parent opinion

"I took my six-year-old daughter to meet a stranger in an Asian prison."

Taking my six-year-old daughter to visiting hour in an Asian prison was not in the plans when we left Australia on our backpacking adventure, but it was just Emmie and me on the road together, so she had to come too.

We’d been travelling for 10 months when I read about an Australian mum serving a long prison sentence in the city we were in. I felt compelled to visit, to reach out with some kindness and contact from home. A small gesture that I hoped would make a sliver of a difference to her day.

I was well aware that this might not be my best parenting decision, and I sure didn’t broadcast it. It was also a huge leap out of my comfort zone, but we were stretching ourselves every day through travel, and this was another challenge for us to rise to. I wanted to help.

Tips from savvy travellers. Post continues after video. 

Video by MMC

And rather than the usual lessons in culture, geography and religion that Emmie was learning while we travelled, this would be about consequences and hardship, kindness, generosity and not judging others.

But first I had to check with Emmie to see if she was okay with it.

“Emmie, there’s a mum from Australia in a prison here. She is all by herself and doesn’t have any friends or family to help her. Do you think we could go and see her? We would have to go into the jail though, is that okay?”

“Sure,” she said. “What did she do?”

Mumpack Travel
Evie's six-year-old daughter Emmie. Image: Supplied.
ADVERTISEMENT

As we bumped along towards the prison in a beautiful Khmer tuk tuk, I navigated a fine line of checking Emmie was okay with the visit and making her worry by continually checking she was okay with the visit.

Was I taking her into a dangerous situation? During all our travels locals had been incredibly kind and helpful to us, and while I wasn’t expecting any problems, I really didn’t know what was ahead.

“If you feel scared or uncomfortable at any time just let me know okay, honey?” I told Emmie “We’ll leave straight away if you want to go.”

“I wonder what she is like, Mummy,” she said. “Do you think she will be happy to see us?”

We arrived at the prison, and after passing through a checkpoint we wandered down a dusty road, past old immigration and police buildings, discarded plastic riot barriers and mountains of rubbish with chickens, roosters and dogs scratching through it.

Finally we spotted a row of trestle tables and prison guards who were checking through the bags of fruit, sandwiches and water brought by locals who were patiently waiting to enter the prison gates.

We waited our turn and the guards took our passports and asked us why we were visiting and who we wanted to see. I overcompensated for my nerves by being too friendly. Emmie chatted away and of course everyone loved this little blondie from Australia trying to charm them into letting her into the jail.

I’m sure it was odd for all of us.

Once our details had been added to the visitors' list we were directed into a small room and patted down by a female officer. She felt the rolled-up notes I’d hidden in my bra, and looked up at me as my heart almost stopped, then finished the search and opened the door to the prison.

And then we were in.

At a small booth we told a female officer who we were visiting and she arranged for her to come and meet us. We waited in a small wire cage at the end of the yard, sitting on a large, curved bench facing the chicken wire that separated prisoners from their visitors.

ADVERTISEMENT

One guard walked back and forth along the line of visitors, one sat behind us and many were wandering around, closely watching. It felt a bit intimidating and I was paranoid that I was doing something wrong and then I remembered the money in my bra. Shit.

“What will she be like, Mama?” Emmie asked.

“I don’t know darling, but she might be upset so don't be afraid if she cries.”

But I cried first as I saw her approach us from the end of the yard. My tears were unexpected, but as I saw her it hit me just how helpless she must feel, the pain of isolation from her children, the desperation of living here in the heat and the dust. The hopelessness of feeling forgotten and alone.

Mumpack Travel
"Rather than the usual lessons in culture, geography and religion that Emmie was learning while we travelled, this would be about consequences and hardship, kindness, generosity and not judging others." Image: Supplied.

I waved to her as she walked in and sat down opposite us, the chicken wire in between us, and I nervously introduced us.

“I hope you don’t mind, we really wanted to come and see you and let you know we are thinking of you.”

“I didn't do it, do you believe me?” She asked us straight away, her eyes direct and intense as they scanned mine for reassurance.

We sat, and as we talked about her drug smuggling conviction and the desperation of facing the next 23 years in jail in a foreign country, Emmie piped up with questions and sucked it all up.

“How did you get tricked? Do you have friends in the jail? Are the guards nice? Why did you trust your friend to pack your bag?” And all her questions were answered.

ADVERTISEMENT

We talked about home and about her struggles in prison, how she missed her family, how lonely it is to be held in a tiny, hot concrete box in a strange land… and I anxiously and somewhat-sneakily pushed the rolled-up notes through the chicken wire as Emmie tapped my leg and yelled that she wanted a turn.

“Can you get ice-cream here?” Emmie’s next question was unexpected but probably not unusual for a six-year-old. “Emmie! Shhhhhhh,” I hissed, embarrassed.

But she was interested and kind. “Actually, yes you can,” she said. “A small shop just opened and they have ice-creams.”

“Maybe you can buy one with the money we gave you,” Emmie suggested, thinking a treat might help the situation. No, she said, she would save the money for rice, but she couldn’t wait to have an ice cream when she was out of the jail.

Andrew and Holly chat to Evie about her travels and time spent abroad with her daughter Emmie on this week’s episode of This Glorious Mess. Post continues after podcast. 

All of a sudden the guard was telling us we had to go. I hadn’t realised there was a time limit, and our visit was over.

We slowly got up and walked towards the end of the wire cage, and surprisingly popped out into the courtyard facing each other. We’ve been kept apart for the meeting time and now here we were, with nothing in between us.

Emmie and I gave her a big hug and she turned and walked away, back to her small room.

I'm sure she won’t remember us. She wasn't expecting us, we just turned up with money in my bra and questions from Emmie. But I think we helped, even if just by breaking up her day and bringing contact from home.

“How do you feel, Emmie?" I asked as I took her hand and we left the prison along with the other visitors. I was so proud of her. She learnt some really strong lessons about drugs and trust, and she has been really well-behaved for a little girl visiting a jail.

“I feel proud of myself,” she said. “And I feel happy that we saw her because it made her happy."

“But mum, I know you’ll probably say no but... can you buy me an ice-cream from the jail shop?”

Evie’s book about her travels with Emmie, Backyard to Backpack: A solo mum, a six year old and a life changing adventure is out now. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook at @mumpacktravel.

00:00 / ???