October 19 2017, updated 8:20am

Back from Bangkok Hilton hell

Last updated 11:57 02/02/2008
BEEN THERE: Bangkok Hilton survivor Phyllis Tarawhiti says: "I've been there and I've experienced it and I've got to do something about it."

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For 11 years, Phyllis Tarawhiti was No 2118 at the notorious 'Bangkok Hilton', serving a life sentence for smuggling heroin. A year ago, she flew home in her pyjamas to a country both strange and familiar. She talks to Emily Watt.

For Phyllis Tarawhiti, these were the best things about 2007: the stars, drinking coffee from a coffee cup, family and friends, buying a packet of cigarettes, the beauty of the Pacific Ocean, being able to get out of the rain.

It has been a year since Ms Tarawhiti flew home – terrified and in her pyjamas – after an 11-year stint at the prison known as the Bangkok Hilton.

Coming home has not been what she expected. It is exciting. And difficult.

"I never thought that getting back into the world would be such a hard thing," she says. "It's not as easy to adjust as I thought it would be."

She seems to have a core of steel. She was someone who caused a headache for her captors by standing up for prisoners' rights and heckling international visitors to alert them to prison conditions.

Now, the 50-year-old mother of three and grandmother of six has another battle or two ahead. It will take time to gather her reserves.

"I feel good about being home, I just don't know how I'm going to tackle all the things that I need to tackle," she says. "There are a lot of things I want to do but I'm afraid. I have to sort out me."

A small dynamo, she speaks fast, and with gusto, as if she is trying to make up for lost time. She leans forward as she tells a story, and her brown eyes change from conspiratorial to defiant in a shift of light.

She admits she expects the worst when she meets people and is surprised that people see her as a survivor.

"I always saw the survivors as my family. I put my kids through 11 years without a mother. But I have to accept that and get over it because my kids had to.

"The clear thing is people are just happy to see me home. They're happy that I survived it, I made it, I'm back. They don't look at me so much as that woman who did that stupid thing, that bad thing, but they see me as the person who survived."

When she agrees to talk to The Dominion Post, it is under strict instructions: "Don't write anything soppy," she says. "I don't want no cry-baby story."

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Here, then, are the facts. Thirty- eight-year-old Phyllis Tarawhiti was sentenced to death, then to life imprisonment, in a Thai court in 1995 after being caught with $4 million worth of heroin strapped to her body. Her sentence was later reduced to 35 years.

For the next fifth of her life, she was No 2118 at Thailand's Lad Yao prison.

A lawyer who visited her there described conditions as "terrible, harsh and grossly, grossly crowded".

She was eventually granted a rare pardon on January 26, 2007, and flew home in business class on February 1.

"If you were to ask me what I was feeling, I'd say I don't know. I didn't feel. I was numb. I kept thinking, am I home?"

For the first few weeks, she spent every night in her father's garden in Auckland gazing at the stars. Locked up every afternoon at 4.30pm, she had missed 4000 night skies.

"When I first came back, I'd sit down to dinner and I had this lovely meal and a beautiful table and a plate and a chair and family and friends and I'd cry."

She thought of her friends left behind. "I knew that they're over there, eating bones and those kinds of things."

Now she lives in the Hutt Valley, surrounded by bush, soul music played loud and windows flung open, a telescope on the balcony to see the stars and watch her friends driving up to visit from the town below. A plaque reads: Live as though heaven is on earth.

She revels in the beauty of New Zealand. "I never appreciated that until I got locked in someone else's country."

She still sleeps on the floor.

She has spent the year travelling the country visiting friends and family, healing.

She says there are things to do, but they are not easy.

She wants a job working with people, to give something back, but as she filled in the application form it asked about criminal convictions.

"It reminds you – bang – heroin." She put it off.

"There's little things that I've discovered that I have to get over."

She speaks little of the 250 grams of smuggled heroin, saying: "I was one of those ladies looking for excitement because I was bored by life and I did something stupid. I paid my price. But hey, it's okay. I survived and I'm back and it's okay."

But there is a sense of urgency, a drive to fulfil promises made to her friends still inside.

The foreign prisoners spent their days discussing Prisoner Transfer Treaties. They would watch Australian and American girls fly home under international agreements, while those, like her, whose countries had no treaty, languished.

They agreed that when they got out they would fight for the others.

"But we never thought about this part when we were sitting there. We just thought that when we got out we'd be able to get on and do things. But it's not like that. There's something inside you that's not quite correct yet.

"But I can't leave it too long because there are people who are sitting there and it's been a year."

The other day she got a letter from a Kiwi in a Japanese prison, begging for her help.

He had read about her release. His letter spoke of all the things she used to discuss with the other foreigners in jail, the need for a treaty. It pricked her conscience.

"And I feel for him because he's right . . . We're the ones that got left behind. I've been there and I've experienced it and I know it so I've got to do something about it."

One day she will lift the lid on the conditions in the prison and name the multinational companies and First World police forces that use the forced sweatshop labour of Thai prisoners to pack their products and sew their uniforms.

"It's just a matter of getting me together so I can go out and do it. I'm nearly there, not quite, but I'm nearly there. I'm on the road."


LAD YAO women's prison in Thailand, facetiously named the Bangkok Hilton, is a grim home to 5000 women.

Phyllis Tarawhiti slept on the floor in a room with 278 women who shared four toilets. Nothing was free: prisoners had to buy their food, medicine, uniform and toilet paper.

Cockroaches, snakes, rats and diseased cats crawled out of open sewers. Earwigs were so big that a broom handle was needed to kill them. All day, every day, was spent outside in a yard. It was hot, 38 degrees or so, and Ms Tarawhiti's eyesight is damaged from the sun.

In the wet season, there was nowhere to get out of the rain.

And it was dull. There was no music, no cards, no board games. "You don't have anything that would bring joy. You're in prison, you're not supposed to be happy."

The Thai women were put to work, sitting on the floor of great factories. Foreigners sat in the yard, talking about what they would do when they got out. "And I read. I know heaps of things. I read for 11 bloody years. I read."

At first she resisted learning Thai. "To be honest, I didn't want to learn the language because I didn't want to talk to them. They didn't want to send me home so I had nothing to say to them." She is now fluent.

She watched women die in every conceivable way. She estimates 75 per cent of prisoners had Aids. "Sometimes it eats them from the outside, sometimes from the inside out. There were no painkillers. Have you ever watched someone die from starvation?"

Amazingly, she managed to stay healthy, but it was the mind games that were the hardest. Staring down a 35-year sentence with little hope of release, and guards who thrived on humiliation, took huge mental fortitude. She hit a wall at about nine years. "I thought, 'Shit, I've put up with this for nine years. How the hell am I doing it?' "

She took comfort from a highway visible from the room she slept in, locked up at 4.30 every afternoon. "Every night before you go to bed you could see cars moving. It was a reminder that there's life. It helped keep you . . . sane. Knowing that one day you were going to be in that rat race too."

- The Dominion Post

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