Updated: May 20, 2021 04:38 AM GMT
A field hospital set up to treat inmates with Covid-19 in Bangkok as Thailand battles its latest surge in infections partly due to outbreaks in prisons. (Photo: Department of Corrections/AFP)
A leading human rights group has slammed the Thai government over an outbreak of Covid-19 in the country’s prisons after more than 10,000 inmates were found to be infected.
On just one day, May 17, nearly 4,000 cases were reported among inmates at Chiang Mai Central Prison in northern Thailand, which is just one of several correctional facilities where mass infections have been documented.
“The Thai government is obligated under international law to ensure that prisoners and detainees have adequate health protections and care, particularly during escalating Covid-19 outbreaks,” Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement.
“Besides providing health care and virus testing, the authorities should reduce the detainee population through supervised release of those held on politically motivated charges or for minor offenses, or who face greater risk from underlying health conditions.”
Thailand’s prisons, which house some 380,000 inmates, are notoriously overcrowded with cells packed well beyond their intended capacity.
Chronic overcrowding makes any attempt at social distancing a futile effort in Thai prisons, experts say.
Many people warned the Thai authorities that they needed to act proactively to avoid such a situation
The mass infection among inmates at Thailand’s prisons came to light last week after Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, 22, a university student turned political activist who had been held as a political prisoner over her pro-democratic activism, was released on bail on May 6.
Panusaya, who is facing a variety of charges from sedition to royal defamation, took to Facebook to reveal that she had contracted the virus at the Central Women’s Correctional Institution in Bangkok and added that many other inmates were also infected.
Following the revelation, the Corrections Department admitted that 2,835 inmates had tested positive in total at Bangkok Remand Prison and the Central Women’s Correctional Institution, which meant that at least a third of inmates at the two institutions had the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19.
Since then, inmates at many other prisons around Thailand have been found to be infected with the potentially deadly pathogen.
Rights advocates have stressed that the government was directly responsible for the mass outbreak of Covid-19 in the prisons.
“The Thai government needs to be forthright about the Covid-19 outbreaks in its prison system and how it intends to avoid disastrous consequences for those held,” Adams said.
“Many people warned the Thai authorities that they needed to act proactively to avoid such a situation, but it seems they got caught sleeping at the switch.”
In its own defense, the Corrections Department has said that disease mitigation measures have already been in place at all prisons, including a rule that requires all inmates to wear masks all day long.
Thailand should consider reducing populations in prisons and detention facilities through appropriate supervised release of detainees at high risk of suffering serious effects from the virus
However, a physician working for the department conceded that such measures weren’t foolproof.
“Even though there’s a command … for everyone to wear a mask 24 hours a day, in reality it can’t be done because [inmates] have to take a shower and eat [so they remove their masks],” Dr. Veerakit Harnparipan said.
HRW said that unless meaningful changes in policy are implemented at Thai prisons during the pandemic, the outbreak of Covid-19 among the hundreds of thousands of inmates is likely to continue unchecked.
“Thailand should consider reducing populations in prisons and detention facilities through appropriate supervised release of detainees at high risk of suffering serious effects from the virus, such as older people and people with underlying health conditions,” HRW said in a statement.
“The Thai authorities should also take into consideration factors such as the gravity of the person’s crime, the length of their sentence, and the amount of time already served.
“In addition, those who may be scheduled for release soon, those in pre-trial detention for non-violent and lesser offenses, and those whose continued detention is similarly unnecessary or not justified should also be considered for early release.”