asking me to come but it just didn’t appeal to me. But she persisted and so one day, I thought ‘well okay, why not’. Initially, I was very scared and nervous. I thought, ‘what on earth am I going to say to these people? What am I going to talk about? I never had any experience with this kind of thing,” she says, describing the first time she set foot in the notorious Bang Kwang prison, a.k.a The Bangkok Hilton.

“At that time there were ten German male prisoners in Bang Kwang and they all came out to the visiting area at the same time. They kept asking my friend, ‘who is that, who is that … I mean I was twenty years younger!’ she laughs. “So I sat with one of them and I found it was him who wanted me to do all the talking! He asked me a lot of questions and was very interested in who I was and about my life. When we left I felt so good and so confident about myself and it was so much easier than I thought it would be. From then on, there were no questions”.

I will visit just about anybody but I don’t do pedophiles. I draw the line at that.

Now spacing her visits to once a fortnight, Monika currently visits two prisons, Bang Kwang and Klong Prem, in the sections specifically housing Narcotics cases. “I will visit just about anybody but I don’t do pedophiles’, she tells me “I draw the line at that”.

In the outer suburbs of Bangkok, Monika’s home is warm and inviting. Set behind security gates, in a large Western style compound, it’s a space that reeks of love, inclusion and happy memories. Amongst the family and travel photos, the smell of freshly brewed coffee and a busy beagle called Sunny barking at birds in the garden, Monika works away on a detailed ledger.

IMG_5712 IMG_5706As well as providing social contact with the prisoners she visits, the ledger marks one of Monika’s key responsibilities – managing a small stipend given to each prisoner by the German Government as well any money sent from families back home.

“Without extra funds, life inside is pretty unbearable. The prison only provides two very small meals a day of rice and watery soup, otherwise you have to pay for everything else – even bottled water to drink, soap, toothpaste and bare essentials. If you can’t afford to buy your own blanket and pillow, you sleep on the concrete floor with nothing.”

In addition, Monika also seeks out German language books, magazines and news articles and, most importantly, communicates with anxious parents via regular emails and phone calls when necessary.

“Sometimes they (the prisoners) want me to run errands, they say ‘can you go to my apartment and go to the wardrobe and in the second drawer on the left could you get me such and such’ … but I just say ‘no, I can’t do that’, otherwise I would spend all my time running around for them!  I have to limit what I can do, after all I am a volunteer, not a personal assistant … I can do a lot but I won’t do everything”.

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Books and Magazines must be delivered via a Guard and cannot be handed personally.

As well as visiting German prisoners, Monika is also one of the founders of The Sparrow Home – a home for young Thai children either born into prison or who enter prison with their mothers if still nursing. By government regulation however all children must leave the prison by age one and be relocated either with family or in a government run orphanage. For those put in care, contact with mothers is then mostly severed and at worst, lost altogether.

“We just felt we had to do something. It was heartbreaking to see. So we worked with the authorities and created a contract to not only take care of the children and set up a nursery but also ensure regular visits for the children to see their mothers, as well as maintain physical contact”.

It’s yet another steamy Bangkok afternoon and Monika is upbeat as she navigates her way through busy traffic on the way to Klong Prem Prison.

“Micky is always in a good mood and he’s always happy to see me. He’s very polite and he has good manners. He’s intelligent and we can talk very easily. He’s the kind of young man I would love to have as my son”.

Micky, 36, is currently 4 years into a 13 year sentence for a narcotics offence, the details of which are spurious.

“Sometimes it is difficult because if they were in Germany, the penalties, in some cases, would not be as harsh as they are here. They might get caught with something very small and so it’s jail for perhaps 2-3 years, whereas back home, they might get a fine or a warning. Micky also had a very bad experience with a lawyer who duped him out of a lot of money and didn’t fight the case. To be honest, I do feel quite sorry for him.”

A little deeper in, however, beneath the razor wire and army of guards, the feeling is far less genteel.

Entering the main prison gates, the atmosphere at Klong Prem is deceptively serene – all manicured gardens and freshly painted buildings and stray dogs trotting about looking for food. A little deeper in, however, beneath the razor wire and army of guards, the feeling is far less genteel.

After registering and handing over our passports, we take a ticket for the 2pm slot and sit in a congested waiting area.

Close by, a teenager scrolls through her phone as twin toddlers run amok, fraying the nerves of their young mother. Behind them, a twenty-something girl checks over her hair and  makeup in a small compact. It’s beautiful – and heartbreaking.

At 5 to 2 the crowd moves across to a large gate where a few moments later, visitors from the previous ‘session’ spill out. As soon as they’re clear, our group jostles its way through.

Inside we go through more security checks, before walking to a large visiting area. Behind reinforced glass, the faces of prisoners peer out, searching eagerly for loved ones. Above each is a number, and in front a chair and a telephone for speaking.

I find Micky easily – the only foreign face amongst a long line of Thai’s. He’s tall, olive skinned, and, unexpectedly, looks healthy and handsome. “I do sports” Micky says casually, as if this explains away everything. In Micky’s eyes though there is something else – part sorrow, part fear, part quiet desperation. As we talk through the scratchy telephone, he stares at me intensely, his eyes drinking me in, hanging on every word. “I get loads of letters, but not many visitors, “ he tells me, “just Monika and my Mum who comes from Germany once a year”.

Micky tells me about the conditions inside, which are, predictably, grim. Packed into a cell like sardines, with only a square metre or so to oneself and one of only two western prisoners in this a section of some seven hundred. “When I first came here, of course, its shocking, you can’t even imagine this kind of thing”, he says quietly.

Describing Monika as ‘an angel’, it’s clear her visits mean a lot to Micky.

She doesn’t judge, she’s open-minded and she genuinely wants to get to know you.  But most of all she makes me feel secure. Even though she’s not inside with me, knowing she is part of my life and will keep coming back, it gives me a great feeling”.

Though Monika doesn’t have the same rapport with everyone, she does feel through her visits, she can make a difference and quite profoundly at times.

A few years ago I had a young man I used to see who I was quite fond of, we used to call him, ‘the little prince’. He had blond hair and blue eyes and he was just a wonderful young man, a great personality and I enjoyed talking with him so much. He was gay and he would tell me about gay life and you see, you get insight into things you would never know about otherwise! He opened up a whole new world for me. Then he became very, very ill … he’d lost a lot of weight and on this particular day his fever was over 40 degrees, he hadn’t eaten for some time and he was afraid … he said to me “I don’t want to die here Monika”. After I left him I was in a state, I thought, something has to be done, so I called the Embassy straight away and I said ‘this man is going to die, we have to something’, I really put my foot down! And so that day the Embassy came and he was transferred to the hospital. The blood tests showed he was HIV+, and he had a collapsed lung and his lungs were also filling with fluid. He was dying. With treatment he got better and he stayed in the hospital for 9 months. He was so grateful but I was happy to do it”.

I feel I can make someone’s life, not better, but hopefully bearable.

Back in the visiting area, an alarm bell blasts out over loud speakers and then, only a moment later, the telephone line goes dead. “Please come back”, Micky mouths through the thick glass before being led away by a prison guard. Around me families linger for as long as possible. A few wipe away tears.

Though there is a potential novelty factor (“some think they can do it, but they only last a few months”), Monika’s dedication for over twenty years shows not just compassion and kindness,, but also a genuine ability to connect with people from all walks of life and an honest desire to simply – give.

“I feel I can make someone’s life, not better, but hopefully bearable. Monika says “and when the Embassy tells me ‘there’s a new one” I feel curious, I wonder what their story is and I feel a sense of anticipation and excitement’” .

“Over the years I’ve met people who I normally would never have met in my life and I’ve got to know them and they’ve told me things about their life, it’s really been wonderful”.  

A short time later, as Monika’s car pulls back out into the din of the city’s streets, I picture Micky in his own private maelstrom, waiting patiently until they meet next – an unlikely yet now unshakeable bond, far flung from the place they once called ‘home’.

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* Note: No cameras or recording devices are allowed inside the prison gates, so I was unable to document the visit itself.