TIJ suggests non-custodial measures in response to COVID-19

TIJ suggests non-custodial measures in response to COVID-19

The coronavirus outbreak has upended our lives in unimaginable ways and prison inmates are no exceptions to the struggles

In light of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic, people globally are facing a multitude of challenges and problems. While the lethal virus is claiming lives in Thailand and around the world, guidelines on people staying at home and businesses staying closed are solemnly enforced. Moreover, the importance of social distancing is stressed and practiced to contain the spread of the virus. However, not everyone is in a position to do that, especially those in prison.

Needless to say, prisons are places where hygiene and medical facilities tend to be limited even under normal circumstances. Not many realised how deep the issue had penetrated until the coronavirus crisis broke out. Prisons around the world are already rife with impediments resulting from the consequences of overcrowding. Now this issue has become a matter of great interest in Thailand’s own overcrowded prison system, just as it is on the global stage.

Thailand has 143 prisons across the country with 377,722 inmates (as of 25 March 2020) compared to a capacity for only 123,000 inmates. As such, many inmates live in crowded areas, directly exposed to the spread of communicable diseases inside the prison walls. The question is thereby posed in the wake of this global pandemic whether imprisonment is truly necessary for all offences.

Lately, prisoners in England, Spain, Iran and France have been infected with the coronavirus and died. The concern about transmission in prison has prompted riots.

According to the “Situation Report and Policy Recommendations for Prisons and Correctional Institutions on the COVID-19 Pandemic” conducted by the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ), one alternative recommended for the authorities to implement is to reduce the state of overcrowding.

This is not about simply emancipating all inmates straightaway. Rather, the suggestion is to implement more non-custodial measures, including the release of inmates at risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, such as the elderly, those already suffering from medical conditions, and those with low risk of committing further offenses. These categories cover around 67,000 inmates with ongoing cases and 9,400 inmates who have committed misdemeanors.

In addition, government agencies are advised to release those detained without sufficient legal grounds, including political prisoners and individuals detained for criticism or disagreement. The key is to focus on having the least number of inmates who truly deserve to be in prison.

TIJ also advocates rigorous observance of mandatory 14-day quarantine, use of technology to facilitate legal procedures, and distribution of protective equipment such as facemasks for newly arrived prisoners.

Considering the vulnerability for the coronavirus epidemic to spread in prisons, it must be admitted that the possibility of violence erupting cannot be conducive to containing the pandemic.

The TIJ is thus calling for Thailand to enlarge its engagement with the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice and the UN Crime Congresses. We need to transition our local practices to global practices according to the UN agenda and treat this like the significant issue it truly is.

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