Thailand considers releasing 50,000 inmates as Covid-19 hit prisons

This handout from Thailand's Department of Corrections taken on May 9, 2021 and received on May 17, 2021 shows inmates who tested positive with the Covid-19 coronavirus being quarantined in a field hospital set up by the department in Bangkok, as the country continues to battle its latest surge in infections partly due to outbreaks in prisons. - AFP

BANGKOK, May 18 (Bloomberg): Thailand, already facing its worst coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic, is considering cutting its prison population by as much as 16% to counter the rapid spread of infections among inmates and workers in overcrowded facilities.

More than 10,000 new Covid-19 cases have been reported in about a dozen densely-packed Thai prisons.

These latest clusters have pushed the country’s daily case count to record highs twice in the past week, including on Monday when more than two-thirds of the 9,635 infections were reported in prisons, official data showed.

The outbreak in the correctional system reflects conditions in many parts of metropolitan Bangkok, where infections have spread quickly in dense slums, crowded construction sites and even a government-housing complex. The slow rate of vaccinations has added to the challenge facing authorities.

"If we can’t get enough vaccines or if we can’t contain the spread quickly, we’ll have to think about reducing the number of inmates in the system through early release,” according Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin. "They’re already incarcerated. They shouldn’t have to suffer more than that.”

At about 311,000 inmates, Thai prisons are running 5% above official capacity. More than 80% of those incarcerated face charges for narcotics violations. The Justice Ministry is looking at a special early-release program for about 50,000 inmates, that could include the use of electronic-monitoring systems and adjustment of criteria.

However, Somsak said that the ministry’s current priority is to administer vaccines to inmates and correctional officers to cut infections. In the longer term, Thailand’s drug laws will be changed to allow shorter jail sentences for minor offenses and to focus more on rehabilitation, which will reduce overcrowding and reduce costs, he said. - Bloomberg
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