Pubdate: Mon, 18 Jul 2016
Source: Philippine Daily Inquirer (Philippines)
Copyright: 2016 Philippine Daily Inquirer


BANGKOK - Somsak Sreesomsong was 18 when he was jailed for selling 
illegal drugs. Now, turning 30, he is not yet half way through his 
33-year sentence at Bangkok's high-security Klong Prem prison.

Somsak was "just a kid, not a big-time dealer," his older brother 
Panit told Reuters after a visit to the jail. "We're also serving 
time, waiting for him to get out so he can help the family."

More than a decade after Thailand declared a "war on drugs," the 
country is admitting defeat. As the prison population soars, Justice 
Minister Paiboon Koomchaya told Reuters he was looking at changes to 
the country's draconian drug laws.

"I want to declassify methamphetamine but Thailand is not ready yet," 
said Paiboon, meaning downgrading the drug, popularly known as 
"meth," from a Category 1 substance, which would reduce jail time for 
possession or dealing.

Spiraling across Asia

Use of methamphetamine hydrochloride is spiraling across Southeast 
Asia, and authorities are struggling to respond.

In the Philippines, where the illegal drug is popularly known as 
"shabu" and which has some of the highest rates of meth use, police 
killings of suspected drug pushers and users have spiked since the 
swearing-in on June 30 of President Rodrigo Duterte, who was elected 
on a platform of harsh measures to wipe out drug crime.

Burma (Myanmar), the source of much of the drugs flooding through the 
region, is bracing for an explosion in domestic use.

Overall, drugs supply in Southeast Asia, especially of meth, is at a 
record level, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and 
Crime (UNODC).

Harsh punishment

In common with much of the region, Thailand's criminal justice system 
treats drug offenders harshly.

Producing and trading in Category 1 drugs, which also include heroin, 
MDMA-the main chemical for ecstasy pills-and LSD, is punishable by 
death or life imprisonment.

Klong Prem is home to 6,267 inmates serving sentences that range from 
15 years to life, with 64 percent convicted of drugrelated crimes.

A typical cell measures 1.5 x 3 meters (5 x 10 feet) and sleeps five 
inmates, side-by-side on dark blue mattress on the floor.

"Some of the men, especially the foreign prisoners, are pretty big, 
so it's a squeeze for them," said one prison guard.

Overcrowded jails

Lengthy sentences for drug offences are part of the reason Thai jails 
struggle with chronic overcrowding, according to both Justice 
Minister Paiboon and UN experts.

Thailand has approximately 40 percent of the Association of Southeast 
Asian Nations' prison population, despite having only 10 percent of 
the bloc's total population, according to the UNODC.

Paiboon, an Army general and senior member of the junta that seized 
power in a 2014 coup, said in an interview that Thailand would build 
more prisons, including 17 temporary jails for prisoners who have 
served at least a third of their sentence.

He added that his priority was to tackle drug trafficking and 
addiction-an ambitious plan in a country where a record number of 
people use methamphetamines, known in Thai as "ya ba" or "crazy 
medicine," according to a 2015 UN report.

A crackdown launched by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 
2003 aimed at suppressing drug trafficking killed more than 2,800 
people, according to an independent inquiry chaired by a former 
attorney general.

But the country's growing number of drug users and bulging jails have 
forced policymakers to think again.

Crisis point

"The world has lost the war on drugs, not only Thailand," said 
Paiboon. "We have clear numbers that drug use has increased over the 
past three years. Another indicator is there are more prisoners."

A 2015 report by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) 
shows Thailand has the fourth highest number of women imprisoned in 
the world, after the United States, China and Russia.

"We know from meeting and interviewing prisoners, including female 
prisoners, in Thailand, that the impact is profoundly negative for 
families," said Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC's Asia-Pacific chief.

Judicial reform

The number of inmates jailed for drug convictions has almost doubled 
over the past decade, figures from the Thai Department of Corrections 
showed, a result of unsparing sentencing that puts even petty users 
behind bars.

"We need to change sentencing and make a distinction between small 
and big-time dealers," said the Klong Prem prison commander, 
Thawatchai Chaiywat. "Thailand thinks prisons are a panacea for all 
crimes, including drug crimes.

- -Reuters
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom