Kae was in for five years and two months. Toi was in for one and a half. Wun was in for four, and Nok was in for 13 whole years and four months. In fact, every woman in this place has done hard-time and that’s precisely why they’re here. The Chiang Mai Women’s Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners was a program started by a prison guard that saw how hard it was for ex-cons to find jobs after prison. Now, with three branches in operation, the program is proving successful. It’s also reputably one of the best massages in the city.
At first glance, though, the sign looks like a gimmick: “Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners.” But this is Thailand, where most places of business have comically literal names like: OK, Just This Once Bar, or The Food Is Hot Café. Chiang Mai Women’s Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners is no exception. Because even if Chiang Mai is basically the Portland of Thailand—grey skies, craft coffee—the Thais aren’t normally ironic.
I pass two sofas with foot sinks sitting in the outside foyer and enter the unassuming establishment. There are a few Asian and European couples reading Lonely Planet travel guides in the waiting room. I approach reception and a woman with a ledger hands me the menu, asking what I’ll have and when. It’s pretty much foot, full-body or both, each for 200 Baht, or $5, an hour. I point to full-body and ask about the “ex-prisoner thing.”
The receptionist’s name is Kae and she explains quite matter-of-factly that every woman in this massage center is an ex-prisoner of the nearby Chiang Mai Womens Correctional Facility. This establishment is the result of a program started by a prison guard named Thunyanun Yajom, or, Jinny, to help Thai women released from prison reintegrate back into society and find a job.
“Everyone here…?” I ask, looking her in the eyes.
“Yes, everyone,” she smirks, shaking her head.
Kae pencils me in for a full-body. Today is almost fully-booked, she explains, but thinks I can get a time-slot within a couple of hours. Kae’s been here since the joint opened over a year and a half ago. Prior to that, she’d been in prison for five years and two months for selling methamphetamines…for her ex-boyfriend, she adds. She proudly recalls how she was one of Jinny’s first employees.
I ask Kae where I can meet this Jinny and Kae immediately rings her on FaceTime (a practice I’ve seen a lot of in Thailand). She points Jinny’s face on the screen at me and Jinny takes a look, sizing me up. She tells Kae to send me over.
Jinny is at the government-funded Chiang Mai Womens Prison Massage Shop, the site where this program was conceived 13 years ago. The original prison has since relocated 10km out of town, but the massage shop still stands where actual prisoners bus in each day from the prison to practice on customers in order to gain hours for when they are eventually freed. They bus back to prison when the day is done.
Kae points me down the street toward the Prison Massage Shop and says she’ll ringJinny when my masseuse is ready. 100 meters later, Jinny greets me at the shop’s entrance in a dapper, prison guard’s uniform.
But Jinny isn't your average prison guard. At least not like what you see in the movies. As far prison officers go, she’s definitely more Hanks in Green Mile than Warden Norton in Shawshank. She is even-toned, sweet and seems to genuinely care about the ex-prisoners’ wellbeing. She calls them “her girls.” Jinny is also hip enough to suggest a few hot-spots for my wife and I to hit up later without me even asking.
Jinny, who’s worked within Chiang Mai Womens Correctional Facility as a prison officer for 15 years now, explains that she started this program to train the women. Vocational training was available in the prison, but she wanted them to learn something other than laundry or cooking when they were eventually released.
“The ladies would tell me that it was very difficult to find jobs after prison,” says Jinny. “There’s a stigma. People don’t want to hire ex-convicts, they don’t trust them and they’re scared of them. Basically, employers don’t want to have to worry about these ladies once they’re hired.”
“The ex-prisoner massage centers make things easier for the women because after being in prison for so many years, interacting with people that haven’t been inside can be difficult for them.”
In these ex-prisoner-only centers, Jinny finds that the women are a lot more comfortable and relaxed around other women who’ve shared the same experience. They’re seeing the same people from the same prison—outside of prison.
Getting certified to become a masseuse at one of Jinny’s centers isn’t a breeze though. Firstly, the women need two certificates of 180 hours each. Then they need 100 clients under their belts, followed by another three months of training. Most of this training goes down within the women’s prison, and the 100 clients are customers at the Chiang Mai Women Prison Massage Shop, where we’re standing now.
I imagine the inside of the Chiang Mai Womens Correctional Facility and the image resembles hundreds of women getting free Thai massages. I tell Jinny about this vision and she nods, humoring me.
“The women that are still prisoners practice and earn their hours here at the Prison Massage Shop,” she continues. “But once they are freed, they are on their own which is why I’ve opened three centers for ex-prisoners-only so that they can make money.”
And the money’s not bad…for Thailand. Women in the centers make an average wage of 10,000 Baht (285 USD) a month, depending on how many hours they put in a day/week. They earn more in the high season (up to 12-15,000 Baht per month)
Jinny started the first branch—the one where I met Kae—one year and seven months ago. Then another three months later, and one more five months after that. She started with a staff of just three ex-prisoners, and today, employs 30 women in all three centers, the only program for ex-prisoners like it in the entire country. She plans to open two more massage centers in Chiang Mai, perhaps even implementing the program further afield in Bangkok and Phuket. She makes it clear to me, though that while she started the program, she received the funding from her European boyfriend.
I ask Jinny what most of the women working in her centers were imprisoned for. Jinny claims that over 80 percent of the women were in for drug-related convictions (selling, using, possession), and almost always methamphetamines. There’s also varying degrees of larceny, forgery, debt evasion, and even some for cutting down trees for wood in forests where it’s illegal to cut.
She explains that a lot of the women get sucked into selling meth through bad boyfriends, just as Kae had mentioned. That many of these girls got pregnant too early, and in a Buddhist country where abortion is outlawed, felt that selling drugs was their only option to feed their family. Drugs, usually always meaning: meth.
Methamphetamines are actually 95 percent of all drug-related convictions for women in Thailand. Meth, or ya-ba, as it’s called in Thailand, (methamphetamines mixed with caffeine in pill-form) is cheap and easy to buy, unlike heroin. One can commonly buy ya-ba from a supplier for 80 Baht a pill (2.25 USD) and sell it for over double that price on the street at 200 Baht a pill (5.50 USD). That supplier is usually Myanmar (Burma).
Jinny explains that because Chiang Mai is geographically so close to the Burmese border—well within the notorious traffic-heavy Golden Triangle—the women are getting meth produced in nearby Myanmar and then selling it here in Thailand.
I ask Jinny if any women working in the massage centers have been convicted of murder.
“Not in the centers,” she says. “But there are a few in the prison. Very few, though. Violent crimes are rare among women in Thailand.”
Indeed, violent crimes such as “bodily harm” and “offense against life” are actually less than 2% of all convictions for women in Thailand. Regardless, due to all of the drug (meth) convictions, Thailand imprisons more women than any other country in Asia, after China. It ranks fourth highest in the world for female imprisonment.
After fumbling with the phrasing, I awkwardly ask about the sex thing. It is Thailand. Does anyone come into her centers looking for favors?
“Yes, sometimes,” she says. “But Thai massage doesn’t mean sex. Some places have this, of course, but we don’t do that. I’ve made the room a big open-space like you’ve seen to discourage this. I tell the ladies that if someone asks, to tell them to leave. I didn’t start this program only to provide a good service like massage, but primarily to help these women start new lives and employ them after prison. It goes hand in hand because we opened this place to help ladies and the ladies are helping others through massage. The traditional Thai massage that they are trained in is very medicinal.”
Jinny’s phone suddenly reverberates with that awkward FaceTime ring. It’s Kae—my masseuse is ready. Jinny sends me off and says she’ll stop by the branch a little later with some restaurant recommendations. She asks if I’m getting full-body or foot. I tell her full-body and she grins ambiguously.
Walking into the waiting room, a small woman pops out behind Kae and ushers me over. She is spunky with lively eyes and a confident gait, leading the way toward a changing room. She hands me a salmon-colored smock-and-pants that look uncannily like prison scrubs, and then leads me down the hall into a large room with a dozen massage-beds and a few sofas.
I was picturing partitioned massage tables but this scene is more like a small-scale, albeit extremely soothing refugee-camp tent. The lights are dimmed, the A/C is on full-blast, flute-heavy traditional Thai music where every song inexplicably sounds like “My Heart Will Go On” loops softy in the background.
I count about ten women in the room with clients and as we enter, they all look up and start rousting my masseuse. She fires back loudly in Thai and grins proudly. She points me to a bed and tells me to lie on my back, then gets right to it, working from the heel up.
My masseuse, Meaw, goes easy on me for the first ten minutes, focusing more on circulation than the deep tissue-stuff. Then she sits across from me, cross-legged, working my feet and lower calves. In the politest way possible, I ask her what she went to prison for, prior to working here.
“Drug,” she replies in a thick Thai accent, planting her right foot on my left shoulder for leverage while simultaneously pulling my ankle into her chest to stretch a hip-flexor. It looks like a jiu jitsu submission move, but feels fucking fantastic. Meaw clarifies that she got caught for selling methamphetamines and was locked up for five years and three months.
“And her?” I ask, gesturing to the woman with her elbow in a patient’s neck on the table beside us.
As was the masseuse beside her, and the one beside her, and the two across the room. In fact, nearly all the women in the room had gone to prison for meth—for selling, possession and/or use, but mostly for selling. And usually for their boyfriends, the women also add. Meaw explains that one of the other masseuses, Nok, was in prison for 13 years and four months for selling ya-ba.
My massage concludes with me upon my belly, hands behind my back, and Meaw mounted on my rump grabbing both arms and pulling my back into an ungodly arch. I let out a feeble squeal and Meaw laughs, looking over to her girls, saying something in Thai that I can only presume is, “Can you believe this pussy?”
I walk back to reception, refreshingly limber, and chat with Kae, the only woman in the place wearing makeup, and who seems a little higher up on the totem than the other girls on the floor.
I ask her what life is like in the Chiang Mai Womens Correctional Facility, the prison where each one of these women has served time.
“Before going in, we all thought that prison was going to be really bad,” says Kae.
“We saw all the American movies and we thought that when you arrive, you get beaten up or maybe raped. But Thai prison for women isn’t really like that. Maybe the men’s prisons are a lot worse, but the women’s prisons are not so bad. There are not many fights or even gangs. There are no drugs, either. There are a lot of programs available to help us once we’re out, too. There is even school inside the prisons.”
I tell her that I know people who have been to prison in America and that even in America: Prison is bad. Frightening, really. Very violent at times.
She tells me again—she’s seen the movies.
The remainder of tourist-couples waiting for their massages is finally beginning to taper off and Jinny appears in the foyer smiling, saying hi to all of her girls walking out customers.
I ask Jinny about the rate of recidivism among the women working at all three branches of Chiang Mai Women's Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners and she explains that it’s pretty low. Just two women so far out of her 30 employees have fallen back into drugs.
“It’s not easy,” admits Jinny. “We have to constantly check the ladies to make sure they’re not on drugs again or selling. But we’re like a big family and the women check on each other. It’s also not easy because some women that have been in prison for 15 years get out…and it’s like another world. It’s difficult for them to cross over. In ways, prison life is easier because you’re given everything.”
“Some of our women have gone on to bigger spas where they can make better money, but they’ve said it’s harder for them. Once everybody finds out that they’re an ex-con…they’re treated differently. The women can get depressed there, so most will settle for less money working here—but they’re more comfortable.”
Before I leave the shop, Jinny repeats the names of a couple bars that she’s sure my wife and I will love. There’s about an hour left of sunlight though and apparently the foot massages at the second branch of Chiang Mai Womens Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners are the best in the city. And that’s not just Trip Advisor talking. Plus, my back’s never felt better thanks to Meaw. And, five bucks? C’mon.
As seen on VICE