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Thailand’s notorious Prison Fight concept is arguably the most unusual phenomenon in Asia, if not in the world. It’s a Muaythai and Boxing charity initiative founded in 2012 by an international team of “rehabilitation via martial arts” enthusiasts. This program donates sports equipment to Thai prisons and also organizes fighting events where inmates get to battle their way to an early release.

According to Prison Fight’s website, its main goal is to assist Thailand’s Department Of Corrections in their rehabilitation programs among inmates. They believe that by promoting sport inside prison walls, problems such as drug abuse and violence can be reduced. It’s a noble, yet controversial cause that has attracted tons of media since its launch in 2012. In fact, Showtime’s documentary labeled “Prison Fighters: 5 rounds to freedom” that aired in February 2017, gave an inside look into the Thai criminal justice system that’s quite different from US standards, to say the least.

We had an exclusive opportunity to talk with one of the creators of Prison Fight, Estonian businessman, Kirill Sokur.

Exclusive Interview with Kirill Sokur

One of the Creators of Prison Fight

For the readers who aren’t familiar with the event’s concept, can you please explain how the sentence reduction and release policies work for prison fighters?

If a member of our rehabilitation program has a fight at one of Prison Fight events, he will get a money reward transferred to his bank account, and in case of victory – respect from his fellow inmates as well. All inmates who participate in the program get a chance to fight opponents from outside the prison who have the same skill level as they do. For most of our fighters, the main goal is not to only win – but to participate in the rehabilitation program.

First Prison Fight event took place on January 2013 and from then on [the program] has grown tremendously. It was highly appreciated by Thai Department of Corrections, inmates and global media. Any inmate who wants to stop drug abuse and is willing to quit this bad habit can join the Prison Fight rehabilitation program. If an inmate stays in the program for a long enough time – he can request sentence reduction from Department of Corrections. So, literally, they get freedom from drugs AND a possibility to come back to their families sooner.

Thai Prison Fight Inmates Battle Freedom
Training in Klong Pai maximum security prison, Prison Fight GYM.

What’s the selection process like for the inmate fighters? Do they need to be on good behaviour or they just need to be good at beating people up?

Most important rule is – do not use drugs and be on good behaviour. Level of fighting skills is not so important because we always find a foreign opponent with the same skill level. Any inmate who wants to participate in the program can start training, even if he doesn’t have any previous experience. However, Muay Thai is a national sport in Thailand, so most prisoners have some experience in training or fighting.

Thai Prison Fight Inmates Battle Freedom
Fitness training at Klong Pai Prison Fight GYM.

There were numerous controversies regarding the moral aspect of Prison Fight events, what is your personal stand on this?

All controversies regarding Prison Fight moral aspects come from people who don’t know much about the program. [Some] even start to form an opinion about us based on Hollywood movies which has nothing in common with our official rehabilitation program. The main goal of Prison Fight’s program is to help prisoners keep the necessary link with society. Training provides discipline and motivation for inmates who want to get a second chance in their life.

Prison Fight doesn’t choose inmates who participate in the program based on their crimes. Some of them are violent offenders and this is the controversial part. But if outsiders would take time to learn each particular case – that could change their mind. All inmates who participate in our program regret their crimes, show tremendous willpower and have or will come back to their families to start new lives.

Thai Prison Fight Inmates Battle Freedom
Former director of Klong Pai prison, Aree Chaleaysuk, and inmate athletes in Prison Fight GYM at maximum security prison.

Do you think that prisoners who win the event’s bouts deserve to have their sentence reduced and ultimately be released?

It’s not only about winning an event. Each prisoner who participates in Prison Fight’s events is the result of extremely hard work during at least a few previous years. Each inmate fighter works physically and mentally, follows all rules and serves as a role model for fellow inmates.

They get freedom not only for their fighting skills, but also for good behaviour, drug refusal, training twice a day, showing strong will as well as inspiring and motivating other prisoners to join the program and stay away from various internal problems such as gangs, drug abuse and violent behavior. Each case is different, and Department Of Corrections makes decisions based on a broad variety of factors and reasons.

Thai Prison Fight Inmates Battle Freedom
Inmate fighter in deep knockout on the Prison Fight ring.

Do you ever find yourself secretly wishing for the prisoners to win? Why or why not?

Participation in such rehabilitation programs is not about winning or losing the fight. For us, there is no difference who wins: an inmate or a foreigner. If we made them meet on the ring – our job is done, the best one will win.

On the other hand, we realize that for foreign fighters, it’s only an adventure that will finish after a couple of hours when they leave prison and go back home. Their opponents, however, will stay here with fellow inmates who saw their fight… so it’s a question of respect. If they win – they become heroes in their prison. From this point of view, we wish for them to win their fights, but of course, the strongest always wins.

Thai Prison Fight Inmates Battle Freedom
Hard Boxing fight at Prison Fight Round 7 event.

Prison Fight labels itself as a charity event. Since outsiders aren’t allowed to access the event inside the prison’s courtyard, where are the funds coming from to further help the inmates?

Prison Fight was funded by our team’s private donations along with some supporters. To improve the program and spread it to more countries, we have established a sports equipment and apparel brand.

Thai Prison Fight Inmates Battle Freedom
Prisoner getting massage between rounds at a Prison Fight event.

Are outside spectators going to be allowed to watch the show anytime soon?

We don’t plan to bring any spectators to our events. First of all, prison is not a safe place for visitors. Another reason is because most of prisoners don’t want to be showcased all over media at their lowest in life. Prison Fight is not made to entertain people who want to see something unusual. It’s made for inmates only.

Thai Prison Fight Inmates Battle Freedom
Inmate Boxer before fight (Klong Pai prison)

What does the future hold for prison fight events? Will they ever be held outside of Thailand?

During the last two years, we have been developing a network in two countries that were interested in the implementation of our concept in partnership with their Department Of Corrections. At the moment, we are starting the program in South America and Russia. We are changing our program for each particular country based on their cultural and ethnic differences.

The main mission of Prison Fight is to inspire organizations, public figures and private persons to start similar rehabilitation programs in their local prisons, or support existing initiatives by Department Of Corrections and sports inside prison walls. We are open for any ideas and ready to cooperate.

Thai Prison Fight Inmates Battle Freedom
The Prison Fight Team member / promoter from Poland - Jakub Warchulski
Prison Fight
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