Thailand’s prisons have a COVID problem it doesn’t want to talk about

Activists dressed as prison inmates walk on a Bangkok skywalk to protest the Thai justice system. Photo: United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration / Facebook
Activists dressed as prison inmates walk on a Bangkok skywalk to protest the Thai justice system. Photo: United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration / Facebook

The COVID-19 infections of high-profile political activists behind bars is calling attention to what’s feared to be a brewing crisis in Thailand’s sizable prison population.

Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul today became the eighth activist known to have contracted the disease while jailed. With access to all prisons shut down in response to an outbreak, the official silence about what’s going on is fueling fears of a major health threat to the incarcerated.

“Before the day I was released, I learned that more than 50 people contracted the virus in the Central Women’s Correctional Institution, and I think right now that prison and others must have a large number of infected people,” Rung wrote, saying she had encountered dozens of infected inmates. “I demand the government and the Corrections Department immediately report the number of infected.”

While the Corrections Department says it’s imposed strict measures and routine testing, it has been mum on how many of the 300,000-plus inmates have taken ill except for scattershot updates from individual facilities. 

Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch in Thailand has been researching the issue and said that he and his team would be talking to the department today. 

“We never get information about the total number of infected inmates nor the preventive measures nor the treatment protocols for infected inmates,” Sunai said.

An earlier promise to build a field hospital at the Klong Prem Central Prison never came to be, he added. 

The system’s overcrowded cells and unsanitary conditions were health concerns since the pandemic began. Despite a population of only 70 million, Thailand has the world’s sixth-largest prison population and its incarceration rate ranked eighth globally. 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.

The vast majority of those – about three in four – are locked up for drug-related offenses.

Corrections Department representatives could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

After this story was published, corrections officials at 4pm Wednesday responded to concerns by announcing the infection totals at two major facilities. Officials said there are 1,795 inmates with COVID-19 at the Bangkok Remand Prison, and 1,040 cases at the Central Women’s Correctional Institution. All are receiving treatment.

Those infections account for roughly 2% of the total prison population; the officials did not disclose case counts at the other 141 facilities.

Sunai said that with the COVID-19 crisis worsening, the Justice Ministry and courts should be reducing that population – not increasing it. Some measures should be imposed, according to Sunai, such as reducing sentences for misdemeanor offenders to home arrest, monitoring them electronically and checking in on them from time to time.

There’s been a de facto blackout on information since early last month when visitors were barred from the nation’s 143 prisons following an outbreak in a Narathiwat province facility that quickly spread to one in Surat Thani. 

The extent to which mostly middle-class university students and other key protest figures became infected suggests a much larger problem. 

Photo: Correctional Department
Photo: Correctional Department

Rung, who was jailed 59 days on charges of sedition and insulting the king, said in a tweet this morning that she didn’t have any symptoms until Tuesday night.

She said she’d been resting at home since her May 6 release until she went to get a drive-through COVID test on Monday. 

Another activist leader in the pro-democracy movement, lawyer Arnon Nampa, last week said he had contracted COVID-19 while behind bars.

Update: This story has been updated with information disclosed by the Corrections Department late Wednesday afternoon.

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