BY: DANIEL KORN
PHOTOS BY: Aaron Joel Santos
The prisoners of Thailand’s Klong Prem jail are murderers, gangsters, and drug traffickers. They’re also, occasionally, Muay Thai fighters. In prisons all around Thailand, the more physically-able convicts are given the opportunity to train and fight each other for the entertainment of their fellow inmates. The truly exceptional could have their 50-to-life sentences reduced, or even completely waived. Such were the cases of drug dealer Siriporn Taweesuk—freed after beating a Japanese boxer for the light-flyweight title—and Amnat Ruenroeng, a convicted robber with a 15-year sentence who was pardoned for winning a title of his own.
The tradition of letting inmates fight for their freedom began in 1767, when the Burmese imprisoned Thai soldiers after taking over Ayutthaya, the capital of Thailand at the time. The best fighters were pressured into fighting Burmese guards, and legend has it that ones who were successful were set free. The practice has remained in Thai law since then, albeit in a somewhat more formal setting.
It’s received a bit more exposure since 2012, when a company named Prison Fight—run by Estonian businessman Kirill Sokur—invited international Muay Thai competitors to fight the prisoners. In return, Sokur would provide the prison with training gear and a prize of 5,000 baht—which equals about $150 USD—to the participating inmate’s family at home.
If the whole thing seems a little off to you, you’re not wrong. It’s a complicated issue.
On the one hand, giving prisoners something to focus on is admirable. Doing it with martial arts—whose high-level practice is so focused on self-control and a meditative sort of discipline—is even better. It provides a temporary respite for inmates whose living situations are commonly pretty awful, and it’s a form of rehabilitation, which is something that I absolutely get behind.
It’s also exploitative and more than a little skeevy. It’s essentially a bribe, the government of Thailand pretty much explicitly saying that talented people are above the letter of the law— they’ll punish you deeply for your crimes, but let it slide if you can be an effective international advertisement for the country’s national sport. If not? You’re on your own.
It’s even worse when you consider that the added wrinkle of fighting international opponents was pitched by Prison Fight with the intention of making a quick buck by selling DVDs of the fights to a UFC-hungry North American audience. It’s the equivalent of Bumfights, a sensationalized monkey dance for Westerners to point to while they laugh at the struggles of desperate people.
Luckily, the home video plan seems to have fallen through, and Prison Fight now positions itself as a “charity event against drug abuse.” The falseness of this claim—the participants are not mere drug users but convicts of severe crimes, no money appears to be raised for abuse treatment programs, and Sokur both receives money from the Thai government for setting up the bouts and uses the program as a talent pool for legit fight promotions—is not encouraging as regards to the legitimacy of the organization.
It’s a glimmer of hope, though, for people whose lives sorely lack it. For the few who do perform well enough, it’s a ticket out of prison and a new lease on life, and I doubt that the fact that other people make a profit on their past mistakes really matters to them.
Aaron Joel Santos visited the penitentiary first hand and documented the fighters rigorous training routine.