The Jewish Club in Cell Block 2

Drug runners study Torah, eat kosher — and pray for amnesty amid the horrors of Bang Kwang jail



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report



Shimon Dahan is doing time, he insists, “for a flower.” It’s not botanical interests, however, that made the 67-year-old French-born Israeli an inmate of Bangkok’s Bang Kwang Central Prison for the past six years. Dahan is serving a 100-year sentence for smuggling a derivative of the poppy — heroin.

Illustration: Avi Katz, the Jerusalem Report

The former bartender’s story is of the typical “tourist-turns-convict” variety in Thailand, the apex of the Golden Triangle of the Asian opium trade. Dahan was busted at Bangkok Airport in 1993 with almost 10 kilograms of the white powder, worth $2 million, in a shoulder bag. Instead of rolling in easy money, the silver-haired flower child with a ponytail, flowered headband and walrus mustache wound up in what he calls a “concentration camp.”

Among the other inmates in his Block 2 are three fellow Jews — all also lifers for drug offenses — and Dahan may owe them his life.
Bang Kwang, a maximum-security prison on the outskirts of Bangkok, may be far from an Auschwitz, but it’s horrendous enough. In their cramped, squalid, stiflingly hot cells, most prisoners take turns sleeping on the bare cement floor among giant roaches. They use a stinking hole in a corner for a toilet and subsist on a bowl of rice porridge a day. To bathe, they splash water on themselves from troughs filled with untreated, sewage-tainted water from the nearby river.

“If you have no money for extras, you’re dead,” Dahan’s cellmate Eddy Tutin, a clerkish French Jew of 50 in the fifth year of his sentence, shouts to me from behind double iron mesh screens in the packed, cacophonous visitors’ courtyard. “If you have no friends, you go down.”

Not so the Jews of Block 2. They have pulled together and carved out a life of comparative luxury for themselves. With cash sent in by friends and relatives, they bought themselves into the same cell, then bribed the guards to have only 10 other inmates in their 215-square-foot quarters, not the standard 20, and allow them sleeping mats, bottled water, and a diet of meat, fruit and vegetables.
Two years ago, the four “leased” a $500-a-year cell for their “Jewish House.” It’s an exclusive club equipped with a table and chairs, bookshelves and a color TV.

Cloistered there by day (the prisoners don’t work), they read the Torah or one of the books provided by Rabbi Nehemya Wilhelm, a Lubavitcher hasid from Jerusalem who for the past five years has been catering to Bangkok’s Jewish backpackers.

“You get a better education in here than a yeshivah student,” says Alexander Kreps, 40, a South African Jew who in his six years inside has turned into a prolific amateur artist. “Outside, you have to go and see a rabbi. Here, he comes to you.”

The little brotherhood’s membership badge is the yarmulkes they wear inside their sanctuary, where they have painted a large Star of David on the floor. Here they hold Shabbat services and eat kosher food sent in by the rabbi.

No money, though, can buy them out of disease or death. AIDS is endemic among the prisoners, as junkies are everywhere, pooling syringes. Tuberculosis is another killer, lurking for new victims in every infected cough.

Just how heavy a toll prison life can take is demonstrated by the fourth member of Bangkwang’s Jewish fraternity. In his five years there, Stephen Roye has deteriorated from an Emmy-winning American television producer to a fading shadow. As a freelancer who had produced several anti-drug documentaries in the 1980s, he said he volunteered to run heroin from Bangkok to his native Los Angeles. He hoped it would revive his flagging career by getting the inside story of drug smuggling. He got no further than Bangkok airport.

Roye, now 53, spends much of his time curled up in the Jewish House. He mumbles incoherently, barely eats and sees no visitors. “He’s on his last legs,” Dahan says.

The Jews of Block 2 say they have found God in prison. Perhaps inevitably, they hope to find an answer for their tribulations in some divine scheme.

“God works in mysterious ways,” explains Kreps, who, with his long, curly blond hair and pumped-up muscles, resembles a beached surfer. “If I were outside, I might well be dead by now.” Kreps describes a pre-conviction life of drug addiction and a shoot-out with police back in South Africa. Now he puts on tefillin for his daily prayers, keeps Shabbat and eats kosher. He prays to God to add his name to a pending royal amnesty.

As an Israeli, Shimon Dahan prays to go home under a prisoner-transfer treaty. It qualifies lifers to complete their sentence in Israel after eight years in a Thai jail. He has two more years to go. Then he can look forward to eventual freedom — after probable early release — in a land where flowers are far less dangerous.


Previous page