This is a rare photograph that gives you a good idea of how overcrowded prisons are in Thailand. Unlike their American or European counterparts, Thai prisoners live in open rooms with no beds or furniture of any kind. They aren’t even given any bedding. Sheets can be bought and some people stuff these with old clothes in order to make pillows. Each cell is about four metres by seven metres. On each side, people are lying side by side with their feet facing the middle. Then, down the center of the cell, there are two rows of other prisoners. There are on average at least 50 prisoners in this one cell. There isn’t enough room for all of them to lie on their back. New prisoners are only allocated another room to lie on their side. They are packed in so tightly that they cannot turn over. If they have any money, they can bribe the cell boss to let them lie on their backs. But, there isn’t enough room for them to all do that.
The prisoners have already eaten and showered by 3.30 p.m. and then they are taken up to their cells. There are only two fans so you can imagine with so many people in the cell that it heats up quickly and the smell from sweaty bodies becomes overpowering. The squat toilet is at the far end of the cell. This has a low wall about two feet high. Imagine what it would be like if you needed to answer the call of nature during the night and had to clamber over all these bodies. At least the lights are kept on all the time. But then, that is also a curse because it makes it difficult to sleep. The prisoners are locked in here for 14 hours per day. They are not allowed to bring any food up to the cells. If you have enough money, you can bribe the cell boss and prison guards to allow you to be transferred to another cell. But, they are all much the same as each other.
It wasn’t always like this. Since the government declared an anti drug policy in 1998, the prison population increased greatly. In fact, 60% of the prison population today are there due to narcotic offences. In the past, property crime was the biggest offence. But now, that is only 19%. As a result, Thailand has one of the highest ratio of prisoners to population in the world. The following is a chart of prison population over the last ten years. At present, there are 139 prisons around the Thailand with 245,033 sq.m. of sleeping space. The Department of Corrections stipulates that each prisoner should have 2.25 sq.m. each. That would mean a maximum prison population of 108,904 prisoners. The statistics show how badly the prisons are overcrowded.
1997 – 125,870 prisoners
1998 – 164,323 prisoners
1999 – 199,542 prisoners
2000 – 217,393 prisoners
2001 – 244,240 prisoners
2002 – 245,801 prisoners
2003 – 210,234 prisoners
2004 – 166,418 prisoners
2005 – 161,879 prisoners
2006 – 151,586 prisoners
Recognizing this problem, the Thai government undertook a number of measures to help reduce overcrowding. In 1999 and 2003 there were collective royal pardons. Then, in late 2003, the Narcotic Rehabilitation Act stipulated that drug offenders, especially those who were drug users, should be sent to Drug Rehabilitation Centers. Although there is a slow downward trend, it is not solving the main problem. The increase of drug offenders was only one reason for the increase in prisoners. There is also the problem of unsentenced offenders who make up a staggering 30% of the prison population. Normally these people should be sent to special remand prisons. But, due to the overcrowding, potentially innocent people are mixed in with hardened criminals. The courts are also crowded, so prisoners who cannot afford the bail may have to wait up to a year in prison awaiting trial. Then they might have to wait another year for their appeal to be heard.
The third reason for overcrowding in Thai prisons is the liberal use of imprisonment as a punishment. Even for petty crimes such as stealing, gambling and offences against traffic laws. In other countries, offenders are often given probation or suspended sentences. In my own province of Samut Prakan, I have been told that nearly twenty foreigners are arrested every month at the airport for stealing and are then sentenced by the courts to a minimum of 6 months. One person I know from America only stole some face wash and he got this sentence. Another was an elderly gentleman from Australia who stole a watch. He said he tried to pay for it straight away and any fine they wanted with his credit cards, but they insisted on arresting him and sending him to court. Then there are people in prison who just didn’t have enough money to pay the fine.
Apart from overcrowding, general prison conditions have improved over the years. Beatings by sadistic guards are less common. Even the food can be quite good. One foreign prisoner that I visited a few times at the notorious Bang Kwang Prison said that the best thing was the Thai food that he paid a Thai prisoner to cook for him. Basically if you have money then you can make your life a bit easier. From paying for extra space in the cell and for bedding, to having better food and even clean water to bathe in. But, the majority of the Thai prison population do not have anyone on the outside to support them and many of them are barely surviving.