Prisons chief calling for overhaul

September 1, 2014


The Corrections Department under the leadership of Witthaya Suriyawong is undergoing an internal revamp, hoping raises and new leaders will fix the country’s broken prison system.

Public confidence in the department has lately taken a battering after revelations that inmates had access to contraband mobile phones and were even running drugs rings while under lock and key.

In response, Mr Witthaya has introduced a raft of new measures to combat internal corruption.

Under Mr Witthaya’s reform plan, department officials, prison commanders and correctional staff will get a pay rise to deter them from accepting bribes, which he believes are compromising prison administration.

The department is seeking updates to the Penitentiary Act, enforced since 1936, from the new government.

And drug offenders will be separated from other convicts as part of a new treatment scheme.

When that plan is ready, drug offenders will be sent to maximum security facilities at Khlong Phai in Nakhon Ratchasima, Khao Bin in Ratchaburi, Phitsanulok, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Khlong Prem in Bangkok, Chiang Rai and Bang Khwang in Nonthaburi. Mr Witthaya has placed these facilities under new management.

Mobile phones, which are prohibited items in prisons, have found their way to the inmates.

So the department is installing a system to control, manage and jam unauthorised mobile phone signals.

On the financial side, the department plans to create a business to market products, such as furniture and household ornaments, which the inmates manufacture as part of their vocational training.

Business experts will be hired to run the enterprises, with revenue shared between the inmates and the department.

Inmates released from jail will also be offered jobs in the enterprise to keep them from re-offending, Mr Witthaya said.

The department is also planning a new education programme, including vocational training, to help prepare inmates for their return to society.

Prison overcrowding is also a pressing issue, Mr Witthaya said.

“The overcrowding environment has long been a problem that the department tries to address. But due to the political instability since 2006, criminal justice policy is never assessed and no concerted efforts are made to handle the problems,” he said.

The department holds about 310,000 inmates nationwide, exceeding the capacity of the facilities, which employ about 10,000 staffers across the country.

About 70% of inmates are doing time for drug-related offences. Most were drug abusers who also traded drugs in small quantities.

The department has also proposed amending its regulations to allow the early release of prisoners for good behaviour.

They would be sorted into classes to identify their privileges, including eligibility for a pardon and suspended jail sentences.

Those eligible for early release will be screened by committees at the department and ministry level. The focus is to make sure the inmates will not pose a threat to public safety. Authorities would monitor their behaviour after they leave.

The Department of Probation is responsible for examining background checks of inmates to be released.

They will talk to the victims of the inmates’ crimes as well as the inmates’ own families when considering an early release.

Between October last year and June, 13,510 inmates were released on probation while 18,147 inmates had their stays in prison shortened with the result they will walk free sooner.

Mr Witthaya said that to qualify for early release, an offender must have served no less than one-third of his or her sentence and be at least in the so-called “good” class.

Also, the time left to serve must not exceed five years, and he or she must be a first-time offender.

Early releases of drug offenders take into account extra conditions, such as the amount of drugs seized: The amount must not be more than 5g of heroin, 50g of opium, 10kg of fresh marijuana, 1kg of dried marijuana, and 200 methamphetamine pills.

Those rules are there to protect the public and maintain their confidence in the criminal justice system, Mr Witthaya said.

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