The government wants to release around 50,000 inmates in response to the alarming spread of COVID-19 through the prison population, where the count of cases has exceeded 10,000 and is likely much higher.
Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin said yesterday that as the corrections system makes a belated effort to come to terms with the scope of the problem – it began releasing piecemeal numbers only under public pressure – the Corrections Department is considering ways to reduce numbers at the famously overcrowded facilities. They include everything from transferring some inmates to home incarceration to be electronically monitored to granting pardons and early release.
There are currently 11,679 inmates being treated at hospitals, according to Somsak.
Somsak said he would seek vaccines for inmates and guards at the earliest opportunity. He also promised to provide weekly updates on the number of infected and recovered inmates. Due to the lack of vaccines, Somsak said he would consider acquiring the antiviral drug Favipiravir for therapeutic treatment.
The total number of infected inmates nationwide is still unknown. Only 13 of the nation’s 143 correctional facilities have provided a tally of COVID-19 infections.
Somsak said inmates, guards and higher-ranking authorities would be thoroughly tested, starting at prisons in Bangkok, and the numbers would be made public.
It’s as close to a mea culpa as justice officials are likely to offer after failing to heed warnings that conditions, including overcapacity, made Thailand’s prisons especially vulnerable to the virus’s spread.
Thailand’s war on drugs has filled the prison system to bursting; about three in four inmates are incarcerated for drug-related offenses.
The outbreak had been kept under wraps until a number of high-profile activists, including Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul and lawyer Arnon Nampa, said they had contracted COVID-19 behind bars. That led the public and human rights activists to call on the Corrections Department to come clean about the actual number of infected prisoners nationwide and provide proper care.
#COVIDinPrison has periodically been trending on Twitter in Thailand since last week.
Despite a population of only 70 million, Thailand has the world’s sixth-largest prison population, and the system was already overcrowded when the pandemic began, having swollen to more than 374,o00 inmates as of January 2020. It had fallen to about 310,000 inmates as of May 2.
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