‘Model prisons’ fail to meet international standards: researchers

Several prisons certified as ‘model prisons’ by the Thai Institute of Justice (TIJ) fall short of international standards, as found by Prachatai English in a visit to several prisons, and according to a group activists and researchers, including former lèse majesté prisoner Pornthip Mankhong. The prisons have persistent problems of overcrowding, insufficient staffing, and poor medical care, as witnessed by Prachatai English.

The TIJ has certified ten prisons in Thailand as ‘model prisons’ for their compliance with the Bangkok Rules, formally known as the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, standards concerning the specific needs of female prisoners. The International Federation for Human Rights conducted the research through its member organization, the Union for Civil Liberties, whose team evaluated prison compliance with the Bangkok Rules.

The team included Pornthip Mankhong, a former lèse majesté prisoner who spent two years in prison after being arrested in 2014 for directing a satirical play at Thammasat University. She is now one of the founders of Fairly Tell, an activist group that supports former women prisoners.

Other members were Pornpit Pakmai, who works on job placement for former prisoners, and reporter on infectious disease issues Raviwan Rakthinkamnerd.

Various members of the group visited women’s correctional institutions in Thanyaburi, Pathum Thani and Chiang Mai, prisons with large female sections at Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Provincial Prison, Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution and Chiang Rai Central Prison, as well as prisons with small female sections including Fang District Prison. Prachatai English was present for the visits to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Fang.

FIDH attempted to evaluate the prisons last year but were denied access by the Department of Corrections. After the TIJ announced the ten ‘model prison’ awards this year, they successfully visited six of them.

But the prisons varied in the freedom of access to the inmates allowed to the researchers. The group was often followed closely by guards who prevented them from speaking privately with the prisoners. Sometimes prison officials pre-selected inmates to speak to the researchers with prepared answers, or only in the presence of an officer who intercepted and answered for them.

Given these restrictions, Pornthip said that her status as a former prisoner helped her quickly gain the trust of the inmates, who she knows from personal experience are often coached to speak to outside organizations. She was even able to speak to many inmates who she knew from her time in prison.

“We have to say ‘Everything is so nice, everything is okay, we are happy to be inside’. That is not true. The visitors will not know the truth inside prison,” she said, “except when we have someone who we trust and they trust us. And I think my friends trust me and they can tell me the truth.”

She said she can get a sense from small details— like whether the prison makes prisoners sit on their knees for visitors — if they respect human rights.

“We are friends, they know me. They know what I’ve done in prison, they know I made problems in prison. So they know they can tell me. And they trust me, that I will protect them. That I can protect them.”

The most common problem in nearly every prison was overcrowding. Inmates told Prachatai English that the cramped, overheated quarters made it difficult to sleep, and that the heat during the day could be unbearable.

For example, at Samut Sakhon Central Prison 500 prisoners are confined to an area of about 0.3 acres. Each person has about 0.68 square meters to sleep in.

Further compounding the issue of overcrowding were shortages of supplies and staff like prison officials, doctors and nurses.

The group heard cases of urgent medical conditions and the failure to get inmates to hospital in time. One woman in Chiang Rai allegedly died in prison of a kidney condition, while another woman in Ayutthaya reportedly had to give birth in prison.

Many prisoners complained of rashes, which the according to researchers, is due to the prison providing ground water for bathing instead of tap water to save money.

The 28th of the Bangkok Rules states that: “Visits involving children shall take place in an environment that is conducive to a positive visiting experience, including with regard to staff attitudes, and shall allow open contact between mother and child. Visits involving extended contact with children should be encouraged, where possible”.

However, most prisons they visited did not allow inmates to have visits with their children other than behind a glass partition. Only Fang District Prison allowed mothers with children younger than 15 to have visits more often than once a year where mothers can touch and hug their children.

Pornthip added that she was pleasantly surprised by the conditions at Fang.

“It’s small but the officers really respect them, respect the human rights of the prisoners. It’s like they’re just a friend. Officers have their duties, but the prisoners just live inside like a big family.”

Among other concerns that Pornthip raised is an apparent policy that prisoners returning from a court date must be subjected to solitary confinement for up to 5 days afterwards to ensure that they haven’t consumed any drugs.

“They said they have to check for methamphetamine when they pee. It’s so stupid because we have the technology to check,” said Pornthip. “When they come back to the guards the prisoners can pee and they can check it immediately. Why do they have to wait 5 days?”

There were also disparities in how much inmates were paid for labour. Some stitched clothes and made only 5 baht per item of clothing. Others received 80 baht per month for doing paperwork. Some who do cleaning work aren’t paid at all. Pay can get as high as 2,000 baht a month, but the type of job a prisoner gets can be arbitrarily decided by the wardens.

Overall members of the group felt that the awards handed out by the Thailand Institute of Justice were good motivators for prisons to follow the Bangkok Rules, but that the institutions were limited by congestion and funding shortages.

For examples, some prisons don’t have an enough budget to purchase televisions. And some officials expressed dissatisfaction with the policy that dictates solitary confinement for several days upon returning from court, but were nevertheless obligated to enforce it.

Group members concluded that the larger correctional institutions have better occupational training than smaller prisons, but described a stricter and more hierarchical atmosphere. Inmates at smaller prisons reported a closer relationship with officers and compared life in prison to “school” or “family”, but said rehabilitation programs and vocational training were close to none.

Pornthip said she was grateful to be able to reconnect with her friends, and felt proud of returning to prison, this time no longer as a prisoner.

“I’m very proud of myself,” she said. “No one wants to go back there. But I want to go back and I want to see my friends, in a different situation with a different status. That makes me so proud of myself.”


*Original version of this report was first published on Monday 2 July, 2018.

** The updated version republished on Monday 16 July, 2018