Overcrowding in Thailand’s Prisons: Inhumane and Unnecessary

Overcrowding in Thailand’s Prisons: Inhumane and Unnecessary

เมื่อ 30 ก.ค. 2562
In Thai prisons, overcrowding is described by many former inmates as the most pressing challenge that current Thai prisoners face. Conservative international standards require individual inmates each have 2.25 square meters of surface area for sleeping, based on this expectation Thai prisons currently have an occupancy level of 224%. Thailand’s Department of Corrections has a space requirement of 1.1 square meters for female inmates and 1.2 square meters for male inmates. Even with this internationally condemned standard, the overall occupancy level is still overpopulated at 145% (FIDH, Behind the Wall p. 12 - link to full report is provided at the end of the article). 

The significance of this number is something Thai prisoners experience and struggle with every day. The issue of overcrowding most notably affects the sleeping condition in prison. Sleeping quarters are often so close that prisoners report having to sleep on their sides to make room for everyone. Sleeping dormitories in Bangkok correctional facilities do not have beds, are just empty rooms with prisoners expected to sleep on the floor. Former inmates have reported that these cramped sleeping conditions have had a toll on their health, reporting pain in their legs and back from being unable to move during the night. Prisoners also have reported having to sleep with their legs piled onto one another.Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a lese majeste convicted who had been detained at Bangkok Remand Prison for 7 years from 30 April 2011 to 30 April 2018 memtioned in an interview that it was these sleeping conditions that he felt were the most dehumanizing aspect of his time in prison. Somyot described feeling like an animal in a cage.

Overcrowding though does not just impact the sleeping arrangements in the Thai prisons. It also impacts the capacity to separate inmates in a way that appropriately meets their needs. Inmates that are ill, injured, elderly or have mental health issues are often kept with the general population. This type of arrangement is cruel and underserved those who need supplemental care. Disease and infection spread quickly and easily in Thai prisons because of the inhumane combination of extremely confined living arrangements and the inability to maintain separate housing for sick inmates because of overcrowding, as well as insufficient medical access for prisoners. Commonly contracted health afflictions in Thai prisons include skin-related diseases and infections, such as scabies and abscesses, and tuberculosis (Behind the Wall p. 25 ).

The challenges faced by prisoners as a result of overcrowding doesn’t only affect convicted inmates. Pre-trial and remand inmates, despite the expectation of being kept separate from those who are convicted, often end up in the same cells because of the lack of space. Ultimately the issue of overcrowding creates desperation in these facilities that results in inappropriate conditions and arrangements. The problem of overcrowding is an issue that has to be addressed with a multifaceted solution. It requires legal reform, better-mandated resources and a change in social attitudes towards people who are incarcerated.
Recent Thai prison statistics show 72% of all inmates are being held for drug-related offenses. Thailand has some of the harshest drug laws in the world, distribution can result in the death penalty or lifetime prison sentences, possession can lead to prison sentences of up to 10 years for some narcotics. Harsh drug penalties are a major contribution to the crisis of overcrowding in Thai prisons. Decriminalization of drug possession would have a huge impact on the conditions in prisons (Behind the Wall p.14).  If complete decriminalization is an unachievable effort, rehabilitation support, using fines as an alternative to prison time for first-time offenders, and less extreme sentencing for drug offenses would all take some pressure off of Thailand’s criminal justice system. When both institutions and social attitudes address drug use with a more compassionate approach, one that does not treat people who use drugs as criminals, evidence suggests that this actually reduces the amount of problematic drug use in the community, in Thailand, this would have an immense impact on the issue of overcrowding in prisons.

Granting bail to people awaiting trial for certain categories of crimes would also be a huge relief to the Thai prison facilities. Currently, in Thailand, many prisoners report being held for extremely long periods of time in prison before having a trial (Behind the Wall p.16). Prisoners have been held for years before without access to bail for reasons sometimes never justified to the prisoners. Granting bail for certain categories of crime would make significant improvements to prison conditions. When appropriate the use of home detention with electronic monitoring devices to prevent flights are also a good alternative for people awaiting trial.

Repatriation for foreign prisoners is also something that has been recommended to the Thai criminal justice system. Foreign prisoners unnecessarily contribute to overcrowding and also report have an incredibly challenging time in prison because of language barriers. 

In the conversation with Somyot, he explained that the only true solution to the challenges faced by prisoners in Thailand today is a change in the social attitudes towards how people conceptualize justice. A lack of response to the inhumane conditions in Thailand prisons can be partly attributed to minimal empathy for those who are living in prison. Justice, as Somyot explained, should not be about the belief that people should live in suffering. Programs that prevent recidivism, providing assistance with employment and social integration, and a society that prevents the circumstances that lead people to make desperate and harmful choices are necessary steps in lowering incarceration rates.
FIDH report "Behind the walls: A look at conditions in Thailand's prison after the coup" can be accessed here