Poised at the edge of a boxing ring located in the courtyard of Bangkok’s Klong Prem prison, Vietnam-based photographer Aaron Joel Santos captures inmates as they prepare for Muay Thai fights that could determine the rest of their lives. Since 2013, the the Correctional Department of Thailand has worked alongside Prison Fight, a charity organization that provides gear and boxing training to maximum security inmates. Hundreds of Thai prisoners, convicted of crimes ranging from theft to murder, become highly-skilled athletes in hopes of beating free foreign fighters and earning a reduced sentence.
Should an inmate fight and win against an opponent from another Asian or European country, he brings fame to the prison and honor to the country. In return, he might earn money or early release. For some, these prison fights are the start to what might become an Olympic career. With hundreds of men serving sentences of fifty years to life, Prison Fight offers an unusual way out.
Journalists and free citizens from around the world show up for these events, arguably boosting morale amongst prisons, who sit in bleachers surrounding the fighting rings. Kathoey, meaning transgender women or gay men in drag, enjoy participating as ring girls, and celebratory music plays throughout the match. The fights are a means of self-expression, and prisoners can develop a stronger sense of camaraderie and self-esteem in participating. Santos’s images trace both the thrills and fears of inmates fighting for freedom, providing an insightful and nuanced investigation of the Prison Fight system.
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