Learning Behind Bars

By Grace Cantal-Albasin

BANGKOK – Silk is 22 years old and would have graduated from university by now had she not gotten involved in the illegal drug trade. Found guilty of selling methamphetamines or ya baa, she has been in prison for last 18 months,  and she may not be out until she has finished serving the rest of her three-year jail term.

Yet Silk remains a student behind bars. At present, she is one of the inmates at the Correctional Center for Women here in Bangkok, attending computer classes under the IT for Inmates Project of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and the National Electronics and Computer Technology Center (NECTEC).

“Selling drugs was an easy way to earn money but I have to face the consequence of my actions,” says Silk, who comes from a middle-class family but thought she needed more money to indulge her youthful caprices. “I am thankful to the government for providing us this opportunity to harness my computer skills so that when I get out I can have something to turn to.”

The IT for Inmates Project is only one among the many information-technology programs set up in the last decade by NECTEC in partnership with various government and nongovernmental agencies. The programs are designed to empower people by making them self-sufficient, and are based on NECTEC’s conviction that information and knowledge are crucial to development.

The goal of IT for Inmates, for instance, is to provide computer knowledge and skills to those in jail so that – as Silk has realized — they could get jobs more easily after leaving prison and therefore integrate more smoothly into the mainstream. But many inmates don’t even have to wait to get out before they can start making money out of their new skills. Aided by computers, some have designed and created cards that have been snapped up by both public and private companies. Others have been tapped by private firms to design and lay out brochures.

“They don’t earn much,” says jail guard Sermsri Pana, who is also in charge of the computer class at the Correctional Center for Women. “But they feel rewarded for what they do because they learn to create many designs. Their creativity is harnessed and they feel confident that once they get out of prison there is something to do to earn.”

Quick progress
The Correctional Center for Women was the first IT for Inmates project site, receiving 20 computers in 1995 for use by about 120 up to 300 inmates estimated to avail of the classes offered.  Today, the women’s jail has 40 computers, plus printers and scanners.

NECTEC assistant director Chadamas Thuvasethakul says that at present, 140 computers have been distributed among four correctional institutions, including the women’s jail. IT classes are also being held in Bangkok Remand Prison, the Klong Prem Male Prison, and the Institution for Drug Addicts. NECTEC estimates that the program has already had thousands of graduates; in 1999 alone, the women’s correctional saw 500 inmates completing the computer courses.

There are about 40 students per class at the women’s jail. At least two sessions per day are held for the basic computer literacy class, where students have to complete 150 hours to be considered graduates of it. Those in the advanced classes, meanwhile, learn how to use programs such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and Pagemaker.

According to Dr. Chadamas, male inmates are taught not only software applications but also hardware repair.  He adds that computer classes for youth offenders at the Kanchanapisek Home in Nakhon Pathom have already been approved.

At the women’s correctional, jail guard Sermsri doubles as instructor in the basic computer classes. But the advanced classes are handled by volunteers from the prestigious Sukhothai and Thammasat universities. Says a visibly proud Sermsri: “We are glad that some computer teachers have volunteered to teach the inmates. With their skills, the project has gone a long way.”

Requirements and preparations
Not all inmates can attend the classes, though. Only those who have reached at least Grade 8 and are about to complete their sentences can do so. More importantly, they have to have a record of good behavior in prison.

Exemplary behavior seems to carry more weight compared to the years left unserved by a prisoner in determining who gets into the classes. While Silk is already wearing the blue uniform of someone who is nearing the completion of her jail term (she has finished half of it), another student, Ma, has so far served only six years out of her 25-year sentence. Like Silk, the 31-year-old mother of two was caught selling drugs. There is also Vanessa, a South African who is just one-third through her 30-year prison term.

Slapped with a drug possession charge, Vanessa is hoping that her case would be reopened soon since Thailand is now allowing incarcerated foreigners to file appeals. Ma, for her part, has busied herself not only with computer classes, but with English lessons as well. She is determined to come out of jail – whenever that will be — ready for the world.

“I find it vital to learn English to complement my computer skills because when I get out of here I need to find a job suitable to the skills I am learning here,” she says. “Computer are already a part of people’s lives and I need to cope with the demands. It would be my edge over the others.”

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