A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West.

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A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. By Charlotte West.

Before we dive in this week, we wanted to let you know that from now until Dec. 31, donations to Open Campus of up to $1,000 are triple-matched. Your support helps me continue reporting on higher ed in prisons. Make your tax-deductible donation today.

Short on time? Here’s what you need to know:

  • This week, we look at a vocational training program in traditional Thai massage at a spa in Chiang Mai, Thailand staffed entirely by incarcerated women. 
  • For the Education Writers Association, College Inside contributor Ryan Moser writes about how developing relationships with journalists inside can help education reporters cover prison education. 
  • ICYMI: Internships, apprenticeships, and work learning opportunities allow incarcerated students to keep learning after they graduate. Read our coverage from the 2023 National Conference for Higher Education in Prison in Atlanta earlier this month. Other organizations that have written about the conference are Ithaka S+R and the Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEI).

Job training in Thailand

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND — There are a couple of things everyone does when they visit the city of ChIang Mai in northern Thailand: go to a few of the 300-some Buddhist temples and find somewhere to get a traditional Thai massage. 

The luscious greenery, wooden lounge chairs, and paper lanterns paint a pretty picture at Naree Thai Massage and Spa and cafe. As we learned, if you don’t get there by 11 am, you might have to come back the next day. (They don’t take advance reservations). 

Situated just a few streets off of one of the major thoroughfares in Chiang Mai’s Old City, the spa offers the typical Thai treatment menu: a 1-hour foot massage or a full body massage for 200 baht (around $6) or a 2-hour full body massage for 400 baht ($12). 

But there’s one thing that makes Naree different from most Thai spas: All of the massage staff are currently incarcerated women. It’s easy to miss the sign on the edge of the garden that says “Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution Vocational Training Center” when you get distracted by the mermaid waterfall. 

The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution runs a program to train women to work as massage therapists. Charlotte West/Open Campus

Despite its serene atmosphere, there are a few hints of the spa’s carceral affiliation. A giant sign featuring a rosy-cheeked cartoon correctional officer in a tan uniform greets visitors as they enter the garden and the name of the wifi network in the adjoining cafe is “inmate_massage.” A female correctional officer — also wearing a tan uniform — sits at the front desk taking reservations for the day. 

Today, the women who work here reside at the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution on the outskirts of the city and travel into the Old City every day for work. Twenty to 25 women work in the spa at any one time. The women are paid 8000-9000 baht ($225-$255) per month, plus tips. (The national minimum wage, which varies by region, starts at around $260 per month). 

When you arrive at the spa, you store your shoes outside and are given a pair of slippers to shuffle into the changing room. The spa provides a pair of loose cotton Thai fisherman pants that easily roll up — though it takes a few minutes to figure out how to wrap and tie the oversized waistband. Then you find your lounge chair in a room with about 20 other people. 

Naree Thai Massage and Spa, a vocational training center operated by the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution. Charlotte West/Open Campus

My partner and I opted for foot massages, which weren’t exactly gentle but were what you would expect for a traditional Thai massage — including working out a lot of pressure points and even some moves that felt like calisthenics. It wasn’t a bad way to spend a few hours on our first day in a time zone that was 15 hours ahead. It was the first of several massages we got during our three-week trip in Southeast Asia, and one of the best we received. 

After my massage, I sat down with Archaree Srisunakhua, the former director of the prison who was recently transferred to Bangkok, in the spa’s cafe. (The center also has a culinary training program where women staff the cafe and bakery). I wanted to learn more about the history of the vocational center, which has been operating since 2006.  

The goal of the prison’s vocational training is to give the women professional skills and prepare them for life after prison, she said. The women complete 300 hours of training in traditional Thai massage and receive a national certification recognized by the Thai Ministry of Public Health. They also study basic English and other languages such as Chinese to be able to communicate with their customers.

Naree Thai Massage & Spa is part of a vocational training center run by the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution. Charlotte West/Open Campus

Srisunakhua said that one of her goals as director is to develop programs that meet the specific needs of women.As in many other countries, the number of women in Thai prisons has grown more quickly than men’s over the last few decades. And, working as a massage therapist is a common job in cities like Chiang Mai dependent on the tourism industry. 

Thailand has the second highest per capita incarceration rate of women after the United States. The US incarcerates 64 women per 100,000 of its general population, followed by Thailand with 47, according to the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research, a U.K.-based think tank. The vast majority of incarcerated women in Thailand are serving sentences for drug-related crimes, particularly methamphetamine. 

The vocational training program receives no funding from the Thai government; it’s self-sustaining with around 70% of proceeds going to the women, 20% to program operation, and 10% to the correctional staff who work with the program, Srisunakhua said.  

Archaree Srisunakhua, the former director of the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution, in October 2023. Charlotte West/Open Campus

Such a program would be rare in the U.S. — I’ve seen very few vocational training programs that allow currently incarcerated people to interact with the public as much as the women at Naree Spa.

Cosmetology and barbering programs are common, but those often serve the prison population and sometimes staff.  A few reentry and transitional programs seem to provide similar examples of this, but not while folks are still in prison. (One cool exception to this is the Mates Inn, a restaurant in Trenton, New Jersey run by the N.J. Department of Corrections and staffed by incarcerated men receiving culinary arts training.)

Because tourism is such a big business in Chiang Mai, it makes a lot of sense that the women need opportunities to practice their massage and language skills with the steady supply of foreign visitors. It also provides the women an opportunity to support themselves and their families while they are still incarcerated. Most of the women are able to send money home and save for their eventual release, Srisunakhua said. 

The garden at the Naree Thai Massage and Spa in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Charlotte West/Open Campus

She said that when the program first started it was difficult for some women to find employment because of the stigma of their incarceration, but now massage shops in Chiang Mai actively recruit graduates. Some local businesses even have official agreements with the prison to hire women upon release, which creates a direct route to employment. The former director of the women’s prison started a chain of spas, Lila Thai Massage, after she retired in Chiang Mai that specifically hires and supports formerly incarcerated massage staff.

Since 2010, around 1,200 formerly incarcerated women have been placed at partner spas in Chiang Mai, Srisunakhua said.

++ Related coverage: “I visited Sweden this summer — here’s what I learned about its prison education system.”

Fellowship and scholarship opportunities for formerly incarcerated students

  • EdTrust has opened its application for its next cohort of Justice Fellows for 2024. The fellowship is targeted at directly impacted, formerly incarcerated individuals who have earned their bachelor’s or master’s degrees. Applications will be accepted until Jan 1, 2024.
  • The Perry ‘Second Chances’ Scholarship Award offers $4,000 scholarships to women and girls impacted by incarceration who are currently enrolled in a 2-to-4 year accredited college, vocational school, or university. Priority will be given to women of color. Applications will close on Jan 3, 2024.  

News and views

  • For the Chronicle of Higher EducationCarmen Mendoza shot and produced a video about Amber Crowder, who served time in the federal system. After she got out, Crowder graduated from Georgetown University’s Pivot Program, and now leads the Been Down Project, a digital platform that provides a space for people impacted by incarceration. 
  • Louisiana has convened a task force that will make recommendations about whether the state should spend more money and provide more programs for the education and job training of its prison population — including those on death row. The group will submit a report to the state legislature ahead of the next legislative session in March, Piper Hutchinson reported for the Louisiana Illuminator.
  • Over the past decade and a half, educational attainment in Connecticut prisons has dropped. A review by Connecticut Public found declining numbers of students are enrolling in classes, advancing to the next class level, completing vocational programs or finishing a high school level education. The declines aren’t only due to the pandemic. Some of the sharpest declines came earlier, in 2015-16 because of GED tests going online, and layoffs in the Connecticut Department of Corrections’ school district, Ashad Hajela reported. 
  • Jamal Bakr, a writing tutor and teaching fellow incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, reflects on the community that has grown out of his college-in-prison program at North Park University has led to collaborative learning outside of the classroom in an essay published in the Writing Center Journal
  • The Prison Journalism Project has launched a new resource, A Quick Guide to Starting a Prison Newspaper, using input from staff on prison newspapers across the U.S.
  • The PDF of the October print issue of College Inside is now available for download. Please let me know if you are able to share with your incarcerated students!
  • Jobs for the Future’s Center for Justice & Economic Advancement launched its Normalizing Education Resource Center to support prison education programs. The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison also created the Resource Community for Higher Education in Prison.

Let’s connect

Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. You can always reach me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org or on TwitterLinkedIn, or Instagram. To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Open Campus, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.

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Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.