Overwhelming odds get better of efforts to stamp out prison drug trade

September 9, 2012

The murder of a warder in Nakhon Si Thammarat who refused to cooperate with a smuggling ring cast a spotlight on a problem common throughout the country, a situation that seems inevitable due to overcrowding and the poor working conditions of staff

In the early morning of Aug 18, Nakhon Si Thammarat prison warder Od Sae Pua was shot dead on the way home from the prison where he worked for years. The reason was simply that he had refused to help smuggle drugs into the prison and that he reported the attempt to bribe him to do so to his bosses.

Now officials at the Corrections Department are expressing fears that organised gangs of drugs offenders operating from inside prison, with the collusion of corrupt staff, are able to continue their deadly trade with impunity.

They cite problems with prison overcrowding and too few warders as major causes, and see a complete overhaul of the justice system as the only solution.

Before Od’s murder, Nakhon Si Thammarat prison lost another warder who reportedly poisoned himself, but an internal report by the Corrections Department suggests a third party might have been responsible.

The recent violence against warders at Nakhon Si Thammarat prison has highlighted the growing complexity of the drug problem at the institution and prompted authorities to step up their efforts to curb it.

”What happened at Nakhon Si Thammarat has shown us that they [the drug gangs] not only rely on technology, but they also form networks inside prisons that involve our officials,” said Kobkiat Kasivivat, deputy chief of the Corrections Department.

”We’re not afraid of fighting criminals. What we fear the most is fighting our own people, who not only are at our side, but are spying for our enemies.”

Concerned officials began to notice the problem a few years ago when they managed to trace the drug trade trail and found orders were emanating from within prisons, with imprisoned drug dealers and manufacturers overseeing operations using smuggled mobile phones.

Over the last 10 years, corrections officials have become aware of the growing number of prisoners convicted of drug-related offences.

According to Padet Ringrawd, director of the Corrections Department’s Office of Drug Suppression and Prevention, officials working on the issue began to notice the climbing numbers following successive governments’ drug suppression programmes, which have sent more and more drug dealers and producers to prison.

These offenders are generally given the maximum penalties of life sentences or death. Because of the severity of their crimes, they are rarely given pardons or reduced sentences. As a result, their numbers are growing despite the fact that the department has limited facilities to hold them securely.

The department’s statistics show there are currently about 159,000 prisoners on drug-related charges _ this equates to 65% of the general prison population of about 246,000.

Nakhon Si Thammarat prison holds about 4,900 inmates, half of them there for drug-related offences. This despite the fact the prison was designed to accommodate only about 3,300 prisoners.

The department has 143 prisons across the country, with nine of them _ including Nakhon Si Thammarat prison _ being maximum security facilities.

According to Mr Padet, these prisons are generally overcrowded. Although the prisons attempt to divide their areas into zones (dan in Thai), they are still unable to handle the growing number of prisoners. At present, a small cell will house up to 20 prisoners, while a larger one houses 150 inmates or more.

There are no single cells available at Nakhon Si Thammarat prison and as a result prisoners come into close contact with each other in their cramped cells and have easy access to warders.

Mr Padet said drug warlords in prisons differ greatly from those of the past. Along with being wealthy, they are better educated. These more sophisticated drug warlords still have connections on the outside and use their time in prison to make new contacts and build their networks.

They have strategists to help them plan their deals and have gunmen, dubbed ”samurai”, to act as enforcers.

Because prisons can occupy vast areas _ some are more than 100 rai _ it becomes difficult for warders to oversee them all.

In the past, prisoners would have people from the outside throw mobile phones over prison walls. Some even used PVC pipes capable of propelling the phones up to 200m. Those who launched the phones over the walls could make as much as 5,000 baht per phone. That price would then shoot up to as much as 200,000 baht once it is inside the prison.

Since officials have begun stepping up patrols along the walls, prisoners have changed tactics and now try to lure prison warders into smuggling in the phones for them.

Mr Padet conceded that prisoners far outnumber warders. The department has about 10,900 officials, but subtracting those engaged in administrative work, each warder has to take responsibility for about 100 prisoners. The UN targeted international standard ratio is one warder to three prisoners.

Prison warders normally work under enormous stress. They have to work 12-hour shifts, and as such are exhausted by the long hours and low pay, making them easy prey for the drug networks. Others are threatened and intimidating into cooperating.

Since October of last year, the department has managed to seize 8,476 mobile phones, more than 5,000 SIM cards, up to 48,000 methamphetamine tablets, and up to 4.7kg of ice (crystal methamphetamine).

”We have realised that close contact between prisoners and continued access to phones are a big problem. We are working hard to try to solve the issue,” said Mr Padet.


The Corrections Department has also been trying to cut off contact and communications between inmates and prisoners’ relatives.

It has introduced the use of mobile phone signal jammers, but so far at just one prison, Khao Bin, in Ratchaburi province. The department plans to install more at maximum security prisons as a priority in this budget year. It will also install X-Ray machines at maximum security prisons along with CCTV to monitor prisoner contact as much as possible. And vehicles as well as items passing out of prisons, including mail, will be scrutinised more closely.

According to Mr Padet, inmates and their cohorts use various tactics to smuggle in contraband, including using magnets to attach drugs under vehicles. The department learned of that tactic after searches of cells turned up stacks of magnets.

However, the biggest problem is inmate contact. Since last November, the department has been trying to revamp the zoning system in prisons to divide them into smaller areas for better supervision. It is also considering building a ”supermax” prison, aimed at housing prisoners serving the longest sentences. Prisoners would then be jailed in single cells, cutting off contact with others.

A budget for this has already been set, Mr Padet said.

Besides dealing with infrastructure, the department has also focused on improving its management of staff and prisoners. It regularly transfers both staff members and prisoners who are suspected of involvement in drug deals, thus separating them from their contacts and putting them in unfamiliar surroundings.

But in the eyes of experienced drug suppression officers such as Mr Padet, the prison drug problem will not be resolved as long as people are put into overcrowded prisons operating well beyond their capacity.

”Despite officials’ efforts to suppress crime, the number of prisoners grows every year,” Mr Padet said.

He said some inmates are incarcerated simply because they made a mistake, not because they had any intention to commit a crime.

Other initiatives such as social services programmes should be introduced to help minor drug offenders rather than putting them into already overcrowded prisons, thereby reducing the burden on the system.

Prisons should be reserved solely for those who have committed serious offences, he said, adding that several developed countries have embraced such ideas. Japan, for example, has come up with measures to delay imprisonment as well as rehabilitating drug addicts with the support of the community.

”The key is that society has to lend a helping hand and take some responsibilities,” he said.

Incarcerating less serious offenders merely turns them into more hardened criminals.

”We have been using prisons wastefully,” said Mr Pradet. ”When students fight one another, we put them in detention centres. Why don’t we ask their communities to take care of them instead? Our overall justice system needs a new approach and a fresh mindset because the current structure and authority is principally designed for incarcerating people.”


Aside from the need to overhaul prison management, officials involved in the effort to stamp out the prison drug trade agree that the situation is tied to what’s happening on the outside. As long as drug manufacturers can produce drugs and there are customers willing to buy them, drug dealing from within prisons will continue.

”Drugs are not something that you can produce inside a prison. As long as there are drugs outside, the drug trade can carry on anywhere, including inside the prisons,” said Mr Padet.

According to the 2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy report (INCSR), which was published on March 7, Thailand remains a transshipment country and a target market for drugs produced in neighbouring nations.

The report notes that although regional opium-based drug production and heroin trafficking have declined significantly over several years, the decline has been offset by the increased production of methamphetamine tablets and crystal methamphetamine in Myanmar. The report states that a substantial portion of these drugs is trafficked into Thailand.

”During 2010-11, Thai authorities reported an increase in seizures of pill press machines. This may indicate a possible renewal of methamphetamine tablet production in Thailand,” the report notes.

Crystal methamphetamine, meanwhile, is smuggled into Thailand primarily from Myanmar, but also Iran and various West African countries, the report says.

Besides these drugs, affluent residents in large cities, as well as tourists and expats in Thailand’s resort areas, are customers of ecstasy and cocaine. While ecstasy is typically smuggled into Thailand via commercial air carriers from Europe, the cocaine market in Thailand is still largely controlled by West African criminal organisations moving smaller quantities. South American and Chinese trafficking groups, it says, have now become involved in the regional import of drugs in bulk, typically from China, Hong Kong and Australia. Marijuana also is still used widely in Thailand.

To tackle the drug problem, the government has been implementing an anti-drug campaign with seven major areas of focus attempting to tackle both demand and supply sides.

The report says the campaign’s aims are vague and overly ambitious and that none of the plans have specifically addressed the prison drug problem.

Permpong Chaovalit, deputy secretary-general of the Office of Narcotics Control Board, agreed that as the prison drug problem is linked to the situation outside prisons, drug suppression is crucial.

For prison-related drug problems, the office is paying attention to drug orders from inside prisons as they involve major dealers. ”Drugs know no boundaries. They can go anywhere as long as they have contacts and a means of communicating with them,” said Mr Permpong.

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