How Do I Keep Ending Up In Prisons?

Dave Goes to Prison–A Cautionary Tale

Even in the backpacker district, there’s a need for a minyan.

“A gruesome scene,

It happened so fast,

Next week, they remove the cast…”

–“Watch Your Footwork,” from Disney’s “The World’s Happiest Millionaire.”

The question caught me by surprise.

“Are you busy?” the balding man with the long red beard asked again as I stood in line on Khaosan Road waiting to make a long distance phone call. 

I had been asked many odd questions in my travels, but this was the strangest. Granted, it wasn’t a woman asking me if I knew her boyfriend, or a child asking me why my fellow Americans didn’t believe Tasmania existed, but it was odd nonetheless; not only because I knew the asker was the rabbi at the Chabad House down the street, but also because I knew where the conversation was going.

He needed a minyan.

No, that doesn’t mean he had taken to the streets trying to recruit toadies. Instead, he was trying to comply with a Jewish law requiring the presence of 10 Jewish men before a prayer service can be held. Any Jew can pray in private but cannot do so in a group without having at least 10 guys who have had a bar mitzvah in attendance. I’ve never understood this requirement and have occasionally wondered if it’s Judaism’s equivalent of the metric system. Still, it’s a question I had heard numerous times back in The States because I grew up in a town with a small Jewish community where congregants had to call around to make sure there would be enough people attending prayer service on weekday mornings or evenings. Still, I never expected to hear the question while I was traveling, especially in a country where there were more Buddhist temples than Jews.

I reconsidered my assumption once the service ended and I talked to the rabbi, however. Apparently, there are far more Jews in Bangkok than I imagined, even if only because the city is a major destination for young Israelis looking for a place to go after completing stints in the military and college. Its cheapness and location make it a great place to stop before venturing on to Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Australia or New Zealand, the rabbi said. More than 50,000 Israelis pass through the area every year. They make up such a large percentage of the backpackers that many of the signs on Khaosan are in Hebrew. 

The rabbi also told me a Thai man once asked him how many people lived in Israel. When the rabbi said one million, the man responded, “No, rabbi, I’m not asking how many visit Bangkok.”

That’s why Chabad opened here. The organization isn’t dumb. While it isn’t easy to capitalize on a backpacker’s sense of religion, it’s easy to ease their homesickness by offering kosher food and a taste of home in the form of Friday night dinners. Chabad’s first foray into the backpacker world was so successful that the organization was considering opening in Nepal or India, the next most popular destinations for Israeli backpackers. 

Although the rabbi wouldn’t come out and say it, Chabad sees those countries as problem areas because the visits often inspire Jews to begin spiritual quests. Since Buddhism and Hinduism are the dominant religions, the theory goes, questing Israelis gravitate toward one of those camps, and that, if only Judaism had some representatives in the area, the people searching for meaning would return to the fold. In fact, the rabbi said many Jews who stumbled across the Chabad House discovered a renewed interest in Judaism. I don’t know how valid the theory is, but it seems like they think most take a convenience store approach to choosing a religious system. To me, that’s akin to saying that if the Katmandu 7-11 didn’t sell Judaism on its religion shelf, Jewish visitors would feel so guilty about using the bathroom and not buying something there that they would feel obligated to at least buy some religion. I mean, what’s wrong with a postcard? They’re so much cheaper.

Scenes from a Bangkok prison.

There is one issue I can’t fault Chabad for, however: The organization’s treatment of Jews in Bangkok’s prisons. Regardless of the crime, the rabbi ministers to their needs and visits as often as his schedule allows. Although their infractions range from breaking and entering and theft all the way to drug trafficking, the rabbi treats them all with compassion. When he asked if I wanted to go with him the next time he visited a prison, I jumped at the chance even though it meant staying an extra day and leaving later than I wanted. So I called my family, told them I would be at the hotel one more day and would be interviewing prisoners the following afternoon before heading to Kanchaniburi, the home of the Bridge over the River Kwai. 

Although the Israelis who went on the trip talked with several of the Jewish prisoners they knew, I only talked to one, Stephen Roian, a freelance writer who came to Thailand chasing a story on the lucrative Bangkok-to-Los Angeles drug route and ended up becoming the story. He allowed himself to be recruited as a drug courier for a story and thought he could back out at the last minute, only to be told that if he did his family could be hurt or seriously killed. Believing the organization had connections in Thai law enforcement, he planned to put a note in his passport telling Western customs officials to check his bags closely and publicly arrest him so the organization wouldn’t think he turned himself in. He never got a chance because the police were waiting for him at the airport. 

Still, he thought he could talk his way out of it by pleading his case in Thai court. After all, he believed a case with such extenuating circumstances would merit acquittal or a light sentence because of the threat on his family. He forgot he wasn’t in the U.S. anymore and that Thai courts aren’t quite so lenient. His continued insistence on his innocence in a country where the courts could care less cost him dearly. Instead of following his lawyer’s advice to plead guilty and face a stiff sentence, he held his ground for months until he had to choose between swallowing pride and fessing up or facing execution. 

He got a life sentence for his troubles. 

By the time I happened on the scene a year later, Roian was a month under 50 years old, but looked closer to 65. It was obvious that prison conditions were taking their toll. He wasn’t being mistreated, though. He wasn’t being treated at all. The cells were so crowded he had to sleep on the floor and pray he wouldn’t fall ill at night because there was no doctor on duty. He also had to pay for his own food because the facility only served one meal a day to foreigners–a bowl of rice and soupy gruel. The Chabad rabbi also pitched in, buying Roian and other prisoners provisions ranging from soap and cigarettes to razors and toothpaste.

What makes his story so sad is it could have been avoided if he’d just used some common sense and realized he wasn’t in the U.S. anymore. Instead, old before his time, Roian was sitting in a holding area struggling to be heard over the voices of other prisoners all separated from loved ones by a set of bars, a five-foot wide hallway, and a glassless, wire-mesh window. Although he, his family, and his friends have been lobbying officials with the U.S. State Department to get him transferred to a prison back in The States, his pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

And when he wakes up each day, he faces a new life sentence.