Inside the Powder Keg

This harrowing autobiography has achieved a fearful notoriety among the backpacker community. It reads like the lurid script of a traveller’s worst nightmare: busted for heroin trafficking and sentenced to life imprisonment in Thailand’s nastiest jail, Bang Kwang Prison.

The tale is an autobiographical account of the misfortunes of an Australian named Warren Fellows, who was 25 when he was imprisoned in 1978. Released in 1989, he was a broken man after more than a decade of unimaginable cruelty and soul-crushing torture.

The prologue opens with a horrific anecdote whereby Fellows discovers a French inmate curled in a ball in the corner of his cell, sobbing loudly. He rolls the distressed prisoner over to discover an avocado-sized growth moving around in his neck. He lances the hideous lump with a razor to release a bunch of festering maggots; a cockroach had crawled into the Frenchman’s ear while he slept and laid eggs.

Unbelievably, proceedings deteriorate from thereon in. Once busted, Fellows is denied a lawyer and told he will be executed under Article 27: a military law that sanctions the death penalty without a trial. His sentence is later reduced to life imprisonment, but Fellows spends the following years wishing he were dead.

The atrocious methods of torture applied to him truly boggle the mind: he’s submerged up to his chin in human excrement for hours; confined to solitary for 23 hours and 55 minutes a day, for up to three months at a time; and is locked in a cell with a corpse while the murderer sits opposite him, clutching a rusty nail still dripping with the victim’s blood.

Somewhat inevitably, Fellows soon turns to heroin to blank out his unbearable life. In a rare moment of grim irony, he ruefully notes he never saw as much skag in his trafficking days, as he did in the cells of Bang Kwang.

While Fellows explains that his willingness to smuggle drugs for four years was merely a result of immense naivety, it’s hard to accept his compliance as anything less than mindless avariciousness. He knew the risks, decided to ignore them, and suffered the consequences. His sentence, nonetheless, contravened United Nations minimum standards for treatment for prisoners, set in 1955; they’re used as a poignant footnote to the book.

Finally released after receiving a Royal Pardon, Fellows painfully documents his uphill struggle to adjust to freedom and reclaim his life from the depths of Hades.

As you’ve probably twigged, it’s pretty bleak and grisly going, but The Damage Done makes for darkly compelling reading – at 200 pages of large print, you may well finish it in one sitting. Fellows isn’t the most articulate author you’ll come across, but the raw facts of his account, relayed through limited but engagingly honest prose, sufficiently convey the horror and madness he experienced.

He expresses the hope that his story will convince readers that they cannot place a price on freedom, and no amount of cash will bring back those lost years. Let potential drug traffickers beware that nothing is worth a stint in a Thai prison.

Note:  Since the publication of Fellows’ book, and perhaps to some degree because of it, conditions in Thai prisons have improved considerably and continue to do so, albeit slowly. According to FARANG columnist Garth Hattan (see page 69), who has lived in Bang Kwang for the past eight years, torture has diminished since Fellows’ time. Nonetheless, the prisons are overcrowded and life on the inside is harsh.

 -- Published by Untamed Travel magazine, 2002


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