Interview with the Director-General of the Department of Corrections

June 13, 2010
By

Chatchai Suthiklom, formerly of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB), was appointed director-general of the Department of Corrections on Sept 30 last year, replacing long-time veteran Natthee Jitsawang, who was moved to an inactive position in the Justice Ministry.

Since then, Mr Chatchai has done little in the way of public relations. Unlike his predecessors, there have been no press conferences, no press tours and few press releases.

Sources in the prison system have had little to say about his performance since he took charge. As for being so quiet, one official remarked: “It’s his style.”

Q: Why no publicity or news for nine months?

A: The environment is not proper at this time. The drug issue and other prison issues are still ongoing, but in doing my work another issue is more important.

Q: What is the other issue?

A: Politics.

Q: Do you have any background in the corrections service?

A: No. I was doing narcotics investigative work at the ONCB. I was not a policeman. But yes, I agree that corrections is not a job for a policeman.

I have to work and learn more. I’ve learned a lot in the past few months. I’ve learned by visiting prisons on Fridays and Saturdays and have picked up a lot of details.

Q: Does your ONCB background help in the job?

A: It helps. I dealt with criminals before, but now I deal with them in a different role. In the past I was their enemy. I know the nature of the criminal. So in my new role I know something about them.

Q: Did you take this job because of failings concerning narcotics in prisons?

A: Yes, that is part of it. I was involved in investigating drug dealing inside prisons. But, the other part of coming to this new job is politics.

Q: Have you made any policy changes from the previous administrations?

A: No policy changes. I told everyone the policies of the former director-general were very good. I did not come here to change things. I came to follow a good system.

Q: Are people who run drug deals using mobile phones inside prisons?

A: Yes, they definitely are. They can easily smuggle SIM cards and top them up from outside. It’s not easy to stop this.

We could monitor these calls but the signals are digital and expensive to convert. The only real solution is to stop all outgoing mobile calls by incapacitating the local relay transmitters.

My plan is to put all the big drug dealers in one place and block outgoing signals. This might inconvenience neighbouring communities as well as our staff, who will have to resort to old-fashioned radios and land-lines.

Q: That would be a major innovation. What other plans do you have?

A: I want to continue the good work. I try to give the officers – who receive a good wage from our budget – a sense of pride. I come from the ONCB, where we have a sense of pride, and no corruption. I want everyone here to be proud as well.

I am only one of 11,000 correctional officers. Every officer can do his own thing but if he goes against the rules, he must be punished. I have had to fire 10 officers so far.

Q: Aren’t you afraid they might have influence and seek reprisal?

A: No, they don’t have any influence.

Q: What is the drug situation inside?

A: Drugs are coming in shipments of more than 200 pills and they are sold internally for a high profit. We check all packages and people entering. This is not really a change in policy from the previous administration.

Q: A news report on June 3 had you verifying red shirt signatures for a Thaksin Shinawatra pardon. Can you please explain?

A: Corrections has the responsibility to verify pardon petitions for all convicts, and Thaksin is a convicted fugitive.

Signatories give an ID number and this is checked with the Interior Ministry’s computer to verify if they are a genuine citizen. A second check is to verify if the signatory is a friend or relative of Thaksin. We had to hire 100 clerical staff for the job. Three million names were checked with the ministry’s computer and we found very few fakes.

Q: Did they really need three million names?

A: No, actually a pardon petition requires only one signature, but if they submit three million we must check them all.

Q: The Thai prison system is pretty much a ya ba hotel. Is the drug really any more dangerous than alcohol? Is there some way you can lighten the penalty?

A: It is a multi-national problem. There are more than 100 countries that criminalise amphetamines. We cannot make a unilateral policy change without consulting others.

Q: You are going to show World Cup football in prisons. Won’t this encourage gambling?

A: Not really. We primarily want the foreign prisoners to enjoy the spectacle. Games will be shown in the cells but not in real time. This means the outcome is known so they cannot bet on the final score. If they want to bet on the next goal, that’s no problem.

Q: What is your concept of restorative justice?

A: The prisoner talks with the victim just before release. He willingly asks for forgiveness and they try to reach a compromise. This protects the prisoner from a revenge attack. These procedures would apply to serious crimes like murder, rape or assault. They would not apply to victimless crimes like drug peddling.

Q: How are the red shirts doing?

A: Thai red shirts are no problem. It’s only the two foreign red shirts that are causing trouble. We have 300 red shirts and they get along okay.

Q: Is this because most Thai prisoners are red shirts to begin with?

A: Laughs.

This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post and is reproduced here as a prison blog with permission of the author.