50,000 inmates may go free

Latest hotspot: Inmates who tested positive for Covid-19 undergoing quarantine in a field hospital in Bangkok. — AFP

The country, 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 prisons reflects conditions in many parts of 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 to 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 programme for about 50,000 inmates that could include the use of electronic-monitoring systems and adjustment of criteria.

But Somsak said the ministry’s current priority was to inoculate inmates and correctional officers to reduce the number of infections.

In the longer term, Thailand’s drug laws will be changed to allow shorter jail sentences for minor offences and to focus more on rehabilitation, which will reduce overcrowding and reduce costs, he said. — Bloomberg

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