The government is considering reducing the prison population by as much as 16% to stem the rapid spread of infections among inmates and workers in prisons as part of its efforts to handle the worst coronavirus outbreak Thailand has faced since the pandemic began.
The latest reports indicate that there are more than 10,000 new cases of COVID-19 in about a dozen overcrowded prisons.
Those clusters have brought the country’s daily case count to record levels twice in the past week. According to official data, more than two-thirds of the 9,635 infections reported Monday had been found in prisons.
The coronavirus outbreak in the correctional system reflects conditions in several parts of the greater Bangkok area.
In dense slums, overcrowded government housing complexes, and construction sites, infections have spread rapidly. Moreover, authorities also face the challenge posed by the slow rate of vaccinations.
Recent reports say that Thai prisons exceed official capacity by 5% with 311,000 inmates.
More than 80% of them face narcotics violation charges. “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,” Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin said.
“They’re already incarcerated. They shouldn’t have to suffer more than that,” the minister added.
In response to the outbreak, the Justice Ministry has been studying a special early release program for some 50,000 inmates or 16% of the total, which could include the implementation of electronic monitoring systems and criteria adjustment.
However, Mr. Somsak explained that the ministry’s priority is to administer jabs to both inmates and correctional officers to reduce infections.
Mr. Somsak also said that drug laws in Thailand would be changed in the long term to allow shorter jail sentences for minor offenses, adding that authorities plan to focus more on rehabilitation.
It could reduce overcrowding and lower costs, he added.
Meanwhile, the Corrections Department has reportedly secured 12,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses for inmates. Also, authorities ordered to increase the quarantine period for prisoners to 21 days and intensify mass testing in prisons and correctional facilities.