Ministry denies covering up prison Covid-19 outbreak

The Ministry of Justice on Thursday denied that authorities have underplayed the number of prison inmates who have been infected with the coronavirus.

“There is definitely no coverup,” said Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin.

Officials said the discovery of thousands of cases this week is because the royal institution had provided them with the means to test all inmates at the two Bangkok prisons which are crowded and understaffed.

The Department of Corrections also said one protest leader who tested positive after leaving prison tested negative while she was being held in pre-trial detention. 

The Department of Corrections said Wednesday that 1,795 cases had been found among the 3,238 inmates of Bangkok Remand Prison and 1,040 at the city’s Central Women’s Correctional Institution, which houses 4,518.

The statement led to online comments, including from pro-democracy protest leaders and some opposition MPs, about crowded conditions and poor sanitation at most prisons around the country, and the consequences for the safe management of the pandemic.

Dr Weerakit Harnpariphan, Deputy Director General of the Department of Corrections, said there has been reports of up to a hundred cases or so in prisons since last year, but the recent addition of resources allowed them to find the thousands announced this week.

“The king sent the mobile testing facilities to be stationed at the prisons which is why we were able to test more people and the report thousands of cases,” he said. 

In April, the Narathiwat prison has reported that after they tested 631 out of 2,334 inmates, they found 127 were infected with the virus before they decided to lock down the prison. The same is being done with the Bangkok Remand Prison and at the Central Women’s Correctional Institution.

“We are going to use the Narathiwat model by isolating the infected inmates that are asymptomatic or have minor symptoms into field hospitals and provide them with medicines to prevent their condition from worsening,” said Somsak.

Weerakit also said the prison outbreak was also due to the new variant of virus in the third wave, which spread faster than the previous variant, as well as the overcrowding in the prisons.

Somsak also said that correctional officers were doing their best to contain the outbreak, within the limitations of the current ratio of one officer per 33 inmates, and the limited number of medical staff at hospital prisons.

There are around 380,000 inmates around the country.

Thailand’s prisons are overpopulated by 145 per cent, according to the International Federation for Human Rights’s 2017 report titled Behind the walls – A look at prison conditions in Thailand after the coup.

Around 72 per cent of inmates are held for drug-related offences, according to the report. Almost 20 per cent of all inmates are in pre-trial detention, the World Prison Brief said.

The Human Right Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams said Thursday that besides providing health care and virus testing, the Thai authorities should reduce the detainee population through supervised release of those held on politically motivated charges or for minor offences.

For the pretrial protest leaders that have tested positive for the virus, Weerakit Harnpariphan said in the case of Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, the women prison tested her before she was released on May 6 and the result was negative.

He said they have also tested everyone at the new arrivals wing where Rung was being jailed on May 8 and no other inmate in that wing has tested positive.

“We have tested her before she was released with the RT-PCR test and there was no trace of the Covid-19 virus,” he said.

“We then tested everyone on May 8, including the wing where Rung was being detained, and there was no inmate in that wing that was infected with Covid-19,” he added.

In the case of Panupong “Mike” Jadnok, another protest leader from the Ratsadon, the department confirmed that he tested positive for the virus on Thursday and he is now being treated at the Medical Correctional Institution.  

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