Prison conditions in Thailand are a crime against humanity

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In mid-June 2016 Somyot Preuksakasemsuk wrote a letter exposing the shocking deterioration of conditions for prisoners in Thai jails.

Since March 2016 the Department of Prisons has issued a number of new regulations that have reduced the standards of life and well-being for prisoners. This amounts to a gross abuse of human rights.

Firstly, the prison authorities have removed all mattresses, pillows and blankets from prisoners and destroyed them. The excuse for this act of barbarism was that the authorities were searching for drugs. These items of bedding and blankets were originally sold to the prisoners by the prison. The new regulations state that prisoners will now only be allowed 3 extremely poor quality blankets given to them by the authorities. Such actions are having a negative impact on the psychological and physical well-being of prisoners, many of whom are in poor health or are elderly. Often at night, Thai prisoners are chained together in small rooms.

A couple of years ago Surachai Darnwatanatrakun, another activist who was also jailed for lèse majesté, described the disgusting conditions in Pataya jail. The prison was built for 600 inmates but was housing 3600 people. There was not enough space on the floor to sleep, so some had to sleep on cardboard covers over the toilets. Even then, 5-10 prisoners had to take turns to stand and sit during the night. Surachai was kept in a room 5X10 metres with 60 inmates at night. They had to build shelves to sleep on. Water was cut off except for 2-3 hours from 10 am to noon. No toilet paper was supplied and many prisoners had skin diseases. Fortunately, Surachai has been released, but Somyot is still in jail because he refuses to plead guilty and ask for “forgiveness”.

Thailand has the 17th highest proportion of citizens in prison in the world, with 340 prisoners per 100,000 people. This compares to 64 for Norway and 94 for France.

Secondly, Somyot reported that the prison authorities have now imposed further restrictions on access to news and reading material. Newspapers are now banned and prisoners can no longer buy books or magazines. Relatives of prisoners are only allowed to bring a total of 3 books or magazines per month from a tightly restricted list of “approved” reading material. This gross abuse of prisoners is designed to keep them totally in the dark about events in the outside world and is especially cruel to long-term prisoners. Such actions mean that prisoners are totally unprepared for life outside when they are finally released.

Finally there are new restrictions on the amount and frequency with which prisoners’ relatives can deposit money in prisoners’ accounts. Since Prayut’s military coup two years ago the number of people allowed to visit each prisoner has also been severely reduced.

Somyot is a Thai political activist and magazine editor who in 2013 was sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment for lèse majesté over articles that he did not write. He was arrested on 30th April 2011 and has been in jail ever since. What is remarkable about Somyot is that he has continued to be an active advocate for justice even while in prison. Twenty years ago he was a trade union organiser who successfully organised a number of textile factories north of Bangkok.

As with most countries, Thai prisons are full of poor people, mainly on charges related to theft and drugs. There is not enough discussion in Thai society about the role of prisons and the human rights of prisoners. Naturally, the Thai ruling class does not even regard ordinary people as “citizens with rights”. They are made to grovel to the rich and powerful and prisoners are treated even worse.

Punishment in the Thai judicial system is totally out of proportion. People get just a few years in prison for murder or violence, while lèse majesté prisoners are sentenced to anything between 20 to 40 years. Those at the top of society who commit mass murder of demonstrators enjoy impunity.


Defendants in trials are shackled and forced to wear inhuman prison uniforms. This means that they are abused before the outcome of the trial and have to attend court looking like “criminals”. This results in miscarriages of justice. In lèse majesté trials you can be found guilty even if what you said and wrote was factually true. Many political trials under the present junta are held in military courts. There has been a crack-down on those trying to campaign against the junta’s new constitution in the upcoming so-called referendum.

Young democracy activists, shackled and barefooted, being led to a military court
Young democracy activists, shackled and barefooted, being led to a military court

When a country like Thailand is ruled by a bunch of military gangsters who destroy freedom and democracy, those at the bottom of society are not even treated as human beings.

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