Overcrowded prisons need reforming

Extreme overcrowding in Thai prisons forces inmates to endure deplorable conditions, stripping away their dignity and humanity. It’s a humanitarian crisis that demands immediate action.

Due to terribly cramped spaces, inmates barely have room to sleep. They also suffer poor sanity from insufficient toilets and bathing facilities, in addition to poor-quality food and substandard healthcare.

It’s crucial to reduce the unnecessary number of inmates in order to alleviate overcrowding strains and enhance inmates’ quality of life.

Statistics from the past 10 years of the Department of Corrections show that there were an average of 310,000 new inmates per year nationwide, with figures peaking at 350,000 to 360,000 between 2018 and 2020. The inmate population exceeds capacity by at least 40,000 to 50,000 people.

According to the International Federation for Human Rights, Thai prisons have a population more than double the intended capacity, based on a standard of providing 2.25m² of surface area per prisoner. Thailand also has the 6th highest prison population in the world and the highest prison population in Asean.

The prison overcrowding crisis has a serious health impact on inmates, leading to numerous physical and mental health problems such as tuberculosis, asthma, scabies, stress, insomnia, weight loss, and depression, sometimes resulting in suicidal tendencies.

Compounding these concerns is the inadequate healthcare in prisons. A 2022 report from the Ministry of Public Health reveals that dental and mental health services in prison hospitals are subpar, further exacerbating the inmates’ plights.

When Covid-19 hit Thailand, the prisons were the hardest impacted by the pandemic due to overcrowding. According to the Department of Corrections, 40% of inmates contracted Covid-19, resulting in 139 deaths in 2022.

Multiple factors fuel prison overcrowding. They include the excessive use of imprisonment, unnecessary sentencing, and the imposition of extreme penalties with lengthy prison terms. The inadequate implementation of alternatives to imprisonment further exacerbates the situation, culminating in an explosive inmate population.

While there have been attempts to utilise electronic monitoring (EM) as an alternative to incarceration with the aim of alleviating overcrowding and facilitating inmates’ reintegration into society, its effectiveness in rehabilitating offenders remains questionable. The social stigma attached to wearing the device often hinders successful reintegration and may contribute to repeat offences.

According to a 2023 TDRI study, the justice system often overlooks and fails to support alternatives to imprisonment, especially public service work as a detention substitute. In fact, community service not only benefits inmates but also contributes to the economy.

Currently, Thai law supports social service work as an alternative to imprisonment. People who are unable to pay fines, those under court-ordered supervision, or those whose sentences have been suspended or reduced — typical verdicts for minor or non-violent offences — may choose to perform community service instead.

Social service work lets offenders stay at home and lead regular lives while doing their community duties as ordered by the court. This option helps reduce the financial burden on their families, who would otherwise struggle to support them in prison. Plus, the convicts can keep working and return to normal life after serving their sentences.

However, the existing system of social service work faces at least two limitations. Firstly, there are no clear guidelines regarding the duration of service, resulting in inconsistencies. Secondly, the available assignments are limited and mainly involve manual labour tasks like cleaning, municipal sanitation work, government building maintenance, or blood donations. This approach often overlooks the diverse skills and abilities of individuals who could otherwise contribute meaningfully to society and the economy.

Compared with international practices, their approach to public service work is clear about work hours and the diversity of tasks that meet the economic and social needs of the country.

The United Kingdom, for example, has clear guidelines both for the duration and variety of social service work based on the severity of the offences committed. The UK courts have the authority to set working hours and the types of social service work according to the offence. For minor offences, the duration is between 40-80 hours; moderate offences, 80-150 hours; and for severe offences, 150-300 hours of service.

In Los Angeles, USA, the court has clear guidelines on the type of community service work. Offenders are assigned to work in various public and nonprofit organisations such as city parks, animal shelters, and cleaning centres. Depending on individuals’ skills, these tasks can support government staff or directly benefit the public. For example, helping with paperwork, public relations, or accounting can generate economic and social benefits.

Setting suitable work hours not only reflects the severity of the given sentence but also helps make up for the lost hours in public service work. Statistics from the UK show that such community service helps offset the workforce shortage by 4.8 million hours, while in Los Angeles, it can compensate for up to 8.5 million hours, generating an economic value of around $100 million (3.6 billion baht).

To adopt similar approaches successfully, the government should swiftly maximise the existing public service initiatives to their fullest potential. This entails two critical steps: first, clearly defining the duration of community work to ensure offenders understand how long they are required to serve, and second, identifying the types of work that contribute economically to society and foster individual growth beyond mere labour-intensive tasks and basic skills.

Furthermore, the government should collaborate with other state agencies, particularly the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Labour, to develop mechanisms for job placement, supervision, and oversight of offenders involved in community service work. These initiatives not only alleviate prison overcrowding and enhance the welfare of inmates but also help them transition back into society by enabling them to contribute meaningfully to society.

Embracing alternatives like community service not only addresses the dire conditions of overcrowded prisons but also fosters inmates’ self-esteem and belief in their potential — essential for their successful return to society. It also underscores the importance of a justice system that balances accountability with compassion, offering those who have erred a pathway to rehabilitation and a fresh start.

Writer :  Khemmapat Trisadikoon is a senior researcher and Chutima Suttiprapa is a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute 

First Publish : Bangkok Post 10 April 2024