The Justice Ministry is to be commended for the steps it has taken to bring our cramped prison population down to a more manageable and humane level. Reforms put in place by the Corrections and Probation departments include an end to the shackling of prisoners, the introduction of electronic tagging and the release on parole of elderly, seriously ill and disabled inmates. Also to be freed are those who have served at least two-thirds of their sentences. Significantly, the ministry signalled its intention to push for fewer custodial sentences for minor offences. Properly carried out, these measures should reduce overcrowding.
So it came as something of a surprise when the Justice Ministry announced it was seeking 30 billion baht to construct 42 new prisons outside Bangkok, some of which would be built to super-maximum security specifications. There is speculation that a few of these could be replacements for large prisons in the capital. That is because the government has made no secret of its desire to move Bangkok and Nonthaburi prisons outside the city to develop new commercial areas.
First proposed by the administration of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2004, the plan resurfaced this year with a proposal to move the three prisons along Ngam Wong Wan Road - Klongprem, Bangkok Remand Prison and the Women's Central Prison - elsewhere to make way for facilities serving the Red Line mass transit rail link, connecting Bang Sue with Rangsit.
Corrections Department chief Suchart Wonganantachai says the move was discussed at a property seminar earlier this year where Finance Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong told leading business figures of the government's plan to develop areas along new electric rail routes. Pol Col Suchart is understandably concerned about the implications of such an upheaval. He wants the finance and justice ministries to consider the impact of any relocation on the detention periods or court jurisdictions of inmates.
Pol Col Suchart should also be wary of tentative plans to privatise some prisons, although this is likely to be initially confined to prisoners on remand and those in need of maternity care. He should study procedures in the United Kingdom, which outsources prisons, prisoner escort services and electronic tagging to the private sector. The argument that this reduces prison operating costs, improves operational transparency and accountability, and results in a more positive and humane culture within prisons is open to question. It is also challenged each time major mismanagement is discovered in contracts, as happened earlier this year.
The old adage that crime does not pay is hardly applicable to privatised prisons which make money by locking criminals up. Unlike the state, they have no incentive to offer remedial programmes or education to reduce recidivism. There was even a documented case in the United States of collusion with a judge who opted for custodial sentences for young offenders in exchange for kickbacks from a profit-making detention facility. Some offenders were kept in jail long after they should have been released. All in all, there has been some remarkable progress in penal reform in recent years.
The Corrections Department has taken a more humane and reform-minded approach to incarceration with a greater emphasis on rehabilitation. It is noteworthy that of the 20,000 or so prisoners released from Thai jails each year, only about 14% reoffend.
But the underfunded Corrections Department does need to be on its guard. When politicians take a sudden interest in big-budget items like building scores of expensive new prisons, easing the hardship of needy prisoners may not be uppermost in their minds.
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