Thailand: student project seeks more ‘humane’ design of Bangkok prison

BANGKOK — A university is working with a prison to help tackle overcrowding and unhygienic conditions that have stalked the Thai corrections system for years.

In a joint project by King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi and Thonburi Remand Prison, architecture students are asked to come up with new blueprints that could make imprisonment more “humane” for the inmates, from improved sleeping cells to sanitary dining halls.

Architecture professor Sunaree Lawanyawatna, who oversees the project, said prisoners should not be punished beyond what the justice system dictated to them.

“We shouldn’t judge others,” Sunaree said in a recent interview. “The person who judges and metes out punishment is the judge.”

“We shouldn’t punish prisoners through architectural design,” she added.

The project was also organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross and supported by private sectors like the Siam Cement Group, who donated old stock ties for prison renovation.

Various human rights groups have consistently criticized the Thai prisons for their overcrowding – a 2019 report by the United Nations said many prisons have an occupancy level of 224 percent – and inadequate access to medical and sanitary functions.

“Inadequate access to medical treatment, insufficient food and potable water, and poor sanitation facilities continue to plague the prisons examined in this report.” the UN said. “It is likely that similar conditions exist in other prisons across Thailand.

Javier Cordoba, an International Committee of the Red Cross official, said in a Friday interview that his agency has been working with the university since 2018 because they are convinced that architecture can have a positive influence on the wellbeing of inmates.

“We have been working closely with Professor Sunaree in the implementation of this project, giving every year lectures to the students on the topic,” Cordoba said. “Students were able to visit correctional centers to get a better sense of the reality.”

Modern Prison

The works drafted by the student see a cleaner dining hall at Thonburi Remand Prison, paved with ceramic tiles instead of the usual bare concrete.

The prison holds both convicted prisoners and defendants awaiting their trial – people considered as innocent until proven guilty by the law.

Apart from tiles donated by the Siam Cement Group, the university also collected spare and unused materials from the construction site of the new Parliament building in Dusit district.

Mezzanine floors are now under construction in order to make the most of the available sleeping space. Thai prisoners, said Sunaree, sleep in groups in crowded common rooms unlike in the West.

Many use towels as their bedsheets and pillows as blankets because there is no bed.

Even color is not overlooked. The project came up with a color scheme that’s believed to be beneficial to inmates’ psychological conditions.

Sunaree said Thai prison walls are mostly painted in white. And when it’s green or blue, it’s done to camouflage dirt. Scandinavian prisons, in contrast, use bright colors such as orange, or a combination of red and blue to make prisoners feel fresh, young and dynamic.

Students came up with many of these ideas. The International Committee of the Red Cross also sent experts to sit on a panel that helps give feedback to the students’ proposals.

Prisoners Deserve It?

The project is one of the recent attempts to reform Thai prisons after decades of notorious shortfalls.

In a February announcement, the Justice Ministry said it will carry out renovations in prison sleeping cells in order to comply with the UN’s recommendations.

In October, a prison in Uthai Thani province unveiled the improvements to its facilities, which include beds for every inmate, a space for prisoners to breastfeed their babies, a rehabilitation program for sex offenders, and an employment learning course for all prisoners.

Members of the Royal Family also donated medical equipment to prison hospitals earlier this year to improve prisoners’ access to treatment.

But these efforts still lack a widespread support among the population, many of whom view the inmates as ‘deserving’ of their punishment.

Sunaree said she is well aware of the debate where some believe prison should be a place where people are punished and made to suffer, though she disagrees with the view.

She also rejected the idea that a humane condition in prison would incentivize inmates to return.

“Freedom is something no one should be deprived of,” Sunaree said.