Rights group says Thai prisons fall short of world standards

In this Jan. 6, 2017 photo, an officer locks a cell at a prison in Thailand. Thailand's prisons fail to meet international standards, with inmates routinely shackled, stuffed into overcrowded cells and forced to work in harsh conditions, an international human rights group said Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
In this Jan. 6, 2017 photo, inmates exercise at a prison in Thailand. Thailand's prisons fail to meet international standards, with inmates routinely shackled, stuffed into overcrowded cells and forced to work in harsh conditions, an international human rights group said Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
In this Jan. 6, 2017 photo, inmates prepare for exercise at a prison in Thailand. Thailand's prisons fail to meet international standards, with inmates routinely shackled, stuffed into overcrowded cells and forced to work in harsh conditions, an international human rights group said Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

BANGKOK — Thailand's prisons fail to meet international standards, with inmates routinely shackled, stuffed into overcrowded cells and forced to work in harsh conditions, an international human rights group said Tuesday.

Thailand also has the highest incarceration rate in Southeast Asia, jailing 425 out of every 100,000 people, according to the report by the International Federation for Human Rights.

There are more than 260,000 inmates in 148 prisons with an originally estimated capacity of less than 120,000, the report said, with the massive overcrowding forcing the inmates to live in harsh conditions.

Most inmates were convicted on drug-related charges, the legacy of a war on drugs launched by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2003. Under Thai law, possession of heroin or methamphetamine is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The overcrowded conditions are made worse by high turnover among guards, forcing prisons to rely on skeleton staffs, said the Paris-based human rights group.

Prisoners told interviewers from the rights group that overworked guards would beat them with clubs, throw them in solitary confinement, or keep them chained and shackled for weeks, despite government initiatives in 2013 to end the practice.

With too many prisoners, inmates can find themselves stuffed into packed cells with no beds and squat toilets with no enclosures for privacy. At night, they lie pressed against each other on mats on bare linoleum floors.

The prisons have medical clinics, but at one Bangkok prison inmates say they are treated by "two-minute doctors" because they rush through the medical checks. Inmates work seven days a week, sewing, folding paper and fixing shoes, earning as little as 23 U.S. cents a day, according to the report.

"The claim made by the Thai government that the country's prison conditions conform with international standards is ludicrous," said Dimitris Christopoulos, the president of the rights group. Prison conditions violate various U.N. treaties barring torture and stipulating minimum prisoner rights that Thailand ratified decades ago, the group said.

Government agencies involved in justice and narcotics issues say they are working to ease the problems.

"We're trying to fix it," said Kobkiat Kasiwiwat, director of the Corrections Department. "They're in the process of fixing drug laws to have milder punishments and push people towards rehab more, instead of throwing them in prison."

Thailand amended its regulations on prisons this month, but the laws still allow shackling, solitary confinement for more than 15 days, and liability exemptions for prison officials in certain situations — all breaches of international standards, the report said.

Thailand is ruled by a military junta, which seized control from a democratically elected government in 2014. After the coup, the junta jailed some civilians at military detention centers, where rights groups allege that soldiers use torture to extract confessions. At one center at a Bangkok army base, two people charged under Thailand's lese majeste laws — defaming the monarchy — were found dead within weeks of each other in 2015.

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