COVID-19 surge in Thai prisons is a warning to other countries in Asia

Photo: Bob Jagendorf, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The emergence of thousands of COVID-19 cases in Thailand’s jails underscores the threat posed by overcrowded prisons across Asia.

By Umair Jamal

As Thailand battles its third wave of COVID-19 infections, a large number of cases are emerging among the country’s prison populations.

Thailand has recorded more than 70,000 new COVID-19 cases over the past month, bringing the country’s total number of cases to 137,894 with 873 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University

The outbreaks of cases within prisons stem in part from overcrowding and inadequate healthcare facilities provided for inmates. The situation is similar in other countries in the region, where rights groups and prison reform advocates have been warning about COVID-19 outbreaks.

To contain its crisis, Thailand needs to take immediate steps to reduce its prison population and offer adequate protective measures and medical care to detainees.

Thailand records surge in cases among prison population

On May 12, Thailand’s Department of Corrections said that almost 3,000 prisoners at two prisons in the country’s capital had tested positive for COVID-19. The announcement came after detained pro-democracy activists tested positive for the disease and began raising concerns about transparency and accurate reporting of cases in prisons. On May 17, out of 9,635 new COVID-19 cases reported in 24 hours, 6,853 were reported in prisons. Thailand has now reported roughly 13,000 COVID-19 cases in its jails since the emerge of the pandemic.

“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,” Somsak Thepsuthin, Thailand’s justice minister told Bloomberg.

“They’re already incarcerated. They shouldn’t have to suffer more than that.”

On May 13, Somsak said in a press conference that prison authorities across the country are taking immediate steps to control the situation, including reducing the number of prisoners. According to some reports, Thailand’s government is planning to release roughly 50,000 prisoners to stem the crisis.

Somsak also emphasized that the spread of COVID-19 is under control in the country’s prisons and said that all prisoners will be vaccinated for COVID-19.

Photo: Hédi Benyounes / Unsplash

Asia’s prisons were already COVID-19 hotspots

In April 2020, Human Rights Watch warned that Asia’s overcrowded and unsanitary prisons are at serious risk for COVID-19 outbreaks which could pose a threat to inmates, staff and the broader population.  

According to the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research, Indonesia and Cambodia’s prisons are already at over 200% capacity. At more than four times its intended capacity, the Philippines’ prison system is the most overcrowded in the world after that of the Congo. In early May, the Philippines discovered a number of COVID-19 clusters among inmates, prompting the government to release at least 10,000 inmates to reduce the risk of further COVID-19 transmission.

On May 8, 34 prisoners tested positive for COVID-19 in one of Cambodia’s largest jails. Cambodia’s government is now planning to conduct COVID-19 testing for nearly 39,000 inmates being held across the country.

In December 2020, HRW warned that such an outbreak was likely in Cambodia’s prisons.

Thailand can take steps to contain outbreaks in prisons

Thailand’s government needs to make sure that people in prison have access to adequate health care facilities and must also explore options to significantly reduce the number of prisoners. Currently, around 311,000 inmates are being held in Thailand though the country’s prison system is only equipped to house about 110,000 prisoners, according to the World Prison Brief.

“The Thai government is obligated under international law to ensure that prisoners and detainees have adequate health protections and care, particularly during escalating COVID-19 outbreaks,” said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director. He added that the government should allow the “supervised release of those held on politically motivated charges or for minor offenses.” 

People with compromised immunity such as the elderly and people with disabilities should either be released or shifted to less crowded spaces. People who have not been convicted or do not pose a threat to the public could be released.

As HRW’s Asia advocacy director John Sifton said in a statement, “Without protecting prisoners’ health, Asia’s governments will be unable to stem this pandemic.”

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at and on Twitter @UmairJamal15