Thailand’s overcrowded prison system a COVID-19 timebomb

Bangkok Remand Prison.(Photo by Jack TAYLOR / AFP)

Alarm is growing in Thailand after the Department of Corrections revealed that 2,835 COVID-19 cases had been found inside two major Bangkok prisons.

Critics are questioning the Department of Corrections’ measures to prevent the spread of the virus, while human rights groups are calling for inmates in “unnecessary custody” to be released.

Ten leaders of the anti-establishment movement are among the almost 3,000 people to have caught the virus behind bars, according to media reports. So far, three of these activists have been granted temporary release.

Almost 3,000 infected

The Bangkok Remand Prison reported 1,795 infections, with another 1,040 at the Central Women’s Correctional Institution. Prisoners make up the vast majority of cases, with only six prison officials infected, Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin revealed on Thursday (May 13).

Patients with mild symptoms are being treated in field hospitals at the prisons, while those more seriously ill have been shifted to hospital, the corrections agency said.

Prison authorities have blamed the outbreak on the fact that many inmates have to be regularly taken outside to attend court hearings.

Protest leader Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, who was granted bail last month, said that when inmates returned to prison, they were isolated for 14 days along with other prisoners who returned on the same day.

Other protest leaders out on bail report that up to 30 inmates shared the same 50-square-meter cell around the clock, heightening their risk of infection.

Panupong “Mike” Jadnok, one of the protest leaders who was infected, told his lawyer that the situation in Bangkok Remand Prison was “really bad” as nearly all cells have inmates with “COVID-like symptoms”.

Critics point out that Thailand has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, which leads to overcrowding in prisons. Thailand’s 143 correctional facilities have the capacity for 217,000 inmates, but they currently house more than 377,000 inmates, according to the World Prison Brief.

COVID-19 prisoners sit inside a field hospital set up at Medical Correctional Institution in Bangkok, Thailand, on May 8, 2021. (Department of Corrections, Thailand via AP)

Prevention ‘inadequate’

Earlier this year, prisons in Chiang Mai and Narathiwat recorded hundreds of COVID-19 cases. In response, the Department of Corrections banned all prison visits and began isolating and testing all new inmates for COVID-19. Prison officials were also subject to regular checks and vaccination.

These measures appear to have been inadequate given the latest outbreak at Bangkok prisons.

Justice Minister Somsak told reporters on Thursday that moves were being made to reduce the number of inmates by more than 50,000. The steps include seeking a Royal pardon, suspending sentences, and amending the law to reduce prison terms for drug convicts, he said.

The minister denied that information about COVID-19 in prison was being covered up, adding that the Department of Corrections was just waiting for complete data, which only came through on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections expects to acquire vaccines for inmates all over the country in June and will initially focus on inoculating high-risk groups and those with chronic diseases.

Solutions for overcrowding

On May 11, Amnesty International Thailand sent an open letter to the Justice Ministry and Supreme Court president calling for cases of “unnecessary custody to be minimized”.

Citing a UN report last year, the human rights group noted that about 100 countries had sought to release more than 600,000 inmates, especially those with health problems, to address the issue of overcrowding during the pandemic.

Many countries have reported serious COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons, with 612,000 cases reported by the United States and 12,000 by the United Kingdom, according to Amnesty International.

Many countries have opted to reduce prison populations to cut the risk of transmission, while some, including the UK, are considering priority vaccination of all inmates and prison staff.

Iran released 85,000 prisoners in March to ease crowding in jails, while the US state of New Jersey is considering freeing some 1,000 convicts. Australia’s New South Wales plans to release 14,000 inmates facing non-felony charges.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk


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