Thailand considers releasing 50,000 inmates as Covid-19 hits prisons

More than 10,000 new Covid-19 cases have been reported in about a dozen densely packed Thai prisons. PHOTO: AFP/THAILAND'S DEPARTMENT OF CORRECT

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Thailand, already facing its worst coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic, is considering cutting its prison population by as much as 16 per cent 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 (May 17) when more than two-thirds of the 9,635 infections were reported in prisons, official data showed.

The outbreak in the correctional system reflects conditions in many parts of metropolitan 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 the 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."

With about 311,000 inmates, Thai prisons are running at 5 per cent above official capacity. More than 80 per cent 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.

However, Mr Somsak said that the ministry's current priority is to administer vaccines to inmates and correctional officers to cut 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 costs, he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.