Theerayut Charoenpakdee was terrified when police stopped her outside a mall in Pattaya, a Thai resort famous for its sordid nightlife. A urine test on the spot revealed meth coursing through her veins.
“I thought I was going to be thrown in prison with all the men because I still have the title of Mr.,” the transgender woman said. “I was afraid. News and TV tells us that being sent to prison is scary.”
It turned out not to be the ordeal she expected. The prison she was destined for — Pattaya Remand — separates lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender prisoners from other inmates, a little-known policy despite being in place nationwide since 1993, according to the Department of Corrections. Thailand, often described as a haven for gay people, has around 300,000 prisoners, of which more than 6,000 are registered as sexual minorities.
And that’s not all. The Thai government is also considering what could be the world’s first prison facility exclusively for LGBT inmates. While the plans are still being discussed, in Pattaya and other prisons across Thailand LGBT prisoners are kept apart to prevent violence, officials say.
“If we didn’t separate them, people could start fighting over partners to sleep with,” said Pattaya Remand Warden Watcharavit Vachiralerphum. “It could lead to rape, sexual assault, and the spread of disease.”
By day, Pattaya LGBT inmates eat together and do their morning exercises in uniform. At night, they sleep in their own quarters, apart from the other inmates.
But most of the time, they mingle freely with the others, though they tend to stick together for daytime activities like sewing or football. Transgender women spike volleyballs next to men pressing barbells and sparing with punching bags; gay men train together in first-aid at the jail clinic, sanitizing and bandaging the wounds of straight men.
Many LGBT inmates agree the limited separation is a decent compromise between safety and segregation.
“There are people that discriminate against gays,” said Chawalit Chankiew, one of the gay clinic workers, sentenced to nine years for document forgery. “If I happen to sleep next to someone who hates gay people, I wouldn’t know it unless they show it. What if they hurt me one day?”
Theerayut says the prison’s segregation makes her 1 ½-year sentence more bearable. “If we behave like others, if we aren’t stubborn and don’t break rules, this place actually isn’t so vicious,” she said, sitting in a prison yard fenced with barbed wire, her long hair bobbing up and down as she spoke.
But the system isn’t without problems.
“Transgender women who have not gone through gender reassignment surgery, they have to shave their head and live with the men, and there’s going to be problems,” says Wannapong Yodmuang, an LGBT advocate with the Rainbow Sky Association. “Some of them are going to be OK living with the men, but there are some transgender women who might have a bad experience with men and won’t want to live with them.”
There are also concerns that the system does not adequately tend to the specialized health needs of transgender inmates. Hormone therapy, for example, is written off as a luxury by some. But LGBT advocates say it is essential.
Plans for a separate facility for LGBT inmates on the outskirts of Bangkok could improve their treatment inside prison. The idea was first proposed as a measure to keep LGBT people safe, but it stalled over concern is that it would keep inmates far from their families.
“It’d be easier to control, easier to take care of, easier to develop and improve their habits and behavior,” said Watcharawit. “But they have to mix with other inmates because once they’re released, they’ll have to rejoin a diverse society.”
Some activists worry it could stigmatize them.
“Building and reallocating an entire prison facility for LGBT prisoners is as a matter of fact a measure of segregation,” said Jean-Sebastian Blanc, an expert on prisons at the Switzerland-based Association for the Prevention of Torture. “There is a significant difference between a public health policy aiming at preventing transmissible diseases and segregating a segment of the population on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Similar proposals in Italy and Turkey have bogged down under heavy criticism. Italy announced it was rededicating a women’s prison for transgender individuals in 2010, but the move was blocked by the Ministry of Justice over concerns that a special jail was a form of discrimination. Activists are attacking a proposed “pink prison” in Turkey over concerns that inmates there could face worse conditions than regular inmates because of anti-gay stigma.
But existing options leave much to be desired. In many prisons in the US and other countries, transgender women face a stark choice: get thrown into cells with men, or go into solitary confinement.
Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower arrested for sending secret military files to WikiLeaks, was sentenced in 2013 to 35 years at a male prison in Kansas despite declaring herself a transgender woman. She was thrown in solitary confinement for attempting suicide last year, and was granted clemency by former President Barack Obama.