No fresh starts at ‘New Life Camp’

May 29, 2011

Drug offenders held at a special section of Klong Prem prison say they suffered abuse and overcrowding under the pretence of rehabilitation.

It is officially known as the “New Life Camp”, but the name seems like a cruel joke. The “camp” comprises two sections, known as Daen 10 and Daen 13, inside Bangkok’s vast Klong Prem prison complex that house “drug abusers” the system is determined to rehabilitate. But despite the hopeful sounding name, no rehabilitation occurs here. It is intended only as a temporary holding facility for people who have tested positive for drugs and are awaiting further processing.

Interviews with six former residents of either Daen 10 or Daen 13 tell a story of random abuse from the uniformed Corrections Department guards, who are said to strike out at detainees with a club or a kick on a daily basis, often for no apparent reason.

Less frequently, perhaps once a week, an inmate will do something that warrants a serious beating. Major infractions of prison rules require the detainee to lie face down while officials administer dozens of blows to his backside, from the neck down to the buttocks, with the regulation club, sometimes in front of fellow inmates.

All six former detainees interviewed said they had witnessed such brutal discipline, and some had experienced it themselves.

The inmates at the New Life Camp have all tested positive for illegal substances and after a brief court session were turned over to the Probation Department for compulsory rehabilitation. National rehab facilities are limited, however, so the Corrections Department has agreed to hold drug abusers for 45 days while they wait their turn. The Klong Prem facility is one of several holding centres in the country.

On the basis of interviews with inmates and consideration of their prior records and other factors, the Probation Department divides the addicts into three categories. Regardless of which category they are placed in, all inmates must serve the 45-day sentence.

Those considered occasional users are then sent home without a followup. Marginal cases go to the Public Health Ministry for a checkup after the holding term is up to see if standard out-patient therapy can be employed.

The next stop for the majority of inmates at Camp New Life, those considered seriously addicted, is one of 86 national rehabilitation centres for several weeks up to several months. Most of these centres are run by the armed forces and the ”candidates” experience the rigours of military life and undergo therapy administered by officers trained by the Public Health Ministry, but there are few if any reports of abuse. After completion of the rehabilitation programme graduates must still report to the Probation Department for interviews and urine tests until they are finally pronounced cured.

There are exceptions to this protocol, however. The New Life Camp also has a fair number of upper-class drug offenders on hand for shorter periods who can afford bail. They are normally released in seven days but are still required to undergo some sort of rehab. At any one time there are also a handful of foreigners, who are usually promptly sent to immigration authorities for deportation.

Crowding in the New Life Camp is far more extreme than in the rest of Klong Prem prison. As of May, prison officials confirmed that Daen 10, which has an official capacity of 500, was housing 1,300 inmates. Daen 13 is designed for 1,600 inmates but was holding 2,100. Officials explain that around 100,000 drug users are arrested every year and the system just cannot cope with them all.

The cells are the size of a small hotel room and hold 50 to 70 people. The rooms have no mats and no orderly sleeping arrangements. Inmates sleep on their sides, body-to-body, often with arms and legs wrapped over their neighbours.

A nocturnal trip to the toilet means tip-toeing between outstretched legs, and upon return one invariably finds his sleeping spot has vanished.

Punishable offences include escape attempts, fighting, singing or making loud noises, sharpening objects and tapping into power lines to heat coffee. Even reaching for a second helping of rice warrants a couple of clouts, said former inmates. Beatings are meted out with the regulation Correction Department truncheon carried by the prison guards. Sometimes the tip is wrapped with heavy rubber bands to create lacerations. Inmates normally aren’t allowed visits to the prison medical complex, although occasionally blows to the head and other serious injuries which require emergency care. These are presumably passed off as accidents.

Regardless, it is hard to believe that prison medical personnel are unaware of the allegations of physical abuse. When asked about it, one doctor who did not wish to be named said, ”I am not sure.” The doctor looked into the matter and a month later he said: ”I think your information is correct”, but declined to give any specifics.

”The entire system needs a restart from the Justice Ministry,” said the doctor. ”These people are not convicts and should not be coming to us. We are too busy. They have the right to go outside for medical treatment.”

The crowded conditions at New Life Camp help contribute to a tense atmosphere, and sometimes fights break out between inmates. These merit a beating and removal to a penalty cell called Kung Soi.

While in this chamber, the two adversaries are handcuffed together.

The detainees don’t wear uniforms except for a dark green cape whenever they are outside the prison for court dates or other necessary excursions. On the inside they dress in T-shirts and short pants. If they arrive in long trousers, these will be cut above the knees. Haircuts are compulsory.

No identification is displayed and inmates know each other only by nicknames.

The short 45-day term virtually precludes the formation of organised prison gangs or mafia, or a trustee system which is so important for maintaining order.

According to the inmate sources, in February this year there were escape attempts from both Daen 10 and Daen 13. At Daen 10, sometime in the middle of the month during daylight hours, one inmate waited on the ground while his partner climbed the approximately 10m high retaining wall. The climber received an electric shock at the top and fell to the pavement. Guards then arrived at the scene and beat the two men, both in their 30s. The climber was carried on his partner’s back to the prison hospital.

When asked, prison hospital sources confirmed they had seen a man in this time period who had injuries consistent with such a fall _ a broken foot and back and leg injuries. Hospital staff did not seem to be interested in what had caused the injuries, but said they patched him up and sent him home instead of back to Daen 10. The inmate sources say his partner wasn’t seen again at New Life Camp either.

Around the same time, two inmates attempted a similar getaway from Daen 13. They managed to clear the high retaining wall, but informers alerted guards before they could escape and they were quickly rounded up. They were subdued with stun-guns and beaten before being confined to the Kung Soi punishment cell. There was no hospital visit.

It is reported that transvestites are confined separately from the rest of the population and are treated less harshly. Apparently the guards also go easier on older inmates.

Like the rest of the prison system, New Life Camp is locked down from 4pm to 6am, but unlike the rest of the system, guards may enter cells during this time period.

During daylight hours, the detainees are free to walk outside and on weekends they may view local TV. In the evening there are no televisions or reading materials available.

For exercise, a small area is suitable for mini-football and takraw matches, and there are a few homemade weights. The inmates are given no work to do, leaving plenty of time for talking, sleeping and smoking cigarettes. There are liberal visiting hours for family members and special food may be purchased for inmates.

There are a few marijuana and heroin cases, but the overwhelming majority of inmates at New Life Camp are there for methamphetamines, either in tablet form _ ya ba _ or the flaky crystalline form nicknamed ”ice”.

For the most part, the inmates represent the marginalised segments of society. They tend to be from slum areas where amphetamines are readily available, zones where police feel they have probable cause for search and seizure and don’t bother with court warrants. It is difficult for these people to arrange bail or probation, not least because of the red tape. Probation is strict and one needs sponsorship from an employer and usually a parent as well before the refundable bail is ever put up.

There are no medical checks upon entry, not even for blood pressure. The crowded conditions are a haven for airborne bacteria, and both inmates and prison doctors interviewed said they were particularly concerned about tuberculosis.

Females arrested for drug abuse queue up at a prison in Pathum Thani’s Thanyaburi district, where conditions are far more civilised. Afterward they may be sent to a hospital or a military drug rehabilitation programme for women.

Complaints on the adverse conditions at Daen 10 and 13 have been filed with the Corrections Department, but thus far this has only resulted in staff transfers. Legal system observers say such practices have probably been going on since the 2002 passage of the Narcotics Control Act, which decriminalised personal drug use but made rehabilitation mandatory. Previously, convicted users served their terms in a regular prison.

When contacted, Chatchai Suthiklom, director-general of the Corrections Department, said he was unaware of anything unusual at Daen 10 and 13, but said he wanted to know all the facts and would welcome any formal letters of complaint. If the allegations of abuse are true, he said, ”Somebody’s job is at stake.” One of the former inmates interviewed for this story submitted a letter to Mr Chatchai’s office in early May detailing his experiences at New Life Camp, but as of press time there had been no response.

When he was asked about the allegations, Charnchao Chaiyanukij, director-general of the Probation Department, said: ”There is a lack of proper planning. The government has a strategy to suppress drugs but they do not pay attention to rehabilitation. There is also a lack of staff and budget. Fighting erupts because of the overcrowding, and some inmates have indeed suffered physical abuse from officials,” said Mr Charnchao.

It’s difficult to determine whether Thailand’s drug rehabilitation efforts are effective, as often the offenders don’t follow through with their probations and aren’t heard from unless they are arrested again.

Some drug abusers may be ”scared straight” through their rough experiences in the legal system.

One of the inmates interviewed for this story survived 45 days at the New Life Camp, during which time he was beaten twice. He was released without an ID card or money in his pockets , and without any documentation showing that he had served his time. He took a motorcycle taxi home and the fare was paid by a family member. The former inmate then swore that he was going off drugs for good. Only time will tell.

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