In a world where prisoners’ sentences are reduced for good behavior, the rules at Klong Prem Central Prison, in Thailand, come across as bizarre. They basically have it the other way around – inmates battle foreign fighters in a tournament called ‘Prison Fight’, a charity event organized by Thailand’s Department of Corrections. The organized boxing matches, held regularly across various Thai prisons, give them a shot at reducing their sentences or even gaining their freedom.
Winning inmates receive prize money as well as the chance to meet with the warden to have their sentence reduced. Needless to say, the Thai prisoners win at least 9 out of 10 fights, both because they are eager to get out of confinement and because most of them have years of experience. But they also need to have a track record of good behavior to be let off the hook.
“Prison fights are done to help the prisoners. It lets the prisoners fight so they can earn money,” said Mr. Pek, Prison Fights coordinator. “They also fight to reduce the time of their sentences. To reduce their sentence and to bring honor and fame to Thailand, if they can defeat foreign fighters and fight a lot. Some of the fighters are in for drugs, robbery or murder. There are boxers doing life or 50 years. There are boxers who can never get out.”
Prisoners take their training pretty seriously, practicing the ancient art of Muay Thai almost every day. According to Saichon Somnet, the head coach at Klong Prem Central Prison in Bangkok, “Life in prison is very difficult for the people inside. I’ve taught students the art of boxing and the art of Muay Thai and martial arts so I really want to share this with foreigners.” The exhibition matches also serve as warm-ups for the Olympic tryouts.
Thai prisons have specially designated Muay Thai arenas, where the Prison Fight matches take place. The actual boxing happens in a ring, with spectators (fellow prisoners) watching and cheering on from the surrounding stands. You might spot a female cheerleader or two as well. A correction officer speaks before the fights begin, and the opponents are paired up on the spot based on height and weight. They’ve never met before and have no idea of each other’s fighting style. The inmates do the Wai Khru Ram Muay, an elaborate dance that is performed by fighters before combat. And then, the fighting begins.
Wichai Gahmoi, a prisoner, says: “I’m very happy about today’s boxing event. I’m very confident and will be happy if we can win. Boxing is one of the activities that makes me happy. During my practice I feel very confident, and I feel confident about the fight.”
“It’s very hard for prisoners to get this kind of opportunity,” said Saichon. “I’m very happy it’s happening today.”
The foreign fighters are quite excited about the event as well. “Prison fight can make me popular because when people listen fight inside prison then think, ‘wow, it’s crazy,’” said Alexis Barateau from France.
“For me this is like a really exciting opportunity to get a glimpse inside Klong Prem prison,” said James Goyder, a challenger and journalist from the UK. “There aren’t really any other circumstances under which an outsider could just walk in here and talk to the inmates. So I’m really excited just to see an element of life that you would never, never normally get a chance to see.”
Prison Fight was first conducted in January 2013. It is inspired by a local legend that dates back to 1774. Nai Khanomtom, a Thai fighter, was confined in a Burmese prison. He was forced to fight nine Burmese champions in a row, for the viewing pleasure of King Mangra. Khanomtom defeated each and every one of his opponents with ease. The Burmese king was so pleased that he granted Khanomtom his freedom, and two wives to boot.
Ling, a prisoner who used to work in an ice manufacturing unit, is now doing 50 years at Klong Prem prison. Thanks to all the matches he’s won, his sentence is now down to 40 years. If two inmates have an argument, he said, the officers will let them fight it out in the ring. “Boxing and Muay Thai is in our blood. We love Muay Thai.”