The first thing you notice in the Chiang Mai Women's Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners is the sign, which looks like a gimmick. The words "ex-prisoners" are printed in a delicate font, making it seem almost tongue-in-cheek. 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 people of Thailand aren't normally ironic.
Behind the sign, there are two sofas with foot sinks; a few Asian and European couples reading Lonely Planet travel guides in the waiting room. At the reception desk, a woman named Kae hands customers a menu listing foot and full-body massages, each for 200 Baht, or about $5, an hour. For that price, they're rumored to be some of the best massages in the country.
Every woman who gives massages here used to be an inmate at the nearby Chiang Mai Women's Correctional Facility. The program was 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.
Jinny started the first branch of the massage parlor one year and seven months ago; she opened the second three months later, and a third within the year. Originally, the staff consisted of just three ex-cons, but today, the Chiang Mai Women's Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners employs 30 women across the three centers, and is the only program for ex-prisoners like it in the country.
The center attracts a fair number of tourists like myself, which means business is often good. When I visited, Kae penciled me in for a full-body massage, but noted that the schedule was already almost fully booked. Kae, one of Jinny's first employees, has been working here since the joint opened over a year and a half ago. Prior to that, she had been in prison for five years and two months for selling methamphetamines.
"The ladies would tell me that it was very difficult to find jobs after prison," Jinny told me. "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," she added.
Upon introduction, it's clear that Jinny isn't your average prison guard—definitely more Tom Hanks in Green Mile than Warden Norton in Shawshank. She is even-toned, sweet, and seems to genuinely care about the well-being of ex-prisoners, who she refers to as "her girls." In the massage centers, she says, the women can be comfortable and relaxed, working around other women who have shared their experience.
Still, getting certified to become a masseuse at one of Jinny's centers isn't a breeze. First, the women need to get two certificates of 180 hours of massaging each. Then they need to have seen 100 clients, followed by another three months of training. Most of this training happens within the women's prison itself, at the Chiang Mai Women Prison Massage Shop, where the women can earn hours toward their certification. The program became the foundation for Jinny's ex-prisoner massage centers, providing a place that employ and continue to train the women after they are released.
"The women that are still prisoners practice and earn their hours here at the Prison Massage Shop," she continued. "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."
Women in the centers make an average wage of 10,000 Baht, or about $285, each month, depending on how many hours they put in each day. In the high season, they can earn as much as $420 in a month, according to Jinny. She plans to open two more massage centers in Chiang Mai and has considered even implementing the program further afield in Bangkok and Phuket.
According to Jinny, the majority of the women in her massage parlors were imprisoned for drug-related crimes, almost always involving methamphetamine. She explained that a lot of the women—like Kae, the receptionist, for example—were sucked into the drug trade by bad boyfriends; some, she said, got pregnant young, and in a Buddhist country where abortion is outlawed, turned to drug dealing to provide for their families.
Methamphetamine accounts for 95 percent of all drug-related convictions for women in Thailand. Meth, or ya-ba—methamphetamine mixed with caffeine in pill-form—is relatively cheap and easy to procure; a dealer can ya-ba from a supplier for 80 Baht a pill, or about $2.25, and sell it for more than double that price on the street in Thailand.
Suppliers are typically from Burma, and Jinny explained that because Chiang Mai is geographically so close to the Burmese border—well within the notorious Golden Triangle—women here get meth produced there and up-sell it in Thailand.
Because of all of the drug-related convictions, Thailand has the fourth-largest female prison population in the world and the highest rate of female imprisonment globally.
At the massage center, a small woman appeared behind Kae and ushered me over for my massage. She handed me a salmon-colored smock-and-pants that looked uncannily like a prison uniform, and then led me down the hall into a large room with a dozen massage beds and a few sofas.
I had pictured partitioned massage tables, but instead, the tables were positioned alongside each other in an open room. The lights were dimmed, the AC was on full-blast, and flute-heavy traditional Thai music, which sounded suspiciously like "My Heart Will Go On," looped softy in the background.
There were about 10 women in the room with clients as we entered. My masseuse, Meaw, pointed me to a bed, told me to lie on my back, and promptly started massaging my feet.
When she got to my lower calves, I asked her, in the politest way possible, what she went to prison for.
"Drug," she replied 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. She clarified that she got caught selling methamphetamines and was locked up for five years and three months.
"And her?" I asked, gesturing to the woman with her elbow in a patient's neck on the table beside us.
So it was with 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. Usually for their boyfriends, Meaw add. She explained that one of the other masseuses, Nok, had been in prison for 13 years and four months for selling ya-ba.
My massage concluded 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 laughed, looking over to her girls, saying something in Thai that I can only presume is, "Can you believe this pussy?"
I walked back to the reception area, refreshingly limber. The last of the tourists waiting for their massages was beginning to taper off and Jinny appeared in the foyer, smiling, saying hi to all of "her girls."
I asked Jinny about the rate of recidivism among the women working at each of the three branches of Chiang Mai Women's Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners. Only two women have fallen back into drugs, she said.
"It's not easy," Jinny admitted. "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 the women move on to bigger spas, she said, where they can make better money, "But they've said it's harder for them," Jinny added. "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."