http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opin ... eir-chainsMore to lose than their chains
The guarantee last week from Corrections Department chief Suchart Wonganantachai that his department will unshackle all prisoners serving maximum jail terms in prisons across the country within three months is a positive step and long overdue. On Wednesday, 563 prisoners had their shackles removed during a ceremony at Bang Khwang Central Prison which was presided over by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The unshackling process actually started in January with a group of inmates who were all considered "well behaved".
It's not clear why another three months are needed to end this barbaric practice across the country.
In Thailand it has long been a tradition to weld shackles on the ankles of serious offenders on the day of sentencing by the court of first instance even though their cases have yet to go through the appeals process. Formerly the shackles were removed only after a prisoner was executed, died of natural causes or their sentences were lessened or annulled by the court. The use of such shackles prevents prisoners from getting proper exercise and is an obstacle to them maintaining personal hygiene. Cuts and sores caused by the shackles can easily become infected, posing a serious health threat.
In 2005, the UN Human Rights Commission strongly protested the use of shackles on inmates in Thailand, but no action was taken to stop the practice until this year.
However late, Thailand should be commended for taking this step to return a degree of dignity to those in the country's prisons, and hopefully it's the first of more to come.
According to a report by the Union for Civil Liberty, Bang Khwang has nearly 60 cells still used for solitary confinement - even though these have been banned by law.
Other areas that require urgent improvement are nutrition, hygiene, health care and security for prisoners.
There is an ongoing effort to reform the corrections systems in Thailand, but progress remains slow and difficult. One of the primary reasons for this is overcrowding. According to official statistics, as of Feb 1, there were 257,323 inmates in Thai detention facilities designed to accommodate 160,000.
The UN standard ratio of prison warders to prisoners is 1:5; in Thai prisons, the average is 1:20.
A Spectrum article published in March this year, "Is 'White Prison' making Bang Khwang a darker place?", about the so-called "White Prison" reform initiative, says "the lack of warders has long meant an overemphasis on the shackling of prisoners and the use of weapons by warders to protect themselves, as well as an inefficient rehabilitation process for inmates. There is no separation of inmates who are convicted and those still on trial, nor of violent and non-violent offenders. Activists say this is a breach of global standards."
Some people may feel that when a person receives a prison sentence their human rights are suspended, but that's a fallacy, as this excerpt from a paper from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime on prison reform makes clear: "A sentence of imprisonment constitutes only a deprivation of the basic right to liberty. It does not entail the restriction of other human rights, with the exception of those which are naturally restricted by the very fact of being in prison.
"Prison reform is necessary to ensure that this principle is respected, the human rights of prisoners protected and their prospects for social reintegration increased, in compliance with relevant international standards and norms."
Ultimately, effective measures to reform the country's prison system need to start with a judicial process that is too quick to incarcerate, especially when it comes to poor people without connections. The government has tacitly admitted this in its adoption of the so-called "Bangkok Rules" _ a United Nations protocol for the treatment of women prisoners and non-custodial measures for women offenders, which as its name suggests, was first proposed at a UN conference in Bangkok. The protocol calls for judges to be more lenient in sentencing for pregnant women and new mothers, and explore alternatives to incarceration and emphasises rehabilitation and recovery over punishment.
Where appropriate _ ie, when offenders are deemed not to present a threat to society _ this philosophy should be expanded to cover all those found guilty of crimes, males as well as females