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Freedom Fighters

In prisons across Thailand, Muay Thai boxing is giving inmates a shot at early release and putting them on the road to redemption

Author Matthew Shaer Photography Patrick Brown

Prison Fight at Khlong Phai Prison

It’s late summer in the emerald hills of Thailand’s Nakhon Ratchasima province, some 150 miles northeast of Bangkok. The sticky heat, common during this time of year, is even more stifling in the cramped courtyard of Klong Pai, one of the country’s largest high-security prisons, which houses drug traffickers, thieves, murderers and––as evidenced by the blows being exchanged on the blood-stained canvas in front of me—some of the best Muay Thai boxers in the world.

As flea-bitten dogs roam the courtyard, darting between the legs of the hundreds of inmates on hand for the fight—which mixes aspects of martial arts and traditional boxing—Arran Burton, a heavily tattooed beanpole from the hardscrabble English city of Colchester, does battle with Chalernpol Sawangsuk, a 26-year-old currently serving time at Klong Pai for trafficking crystal meth.

Though Burton, a free man, has the advantages of training in proper gyms, maintaining good nutrition and being an established fighter on the local Muay Thai circuit, his opponent, who is just 5-foot-7, has him off balance. Sawangsuk ducks under a hook, evades a jab and then counters with a hard kick to the solar plexus that sends Burton wobbling backward into the ropes. The inmate spectators—no doubt rooting for one of their own—give a raucous cheer.

Sawangsuk, smiling through the rubber of his mouth guard, has every reason to be pleased. A win today wouldn’t just bring him the admiration of his fellow inmates—it would bring him one step closer to freedom.

The Klong Pai fight is part of a program set up in 2010 by the Thai government that sanctions fights at dozens of correctional facilities across the country. Only prison officials, local politicians, inmates, family members and the professional fighters who began to participate this year are allowed to attend. The events are orchestrated in much the same way as pro tournaments: All fighters wear regulation gloves and wraps, and every bout is overseen by a seasoned Muay Thai referee.

If an inmate wins a match, his case is referred to the warden of his prison, who then has the option of reducing his sentence by months or even years. After winning five straight bouts, Sawangsuk, a former enforcer for a Bangkok gambling ring, has already shaved seven years off his 10-year sentence. If he wins today, he could be a free man within a few months.

On the face of it, the program seems ridiculous, like something out of a Jean-Claude Van Damme action movie. You could go as far as to say there’s something vaguely sinister about it: The most dangerous men in the correctional system are the ones awarded their freedom.

There is also, though, a certain logic to the program. Drugs and gang activity are rampant in Thai prisons, and there are precious few opportunities for rehabilitation or education. Training for a match helps center the contestants and fills up their days with gym time. It also makes work for scores of other prisoners, who serve as coaches, cutmen, sparring partners and masseurs. These crewmen develop strong bonds with their boxers and each other, as well as a sense of purpose. Between rounds, they crowd into the corner of the ring, whispering encouragement to their fighters.

Most important, the contests provide two commodities that are in extremely short supply in Thai prison life: a chance at redemption and a source of pride.

“Muay Thai is a strong part of Thai culture,” says Aree Chaloisuk, the director of Klong Pai. “I think the fighters are proud to participate in the program. From what I have seen, it can improve bad behavior and provides an opportunity for a career for inmates after they leave prison—they can compete instead of becoming criminals again.”

Seen in this way, the commutations issued by the prison aren’t rewards for violence; they’re rewards for pursuing a vocation other than crime. In fact, many American prisons run similar sporting programs. There are boxing teams, football and basketball squads and, at Louisiana’s Angola prison, the famous inmate rodeo competition. While these programs aren’t directly attached to “earning time,” in certain prisons inmates can reduce their sentences for good behavior—and what better way to exhibit good behavior than practicing good sportsmanship.

Peter Moskos, an associate professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, argues that such athletic programs offer inmates a rare opportunity for self-improvement. “It’s really easy to forget how cruel prison can be,” he says. “I think that in the name of humanity, you’ve got to give people some way to better themselves. After all, even if it’s not always carried out, remember that the whole purpose of prison is ostensibly to help people.”

Chalernpol Sawangsuk’s life was never easy. A stern-faced, taciturn man, he grew up north of Bangkok, in a poor family, and was raised mostly by his grandmother and mother. He joined a Muay Thai gym at the age of nine and competed successfully at the amateur level for a couple of years. But many of his childhood friends were joining gangs, and he was tempted by the criminal life and all the possibilities that came with it—the money, the cars, the women.

By the time he hit 16, Sawangsuk was making a good living working as muscle for various criminal organizations. He had the toughness for it, and the smarts. Then, three years ago, at the age of 23, he was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 10 years.

Sawangsuk spent his first year in prison the way most inmates in Thailand do: He smoked black-market cigarettes; he allowed a friend to cover his entire torso in an elaborate tapestry of ballpoint-ink-and-sewing-needle tattoos; he grew fat; he lost contact with his family.

At the beginning of his second year, he heard about the Muay Thai program. To be eligible, you needed only to have a sentence of a decade or more and a background in Muay Thai. Sawangsuk had both. So he set about getting himself back into shape.

He had always been a natural fighter––patient and outwardly calm, with a capacity for explosive brutality that could stun his opponents into submission. And yet, in the outside world, the trappings of the gangster life had too easily distracted him.

In prison, there wasn’t a lot of room for distraction. Sawangsuk trained relentlessly, typically from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a two-hour break at midday, when the tropical heat congeals into a damp, impenetrable soup. He ran, he jumped rope, he sparred. He also meditated.

“It was a big change to my life,” Sawangsuk says. “I think the program has helped me become more focused. I’ve slowed down. I think about things more. I’m more reasonable. I’ve seen myself grow up.”

Although many of the prison tournaments are staged among inmates, the bout we’re witnessing today pits the Klong Pai guys against pro fighters from Australia, North America and Europe. The bill is the work of a thirty-something Estonian businessman named Kirill Sokur, who teamed up with the Thai Department of Corrections earlier this year to help stage fights, such as this one, between inmates and outside professionals.

The name of Sokur’s organization, Prison Fight, is simple and straight to the point. In exchange for setting up the bouts and providing the equipment, Prison Fight receives a fee from the Thai government; it also has the opportunity to scout top talent from the prisoner pool. Fighters like Sawangsuk, when free, represent incredible potential for a savvy promoter––the bad guy turned good. The prisoners, in turn, have a shot at going legit.

“Giving these guys a ring and an opportunity to prove themselves in front of the rest of the inmates––and the world, actually––that’s pretty important,” Sokur says.

In the moments before Sawangsuk and Burton resume their fight, the ringside inmates of Klong Pai crowd the edge of the canvas, jockeying for the best view. Half the prison has been invited to the event, but not everyone can fit in the pavilion, so a tiered seating structure has been jerry-rigged. Prison officials and local politicians sit on a big dais above the ring; prisoners on particularly good behavior (identified by pristine white shirts) sit on folding chairs arranged in tidy rows on the floor; the rest of the inmates are arranged willy-nilly against a nearby chain-link fence.

As the second round gets underway, the roar from the crowd is deafening. Sawangsuk turns and nods. In some sense, he is fighting for his fellow inmates, too.

The first round went decisively to Sawangsuk. Now he turns up the intensity, pummelling his opponent with feet and knees and fists. Burton does his best to shield his face, but a number of punches get through, the heaviest of which make his ankles wobble. It’s not looking good for the Brit.

The inmates howl over the tinny sarama music being played, and the black-shirted referee raises his hands to stop the fight and restore order. Despite the delay, Sawangsuk stays focused, eyes narrowed. When the referee gives the signal to resume, Sawangsuk rips forward with shocking speed, catching Burton in the chin with his elbow. Burton tumbles down in segments. The top half of his body flops out of the ring. He does not wake up for a full 10 seconds, and even then he looks dazed. The fight is over.

Afterward, in the small, sweltering, makeshift trainer’s room in one of the prison barracks, Sawangsuk stands surrounded by his crew, one of whom tenderly unwraps the tape on his hands, while another wipes the oil off his shoulders and neck. “It went the way I thought it might,” Sawangsuk says of the fight. “Just a little bit faster.” His friends laugh appreciatively.

After his release, Sawangsuk says, he plans to accept Sokur’s offer to fight professionally. But first he is heading to a monastery in the south of the country, where he says he will don saffron robes, shave his head and serve as a Buddhist monk for three months. “The other life,” he says, “I think it’s really behind me.”

MATTHEW SHAER is the author of The Sinking of the Bounty: The True Story of a Tragic Shipwreck and Its Aftermath. He writes for New York, Harper’s and others.

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