Thailand Separates LGBT Inmates, Considers Segregated Prison

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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.

Related: Getting to Know Thailand’s Gay Side

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.


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