Though Baan Mae Sa Luang is a small village, somehow it manages to have two prisons. On the south end of the village, near the river, there is a juvenile detention center, and on the north end of the village, past the school along the town’s “main road,” there is a woman’s prison. Without knowing the reason for the imprisonment or having any personal experience with the Thai justice system (which, quite frankly, is the way I prefer), it is impossible to speak about the justice of their treatment.
What I would like to write about today, though, is the way in which living in a “prison town” warps your perspective about safety and justice. I have a fair amount of experience living near prisons. In the part of Florida where my mother and stepfather live, there are three prisons pretty close by, the closest one being the Orient Road prison, which has a bit of fame of being a place where many celebrities are booked after DUI or public intoxication run-ins with the local law enforcement. Make no mistake, it’s no place I’d want to be, and that’s a far better prison than many I have seen around the world. The slave prisons on the coast of Ghana were even grimmer, and one could feel the evil there after hundreds of years. I imagine the same feeling of evil can be felt at concentration camps as well.
What is it about prisons that are so abhorrent? For one, human beings were meant to be free, not to be caged up. Come to think of it, I hate the thought of anything being caged up, whether humans or animals. We were meant to live under the sun, to breathe fresh air, not to be forced inside dark caverns and kept behind bars. Israelite law very sensibly had no prison system. The closest equivalent to the prison system was the “house arrest” where those guilty of manslaughter were forced to live in the walls of the city of refuge until the high priest died, so that they could escape the vengeance of the kinsman-redeemer of the person they accidentally killed (see Numbers 35:9-34). That sort of “imprisonment” was the most enclosed that God sees fit for human beings. For those who cannot be let free because of their risk to their fellow citizens as rapists or murderers, there is the death penalty. For those guilty of other crimes, their penalty is not imprisonment but rather restitution, so that those they injured or stole from can be restored to wholeness, or at least as close to it as this life can get. This system is far more just than caging human beings behind bars like animals at a zoo.
Not coincidentally, both of the prisons in Mae Sa Luang have Buddhist temples close by. It is Buddhist dogma, at least as practiced in Thailand, that performing acts of “merit,” including service at a temple, can undo the wicked or sinful acts one has done. And so, like Catholics seeking penance, criminals go to wats to earn merit to counteract their own previous actions, whether or not they change the way they live their lives. It is a curious religious system to be sure, curious in that it has a view of God (or Buddha, or what you will) as the old Egyptian with the sales weighing and balancing one’s good deeds against one’s bad deeds, rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or the Word, seeking believers to turn their whole hearts to Him, and to bring every thought, every emotion, and every action into captivity to His divine standards. The Bible demands a far more drastic and complete level of repentance than the heathen religions of this world.
By coincidence, I read an article today from the BBC  that commented that large portions of Kuwait, about 120,000 people in fact, lived like prisoners, illegal aliens in their own cities, unable to work legally, go to school, or receive health benefits. Some of these people, no doubt are illegal aliens from countries like Iraq or Iran, though who would blame them from wanting to leave such places, even if one would insist on there being a legal and above-board way to do so. The Middle East is very curious when it comes to such matters, though. Rather than hiring migrants from nearby countries, the Middle Eastern shiekhdoms hire workers from far away, places like Baluchistan, Indonesia, or the Philippines, to serve in menial labor far from home. Rather than provide opportunities for their poor neighbors, they allow those poor among them to live in hovels and scrape by on irregular (and illegal) work and businesses while importing low cost labor from far away that is temporary and cut off from any legal protection or family networks, in order to preserve an unjust society of social control in a top-down hierarchy.
Therefore, far from being mere prison towns, countries like Kuwait or Bahrain may be more like prison countries, in the same continum as North Korea or Cuba. Such is the consequence of deliberately setting up unjust societies with central control. Where everyone is either a prisoner or a prison guard, in some metaphorical sense, there can be no justice, no feeling of fraternity with one’s brethren and fellow citizens, unless it is to pit one group of people with privileges against another group without. A house divided cannot stand, and if we wish our societies and institutions to endure, we must find a way to allow freedom of opportunity for all, rather than save it for a privileged few. Otherwise, before too long, we may all find ourselves dealing with the unpleasant consequences of living in prison towns.