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How Much Can They Do To Us? A Review of Prontip Mankhong’s All They Could Do To Us

Originally published in Thai here: นิธิ เอียวศรีวงศ์, “มันทำร้ายเราได้แค่ไหน”

Translated by Tyrell Haberkorn

Stories of prison are always in demand, perhaps because prison is a world not encountered by the majority of people. There are many Thai-language books about prison that span those written from first-hand experience to those collected from the experience of others who spent a stint inside.

But All They Could Do To Us is different from other written accounts of prison. The author, Khun Prontip Mankhong, was sentenced to two years and six months in prison. But she not only recorded the odd behaviors and motivations of prisoners, which tend to be the core of prison writing, but she also elaborated on the social relationships between herself and other prisoners. These were relationships that emerged amidst the condition of lacking the freedom to choose nearly everything in one’s life.

The book can be described as a personal account of the author during her two years and six months in prison. But it is an account that goes beyond her physical activities to include her emotions, feelings and opinions about what she encountered in her social relationships. All They Could Do To Us therefore has the shape of a novel, rather than that of a true story about prison.

I do not mean that it is a story made up by Khun Prontip. But the contents emerge from what Khun Prontip views from her own feelings and thoughts. Every “true story” is a novel. They are true according to the principles and biases of the narrator. Who can know what the truth is?

I suspect that Khun Prontip understands this point well. She explained she did not walk into the prison unaccompanied. She was joined by the “demon” who is usually with her. The demon did not only enter the prison with her, but has a role as a “character” in the story. The demon helps her to make decisions, contradicts her, and proposes additional perspectives to her throughout her time in prison.

Perhaps because Prontip is a person of the theater, All They Could Do To Us is a novel that is clearly a play in disguise. The story is moved forward through conversations and narration about the behavior of the characters. There are “scenes” and sometimes hand-done drawings by Khun Prontip accompany the situation in the scene. A director of a scene could read the book and set up the lighting exactly. The opinions and emotions of all of the characters other than “we” come from the view and understanding of the narrator, who is the primary character.

Many parts of this long play are pushed forward through language that is very beautiful.

As is known, the prison strips people’s freedom from them. All detainees and prisoners are forced to regress to being treated as children no older than one year. In nearly every minute of each day, they cannot choose how to live. They cannot choose when and how they wake. They cannot choose when and how they sleep. They cannot choose when and how they eat. Etc. Not even their daily routine escapes from being fully scheduled, such as when they bathe and poop, as well as their relationships.

What instruments must be used to remove people’s freedom of choice to this degree? The first is violence, which may be exercised by the wardens themselves or through their henchwomen, who are their prisoners. This is the essence of the story of different prisons all over the world. But this is only one instrument and it may not yield the complete submission of prisoners. It is the same as other tools, such as the demonstration of (false) kindness to instruct and form prisoners, the attempt to limit the range of relationships between prisoners, and the creation of a consciousness of inferiority of prisoners in comparison to officials. The exercise of these tools is present in the enforcement of the use of particular pronouns and the unequal level of sitting between prisoners and officials. The point is to drill in the idea that prisoners are infants who must be under the direction and supervision of adults at all times.

Although the daily routine of prisoners is fixed — when they get up, bathe, eat, sleep, etc, — it may be upset. The prison may set up a new regulation, try out a new order, or upset the routine for another reason. Such decisions are made by the wardens without having to provide a reason to the prisoners.

A daily routine that becomes fixed without any shifting may turn into a kind of “power” because it becomes a “right.” For this reason, it must be upset without reason on occasion. 

The use of ranks is of important use in removing prisoners’ power and human dignity. But ranks are not only limited to division between officials and prisoners. If that was the case, rank might easily turn into “class.” This would in turn make the prisoners into the majority and they might develop a consciousness of being the majority. The wardens would then become the minority. Therefore, the use of ranks to divide prisoners is necessary. Khun Prontip elaborates a great deal on the ranks among prisoners.

Rank in prison can arise in two ways. The first is that it is carried over from outside. For examples, three royal descendants who are imprisoned receive privileges from the time they first enter. But this is infrequent. Anyone with privilege, unless they are really cornered, may be able to avoid imprisonment through this way or that. What is more common are people with money who are able to use money from outside to build privilege for themselves inside the prison. Prison in Thailand is like prison in other countries. The poor are always the majority of the population in prison, and are present in a number many times greater than their actual proportion of society. Their allegiance to those with money is therefore a choice.

The “we” in All They Could Do To Us has a rank higher than ordinary prisoners that is founded on money as well. But their rank is from shrewd spreading of money in prison, without having to scatter it prodigiously like the prisoner they write about as “Backyard Older Sister.” Other parts of the rank of “we” that come from outside the prison indicate that they can be a patron too, such as having completed a bachelor’s degree and having visitors come daily.

The second source of rank is for it to be built inside prison by the prisoner herself. Some people use money that they get obtain through the trade in “bootleg goods.” Some use one ability or another until they become a part of the “control” of prisoners. They slide up the ranks to become a “mother” until they are ultimately dressing up and owning gel pens or good quality pajamas and winter sweaters. This increases their rank as well.

The rank that is present throughout the prison is that which arises within the prison itself. In one sense, the rank is of use to the officials because it aids in preventing the creation of a collective consciousness among the prisoners. But in another sense, it is of benefit to the prisoners themselves. The increase in one’s rank, or even the decision to join the protection of a particular group, is one kind of “choice.” To choose is a freedom of which those in prison have been nearly fully dispossessed. The prisoners may then use rank as a tool to assure themselves that they are not infants.

Religion is another space of freedom of choice. Thai prisons at least allow prisoners to practice the religion that they freely choose. I don’t know if Khun Prontip is a strict Catholic, but her writing is filled with religious dimensions. Even the little demon who accompanies her into prison is one part of her  humanity that always must choose between the path of god and the path of satan. (As someone outside the the Catholic religion, I think that it is because humans must choose — as Khun Prontip must always choose — that wisdom emerges.)

Khun Prontip tells us on the first pages of the novel that in addition to the demon, there is a tiny bird who flies around her all the time. But the tiny bird is separated from her when she enters the prison.

For certain, the tiny bird is the symbol of freedom and using one’s intelligence to choose for oneself. I would like to offer the conjecture that the tiny bird is the holy spirit, or one of the holy trinity which accompanies each person in Catholicism.

The tiny bird may be unable to fly around Khun Prontip in the prison, but it is not exiled to a far away place. The tiny bird swoops back in at every opportunity, such as when Khun Prontip applies to study at the traditional craft school. After she studies Thai filigree painting to the standard, the teacher uses her designs to adorn various objects, including necklaces, bracelets, and even breast plates and headdresses. The teacher heaps praise on Prontip’s work because she modifies the filigree designs into new novel ones that do not adhere to the patterns taught. Her work is original.

This is perhaps a new opportunity for the tiny bird to return to see her again. I believe that the tiny bird of every prisoner perhaps returns to find their owner whenever there is an opportunity. It is simply that the prison tries to mitigate against there being such opportunities frequently or easily. This is because what the prison fears the most are prisoners, just like the school fears the students, the military camp fears the soldiers, the hospital fears the patients, and the state fears the people. Therefore, the prison uses every method to keep the tiny birds from flying close to their humans at all costs.

This leads me to a question whose answer I do not know, and have been unable to find a satisfactory answer throughout my life to date: what do we have prisons for?

Since ancient times in Thailand, there have been prisons to detain and punish people who violate the crown. But one does not have to go to prison in the case of the violation of an individuals if one is able to compensate for the losses (in one form or another). One may be locked up only in cases in which one cannot compensate for the losses. And, since there was no concept of “society” in Thailand in ancient times, people therefore could not harm “society.”

But in the present there is an idea of “society.” Jurists since the 19th century have attempted to warn that the prison does not exist to obtain revenge on behalf of society. If so, then what is prison for? Some people reply that it is to take evil people out of society and keep them from further harming society.

If that is the case, then every prisoner must be imprisoned for the entirety of her/his life.

There are even those who propose a new ideal of the prison as an institution for the adjustment of the prisoner’s character so that s/he may return to be a good member of society in the future. Many prisons in the United States are no longer called prisons and are instead called correctional centers or adjustment centers. But no matter the name, the treatment of the prisoners causes all of the tiny birds to fly away. How are they are going to return to be full people with the father, son, and holy spirit with them?

This question about the prison and the judicial process is one that Tolstoy asked in the previous century (in Resurrection) and it remains relevant in every society around the world:

Why do we have prisons?