Prisons buckle under overcrowding

Prisons buckle under overcrowding

With only half a square metre of space to accommodate each inmate crammed in a cell, many end up sleeping sitting up.

Overcrowding has become a new "punishment" for thousands of convicts in 143 prisons countrywide, as they outnumber the limited sleeping areas available to them.

Although the Department of Corrections stipulates that each male should have a 1.2m² area and each female a 1.1m² space, in practice these standards exist only on paper.

Thailand has roughly 360,000 inmates nationwide but a prison capacity of technically only 250,000. While some prisons have been able to expand and build new facilities, albeit under budget constraints, many have simply had to make do and reduce the amount of space each inmate has.

Even Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin, when told about the problem at Ubon Ratchathani prison, found it hard to believe each inmate is given such little space to sleep in. He has since told all prison chiefs to check whether this is true.

"That is less room for a body than the inside of a coffin," he exclaimed.

Without waiting for their answers, Mr Somsak asked the cabinet last Tuesday to approve an additional 178-million-baht budget to expand the size of sleeping quarters in 93 prisons.

This will add to the Department of Corrections' annual expenses of 12 billion baht paid, of which 8-billion-baht is spent on detainees' meals.

The government insists it needs to improve living conditions for inmates whose current numbers make Thailand the champion among 10 nations in the Asean and earn it the sixth ranking globally in terms of absolute numbers incarcerated.

Officials are carrying out various measures in line with an initiative by Her Royal Highness Princess Bajrakitiyabha Narendiradebyavati who has worked on projects to improve the lives of female inmates since 2008.

Her efforts were recognised by the United Nations General Assembly which has adopted the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, known as the "Bangkok Rules", which she helped to draft.

Space behind bars

Overcrowding came into the spotlight in Dec 24 last year when a video clip, reportedly leaked from a jail in Chumphon's Lang Suan district, showed the dire conditions endured by inmates.

The Department of Corrections chief Naras Savestanan was forced to admit it was an accurate depiction of life behind bars as many prisons are ageing and small.

Authorities have dealt with the situation by expanding prison areas, but that is still not enough.

"An area of one square metre must be allocated for a pair of inmates," says Sitthi Sutivong, chief of Samut Prakan Central Prison which houses the highest number of prisoners in the country.

In order to have space to lay their bodies, "They have to sleep diagonally".

The prison was designed to accommodate 3,500 people, but it is currently occupied by up to 7,600.

Each month his prison is required to transfer inmates to other prisons to trim their numbers to avoid reaching a critical point.

"The facilities are overloaded to the point where each detainee is even given less than half a square metre to sleep in," Mr Sitthi said, adding these cramped spaces often do little to contain the spread of tuberculosis and HIV.

Despite efforts to solve the problem, "we're still playing catch-up", Mr Sitthi said, adding the best thing officials can do at this moment is to prevent the problem from worsening.

"We've never had the resources to attack the problem head-on," he said.

The situation is similar but less severe at the Central Correctional Institution for Drug Addicts, which is second to Samut Prakan Central Prison in terms of inmate numbers.

Known as Cida, the institute, which is located in Bangkok's Bang Khen area, is reserved for drug convicts who are put through rehabilitation programmes during their detention.

The facility once had 3,305 inmates more than its capacity but after expansion, the number was cut to 400, Cida chief Wutthichai Chenwiriyakun said.

"Prisoners don't need to hang hammocks to sleep in now," he said.

Ex-prisoners at Cida said they had a tough time living in the limited space there.

A former drug convict who was given a 12-year sentence recalled a cell which could accommodate less than 40 people being congested with 70, causing some to sleep on a floor and a pathway.

The problem turned space a valuable "asset" among inmates.

"Those who had money could buy a better area," he said.

Sigh of relief

These problems prompted the cabinet to greenlight the 178-million-baht project to build upper floors in 1,895 detention rooms at 93 prisons.

"This will help relieve overcrowding as the rooms can accommodate 72,000 people," Rachada Dhnadirek, a deputy government spokeswoman, said after a cabinet meeting on Feb 4.

The construction carries on work already initiated by the Department of Corrections which earlier used the same model to accommodate an extra 15,000 inmates. Yet more measures are needed to effectively solve the overcrowding. According to observers, the high number of prisoners does not necessarily indicate an alarming crime rate.

"It's rather a structural problem of official policy," suggested one analyst familiar with the problem.

Drug prisoners, for example, must be more carefully divided into different groups -- addicts, small traders and drug lords -- to plan better detention and probation management, he said. Use of electronic monitoring (EM) bracelets for offenders on probation is one way to help relieve overcrowding,

The government recently approved the purchase of 30,000 EM devices for 877-million-baht to increase the number of offenders it can release on probation.

On the same day, the cabinet also agreed in principle to give tax incentives for companies that hire ex-inmates.

Starting this year, the firm which hire employees who have been released from jail in the previous three years are entitled to a tax deduction for half of the wage up to 15,000 baht per inmate.

It is believed that giving opportunities to ex-inmates will help reduce the rate of reoffending and consequently ease pressure on the nation's crowded prisons.

The cabinet also approved a draft royal decree on another tax incentive to encourage companies to hire people who have completely served their jail terms and been released from prisons. Under the plan, part of corporate income tax can be waived, based on expenses the firms spend on the employment of former convicts, Ms Rachada said.

According to the Department of Corrections, 31.49% of those released in 2017; 22% of those released in 2018, and 7.5% of those released in 2019 have reoffended and were locked up again.

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