Thailand is considering offering early parole and provisional releases for thousands of inmates, as COVID-19 continues to scythe its way through the country’s overcrowded prison system.
On Monday, Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin told reporters that the inmate population was well over capacity and that a plan to reduce the pressure is currently being developed. The Justice Ministry is also working to amend drug laws in order to adjust the penalties for drug offenders, which Somsak said could result in reduced sentences for some 50,000 inmates once enacted.
After escaping from 2020 mostly untouched by the coronavirus, Thailand is battling its third and most serious wave of COVID-19
Today, Thailand announced 3,323 new cases and 47 fatalities, a new daily record for deaths. This has brought cumulative cases in the country to 141,217, the fifth-highest in Southeast Asia, in addition to 873 deaths from the coronavirus, also the fifth-highest toll. Worryingly, the latest outbreaks have involved four of the new, more infectious COVID-19 variants.
The outbreaks have been especially concentrated in the country’s prison system, where overcrowding and underfunding have allowed COVID-19 to travel with prodigious speed and efficiency.
Some 18,000 prisoners have now been infected with COVID-19, representing around 16 percent of the 112,354 infected since the beginning of the latest outbreak. Hundreds more are being identified each day: of the 3,323 cases announced today, 1,219 involved prison inmates. This followed 479 infections yesterday and 882 on Tuesday.
According to the Department of Corrections, Thailand has 311,000 or so inmates incarcerated in 143 correctional facilities nationwide, compared with the system’s official capacity of 110,000 as of December 2018.
The situation in prisons only became an issue of public concern after a number of prominent political activists announced that they had tested positive for COVID-19 during periods of pre-trial detention, for their involvement in last year’s wave of anti-government protests.
According to Hatairat Kaewseekram, a 20-year-old activist released on May 10, she had to share a cell with 19 other inmates. “We had to sit together, eat together and sleep together, only slightly apart,” she told Channel News Asia following her release.
On Tuesday, the Thai government approved a 311 million baht ($9.95 million) budget for COVID-19 prevention in the prison system, which will fund increased testing and the construction of field hospitals and quarantine rooms at correctional facilities. Thailand has also begun rapidly vaccinating uninfected inmates and prison staff, while authorities have amended bail requirements in order to reduce the number of people sent into pre-trial detention.
Thailand’s prison outbreak bears the hallmark of so many COVID-19 missteps, in which an obvious risk or vulnerability is ignored out of blithe confidence that the country has successfully trounced the virus. This is particularly marked in the case for prisons, whose conditions are concealed from the public and generally attract little political controversy. Indeed, it is unclear whether the government would have revealed the extent of the problem were it not for the embarrassing testimonies of jailed political activists.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, however, human rights groups and prison reform advocates across Asia (and indeed the world) have warned about dangers posed by overcrowded and unsanitary prisons and detention centers. In April 2020, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that “a major crisis” was brewing in Asia’s prisons.
The same month, HRW and 1o other international regional and domestic human rights organizations sent a joint open letter to Thailand’s Corrections Department stating that the pandemic “provides an opportunity to immediately begin addressing the long-standing issue of overcrowding in places of detention in Thailand,” and urging a range of measures to ensure the health and safety of inmates.
For Thailand’s neighbors, all battling their own resurgences of COVID-19, the situation in the country’s prisons should be a warning. The pull of complacency is strong, however, and it remains to be seen whether they can take proactive action before similar outbreaks take place in their own prison systems.