Watching prisoner practise their Muay Thai skills in a makeshift boxing arena inside Bangkok’s notorious high-security Klong Prem prison is a spectacle to behold. Moo, a convicted drug runner, and Pod, a debt collector in the Thai capital’s notorious Nana Plaza red-light district, who is serving a life sentence for murder, were relaxed and humorous a few minutes ago when we spoke to them ringside. Now they burn with intensity—their hooded eyes fixed on their sparring partners, as they rain vicious blows with feet, knees and fists upon the bag. “Most of them will be here until their hair grows grey,” says Surawuth Rungrueng, the guard largely responsible for encouraging the development of boxing in Klong Prem. “Muay Thai and the respect it affords them is one of the things they can hold onto.”
With his saturnine disposition and sunken, brooding eyes, Bob Velez has features that scream biblical suffering. Ruben Enaje, his near neighbour in the Filipino barrio of San Pedro Cutud, meanwhile, has the quiet grace of the divine: a long, wavy mane shrouding a mouth that projects words that veer between softly spoken and inaudible. Completing the trio is Victor Caparas, a notorious local tearaway, whose unkempt beard, muted manner and troubled, thousand-yard stare give him an aura that is part beatific, part Charlie Manson. There may be only one God in Christianity, but in this part of the Philippines, there’s no shortage of candidates for the role of Jesus Christ.