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Hampshire man home after spending 18 years inside Thailand's Bangkwang Central Prison in Bangkok
INCARCERATED in a foreign land for the best part of two decades, the world has changed since Jonathan Wheeler was last in his hometown.
Struggling to work his first ever mobile phone, he can’t get over how cold it is and is becoming used to flushing toilets again.
He is also having to rebuild his relationship with the daughter he has not seen for 18 years.
Still astonished that the smoking ban has been introduced, as he sits in a pub just up the road from where he is staying in Holbury, the reality of adapting to life back in the UK is slowly sinking in.
“Technology has been the biggest shock for me,” says the 51-year-old.
“When I was last here, a fax machine was the newest thing around.
“I’ve never even sent an email and have come back and been told that you can become your own character in a computer game.
“The friends that I have seen since I’ve been home are grey-haired now and I can’t believe the price of things. It’s been such a long time.”
What started as a dream trip to paradise, turned into an 18-year, three-month and six-day (Jonathan knows the figure off by heart) nightmare.
Leaving Holbury in 1993, the former-roofer went in search of a new life in Thailand. A martial arts enthusiast, he found paid work competing in Thai boxing fights.
But when he got into financial difficulties, a reckless decision – made of his “own free will” – to agree to smuggle drugs for a payment of a few thousand pounds ended in disaster.
“That money would have taken me up a couple of levels,” he says. “I just wanted a little restaurant up a mountain with the jungle behind it. It was a small dream but it would have been good.”
But on May 10, 1994, police arrested the then 33-year-old at an airport in Bangkok as he tried to board a plane to Taiwan.
They found 4lb of heroin, then valued at more than £1m, hidden inside a holdall he was carrying.
Sentenced to 50 years, he started his true life sentence in the notorious Bangkwang Central Prison, ironically dubbed the “Bangkok Hilton” by expat prisoners.
Infamous for its appalling conditions, it was thoughts of home that kept Jonathan going over the long years that followed.
“I dreamt of being back in the New Forest, surrounded by people and things that I knew – my family, friends, bait-digging, riding my motorbike and practising karate. I used to think of places like Hill Top at Beaulieu or being on Calshot beach with my fishing rod – simple things. The culture was so different there.”
It was an amnesty granted on the Queen of Thailand’s 80th birthday on August 12 this year that finally set Jonathan free.
With one-ninth of his sentence knocked off, it was the seventh of such reductions that he had received over the years and was at last enough to secure his release. While he knew that such a result was likely, the news was confirmed to him via a loud speaker announcement blasted out across the prison.
After leaving prison, Jonathan spent several weeks wading through red tape before he could leave Thailand, touching down at Heathrow on September 9.
Breathing a sigh of relief, he was a free man at last.
Arriving in Holbury a few days later, he was reunited with his family.
He has a lot of catching up to do, not least with his daughter, now 21, whom he had last seen when she was just two-and-a-half years old.
They have already met up in Southampton, where she lives, and Jonathan was introduced to his one-year-old grand-daughter.
“I recognised my daughter instantly,” says Jonathan. “It was brilliant to see them both and it felt good. I’m hoping to be part of their life from now on.”
Always holding his hands up to his crime, Jonathan accepted he needed to be punished.
But as Thailand attempted to clamp down on its drug trade, the sentences that were handed out there to opportunist carriers like Jonathan were harsh.
It meant that he was given almost four times the average sentence of a convicted murderer in Britain.
“I was a first-time offender in there for 18 years for carrying a bag of heroin, but there was a Thai man there who got out after 11 years for shooting his wife, chopping her up into pieces and keeping parts of her in the fridge. Life is so cheap there that drug sentences are worse than murder.”
In a high security prison which handles death row and long-sentence prisoners, Jonathan shared a small cell with around 17 other men.
Sleeping on the floor, it was riddled with cockroaches and bugs.
Drugs and violence are rife and decent food and clean water are only available if you can pay. Similarly medical treatment is limited.
Everything inside has a price, and prisoners – who have to cook for themselves – depend on cash gifts from the outside to buy their daily provisions. Beneath an electric fence and guard towers, Jonathan says inmates are allowed outside into a small compound from 6.30am to just after 3pm every day. Here he would teach and practise karate.
The darkest moments for him came during two spells in solitary confinement for rule breaking, where he spent hour upon hour staring at cockroaches in a tiny 5ft by 7ft hellhole.
During one of the spells (both of which lasted for several months), Jonathan covered himself in toothpaste because he knew that it would result in an outbreak of blisters, which would earn him a few days in the hospital wing, complete with a bed.
Befriending a Chinese master in Qigong – an extreme form of meditation – inside, Jonathan studied it for 12 years. Practising for up to three hours a day, it helped him to escape the daily grind.
“It’s all about the power of the mind. It’s about not thinking about anything, you go within yourself.”
His friend also taught him acupuncture and Jonathan – who could speak a little Thai– was able to keep up with world events via the TV in his mass cell.
He did see conditions improve during his time at the dreaded jail.
“When Tony Blair went into his second term, we got white rice instead of red rice with stones, and the curry got a little bit better,” he explains.
“We had satellite TV channels for around the last decade, and then seven or eight years ago, instead of washing in dirty river water, we could shower in chlorinated water.”
For the first few years he was locked up, Jonathan says friends and family visited him from the UK.
And then there were other people he could talk to. Prison visits in Thailand have become part of the tourist trail, with foreigners often paying to be escorted around.
They have become known as “banana visits” by prisoners because it makes them feel like monkeys in a cage. It was during one of these visits in 1999 that Jonathan says he got talking to an English teacher who was working in Thailand, as they were able to shout to one another between the bars. He said they fell in love and she continued to visit him. After she left the country Jonathan says they communicated via letter until 2003 when contact ceased. After four years inside, the former Hardley School pupil was eligible to transfer to a British prison.
But he chose to stay in Bangkwang despite the dreadful conditions because British law states that all prisoners must serve half their remaining sentence upon their return. Given the draconian nature of sentences imposed in Thailand, this can often mean an incredibly long stretch.
Meanwhile, US and Australian prisoners are put on parole almost immediately when they transfer back home.
In Thailand Jonathan knew that there was always the chance – however slim – of early release.
A royal pardon can be applied for through official channels, it’s a lengthy and expensive process and Jonathan was devastated when his application was unsuccessful ten years ago. Instead he had to rely on the occasional amnesties for prisoners on the King’s birthday, December 5, or the Queen’s birthday, to reduce his sentence.
However long he was going to have to wait, Jonathan still preferred to stay in Thailand because prisoners are allowed outside for most of the day. “Also, if I had transferred to Britain after four years, I would have had to serve 23 years here.
“I would have come back with more years than some serial killers. The system is completely flawed.”
Now living in Holbury to be near family, Jonathan is keen to make contact with his old friends – and start his life all over again.
“I just want to work again and try to earn some money legally. It’s brilliant waking up here in the morning.
I finally feel secure because this is where I’m from.”
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