Thailand: prison overcrowding crisis exacerbated by COVID-19

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, prisons in Thailand were already in a state of crisis. Reform is long overdue.

In less than a week, Thailand’s Department of Corrections has reported over 11,000 new COVID cases in 13 of the country’s prisons. When the daily number of new COVID-19 cases reached a record high for the entire country on Monday, May 17, 71 percent of the 9,635 new infections reported were in prisons. Thailand now has one of the world’s highest number of COVID-19 cases in prisons — only Brazil, Colombia, India, and the United States have more cases — and the highest in Southeast Asia, according to available data tracked by the Justice Project Pakistan.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, prisons in Thailand were already in a state of crisis. A report published by the Thailand Institute of Justice in March 2021 highlighted that Thai prisons have one of the highest rates of overcrowding in the world and the world’s highest share of incarcerated women (14 percent of the prison population).

With over 300,000 people in prison, Thailand also has the largest prison population in Southeast Asia, even though the total population is far less than neighboring countries Indonesia and the Philippines.

In response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in prisons, Minister of Justice Somsak Thepsuthin announced plans for increased testing, vaccinations, medical care, and possible early release of 50,000 people. The minister also stated that there will be changes to Thailand’s drug laws to shorten prison sentences for minor offenses and to shift toward rehabilitation programs in order to reduce costs and overcrowding. While these goals are laudable, merely shortening prison sentences is not likely to achieve them. Reforms to the drug law were already adopted in 2017 to reduce the length of sentences, but did not succeed in scaling down the prison population, as people continued to be incarcerated for drug offenses at the same alarming rate.Meanwhile, the United Nations has noted grave concerns regarding growing global prison numbers and the public health risk posed by communicable diseases, like COVID-19, in overcrowded prisons.