In many parts of Asia, women’s employment decisions are based on economic necessity. The dancers and performers on the stage in some of Thailand’s seedier hotspots are there because their choices are limited. Generally, the Thai people are conservative and modest, so either these women have been sold into the sex trade, or a series of unfortunate life events or decisions means that this is where they find themselves.
To counteract this probable eventuality, the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Centre runs a vocational training program which prepares female prisoners for a better life upon their release. The inmates undertake 300 hours of training in the art of massage and spa therapy, so that they have marketable skills once their sentence is completed. Because the training program is sanctioned and certified by the Thai Ministry for Public Health, the women gain officially recognised qualifications. The prison is affiliated with a network of related businesses, who offer inmates work once they have served their sentence and are considered rehabilitated.
Ms Suchaya, chief of the vocational training division at the prison, tells me that they started the program in 2008 with only five beds, and that it was so successful in empowering participants that it grew quickly. Now, they have 25 beds available which means dozens of women can benefit from the scheme. Ms Suchaya says that the program gives inmates happiness and fulfillment, and encourages them to get back to their families and society after their sentence is served.
I’ve been in Chiang Mai for a few days, and have convinced a friend to come with me to the massage centre (the idea of having a ‘criminal’ so close to me is initially unnerving). At the entrance to the parlour we meet the warden, Amporn (no surname, for legal reasons) and prison guard, Tuck, but I have yet to see the prisoner who will be giving me my treatment today. Amporn tells me that my therapist is in jail for two and a half years for drug-related charges. Normally, this would scare me; but not today, because I know that the woman treating me wants to succeed and aims to escape the poverty and social consequences of having no skills.
Because the centre runs without an official booking service, we have to wait for our appointment. It’s a first-come-first-served system, and bookings are taken only on the day of the treatment. The earlier you arrive, the sooner you are granted a timeslot.
We wander through the pretty courtyard, bursting with tropical plants, and decide to eat lunch at the adjacent cafe, also run by prisoners who have earned the right to interact with the public. These women, too, are learning skills which will enhance their post-prison likelihood of success by opening the door to a career in hospitality. Prison guards supervise the cafe and, while their official uniforms demonstrate the power dynamic, they appear to be on friendly terms with the inmates.
Returning for our appointment, we are informed bluntly that there are no cameras allowed in the prison; for humanitarian reasons, the girls’ faces must not be shown.
Once inside, Amporn and Tuck are not as harsh or domineering as I expected prison guards to be. There are no clanging gates, no heavy doors clicking and locking behind us. In fact, it is a sanctuary; quiet and peaceful. The women speak in soft voices and smile broadly at us as we say hello. I sit and have my feet washed by the lovely Nan. Her hair is pulled back in an elegant bun and fixed with a ribbon. Her face is fully made up and her red lipstick shines in the dimness of the room.
In the foyer Nan offers me a pair of slippers and places my shoes in a cubby hole. In the treatment room beyond, the light is low and, when my eyes adjust, I see it is just like any other massage establishment I’ve visited in Thailand. There are rows of treatment tables inhabited by relaxed people, and a few lounge chairs designed to accommodate those who want a leg and foot massage. It is into one of these that I sink, exhausted after a morning of walking.
Nan settles me in the chair. I’d expected the room to be a barren, clinical environment with concrete slabs for clients to lie on, but instead it is cocoon-like: dark and peaceful. All around me I can see people dressed in cotton pyjamas, being twisted, stretched and pummeled. The man next to me has his arms pulled until his torso lifts up into a deep back bend.
A Thai massage is different from others, in that the benefits are often felt afterwards. Nan kneads my legs confidently, pressing into the trigger points until my muscles release and she can move onto the next point. Once my calves feel weightless, she reaches for a tool made from tree roots to tackle the trigger points in my feet. She presses her stick into the tender skin between my toes and it is a pain so exquisite that I resort to deep abdominal breathing in order to bear it. Nan giggles quietly, and assures me that I will feel better later; it’s almost impossible to think of her as a hardened criminal. She is as sweet and eager to please as any massage therapist I’ve met on the trip.
Our treatments leave us feeling energised. We are proud to be supporting a program that enables women to be more positive about what the future holds for them. This service offers a unique opportunity for travellers to spend their tourist dollars in a way that can make a real difference to some of Chiang Mai’s less fortunate women.
A few tips to keep in mind before your visit:
- Wear light, loose clothing, so that your body is able to move freely.
- There is no reservation system. You must front up on the day and make an appointment. The centre is open daily Monday to Friday, 8am – 4:30pm, Saturday and Sunday, 9am – 4:30pm
- Prices are from 200 baht (about $6 USD) but you can leave money in the tip box which is then shared equally among the girls each month.
- To further support the centre, you can buy shirts, key rings, bags, scarves and purses from the Prison product shop.
Travelling to Thailand? Visit the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Centre in Chiang Mai for a traditional Thai massage – your local leader can help you with more information.
All photos by Danielle Norton.