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Thailand: COVID-19 Rumors Trigger Prison Riot

Protect Prisoners, Detainees at Heightened Vulnerability

An officer locks a cell at a prison in Thailand, February 2017.  © 2017 AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit
 

(Bangkok) – Thai authorities should immediately take concrete steps to ensure that prisoners and detainees have access to adequate protective measures and medical care amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Human Rights Watch said today. Inmate fears sparked a riot on March 29, 2020 at the Buriram Provincial Prison, showing the consequences of the authorities underestimating prisoners’ concerns about the outbreak.

The riot in Buriram Prison began in the morning, with about 100 prisoners involved in setting fire to the dining hall and visitors area. Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin told reporters the prisoners rioted because of rumors of a COVID-19 outbreak in the prison. At least 11 prisoners escaped, 7 were recaptured, and the remaining prisoners were transferred to other locations.

“The Thai government should ensure that prisoners and detainees have adequate health care in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It shouldn’t take a riot for Thai authorities to consider reducing populations in prisons, jails, and detention facilities through supervised release of detainees held for minor offenses or at high risk of suffering serious effects from the virus.”

Thailand has 1,524 confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease, with 9 deaths. Of the total reported infections nationwide, 2 cases were found in prisons.

Thailand’s prisons and detention facilities, which are significantly overcrowded, face a serious risk of COVID-19 widespread transmission, Human Rights Watch said. According to the Thai Corrections Department, Thailand has 380,000 inmates across the country. The Corrections Department ordered all prisons and detention facilities to suspend visits from March 18 to 31 to help stem the spread of COVID-19, increasing tensions and fears among the prisoners.

In the report “Human Rights Dimensions of the COVID-19 Response,” Human Rights Watch expressed concerns that people in prisons and detention facilities around the world frequently do not receive adequate health care under normal circumstances. Under international law, Thailand has an obligation to ensure medical care for people in custody at least equivalent to that available to the general population, and must not deny or limit detainees equal access to preventive, curative, or palliative health care, regardless of citizenship, nationality, or migration status.

Thai authorities should urgently take preventive measures, such as monitoring the temperature of everyone who enters prison facilities, ensuring that staff and detainees have masks and gloves, and providing quality medical care for those who fall ill. The Corrections Department should also appropriately coordinate with public health authorities and communicate openly with staff and people in custody. Such actions, however, may not be sufficient to reduce risk of widespread transmission.

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), an inter-agency forum of the United Nations and humanitarian partners, recommended that authorities should take immediate steps to address prison overcrowding.

The Thai authorities should consider reducing populations in prisons and detention facilities through appropriate supervised release of detainees at high risk of suffering serious effects from the virus, such as older people and people with underlying health conditions. Thai authorities should take into consideration factors such as the gravity of the person’s crime, the length of their sentence, and the amount of time already served. In addition, those whose scheduled release may be soon, those in pretrial detention for non-violent and lesser offenses, and those whose continued detention is similarly unnecessary or not justified should also be considered for early release.

“Thailand should not forget the people who are behind bars during the COVID-19 crisis,” Adams said. “Thai authorities owe it to the prisoners and their families to take urgent steps to prevent transmission of the coronavirus in all prisons and detention facilities.”
 

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