UN review sheds light on Thailand’s degrading prison conditions

The UN Committee Against Torture last week reviewed Thailand’s record on torture and inhumane treatment, and expressed concerns about Thailand’s prisons which house the 6th highest prison population in the world. 
 
The issues of the prevalent use of torture in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces and conditions in refugee detention centres were also scrutinized by the panel of 10 experts. 
 
This review taking place in Geneva is the first since Thailand became a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture in 2007. The government was required to submit a periodic report in 2008 but only managed to do so in 2013. 
 
The National Human Rights Commission also submitted a separate report while civil society organizations submitted six reports detailing cases of torture and degrading treatment in custody.  
 
Conditions in Thailand’s prisons have been described as “heavily overcrowded” and “falling short of international standards” by Amnesty International. 
 
According to the Department of Corrections, the maximum capacity of Thailand’s 144 prisons is around 109,000 inmates, but as of January 2014, prisons were housing about 292,000 inmates, almost three times the maximum capacity. 
 
As a result, the number of wardens and other facilities such as medical care were not enough to provide a safe and standard environment for prisoners. The report also recorded various cases of beating and sexual abuse in prisons throughout Thailand. 
 
Thantawut Thaweewarodomkul, a former lèse majesté prisoner who spent time in Bangkok Remand Prison during 2010-2013, was one of the people beaten up by other inmates, allegedly with the consent of wardens, as a way to discipline prisoners.
 
Having spent his first year in detention as merely an accused person, he said he was threatened by the prison authorities on first day he arrived in prison because he was charged with lèse majesté, deemed very “hostile” among prison officials and fellow inmates.   
 
“Then I was beaten on my head, back, my whole body, as a way to ‘welcome’ me into Area 8 of the prison, the toughest area of the whole compound,” he said, alleging that he also witnessed beatings of other non-political prisoners regularly, when wardens did not try to intervene or prevent beatings.  
 
Amnesty International’s report also recorded several complaints of such cases, or “trusty beatings”, in Bang Kwang and Klong Prem Central Prisons. 
 
Thanthawut’s experience illustrates the poor regulation within Thai prisons. Thai law stipulates that remand prisons should only hold detainees during trials, while in other prisons, different areas should separate inmates according to the seriousness of their crimes. 
 
In practice, however, detainees of all kinds were jammed together due to lack of facilities.
 
Detainees on trial and denied bail, accounting for around 25% of inmates, were also put in the same prisons as those guilty of serious crimes. 
 
“So instead of providing chances for inmates with lighter punishments to redeem themselves and get out, they receive lessons from veteran prisoners on how to commit more serious crimes like drugs or stealing cars,” said Thantawut. 
 
Thai authorities acknowledged the issues of Thai prisons during the review session, and cited resource constraints as the reason for such conditions. 
 
A representative from the Ministry of Justice added that there were plans to revise compoundable crimes and review the drug laws that involve 65% of the total inmates in Thailand.  
 
A lack of medical personnel and facilities was also raised by the UN and Amnesty International who said there was one doctor per 3,000 inmates and only once a week visits to the facilities.  
 
According to the 2012 National Human Rights Commission Annual Report, one or two nurses provide medical care in each prison to approximately 1,600 prisoners.  
 
“It’s well known in prison that inmates cannot afford to be sick on weekends, because there will be no doctor available,” said Sutharee Wannasiri, Amnesty International Thailand’s researcher, adding that psychiatrists also only visited prisons three times per month.
 
The death of Ampon Tangnoppakul or “Uncle SMS”, a 61-year-old man who was sentenced to 20 years for lèse majesté and died in 2012 of liver cancer while in custody, was seen as one example of medical negligence in prison. 
 
Although the Criminal Court last year ruled in an inquest that Ampon died from the spread of liver cancer, a number of doctors said that they believed he died from inadequate treatment and negligence. 
 
Thantawut, who was held in the same prison Area as Ampon for over a year, said that Ampon could have been saved if he had been granted bail and provided with proper medical care to cure the disease. Ampon spent a year in detention prior to being convicted. 
 
“First he was complaining that his stomach hurt, then he was given paracetamol without any diagnosis,” said Thantawut. “The second time, he went to the prison hospital again and was given paracetamol. The third time he went back and died there.”
 
The rights group also expressed concerns about the prevalent use of shackles, despite the government’s order to discontinue this last year, and the use of solitary confinement as punishment, which violates the UN Convention Against Torture.