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Even behind bars, dignity shouldn't be denied

Is a prisoner's dark brown clothing a sign of his degraded human dignity?

It is to some activists. But the truth is uniforms are by far the least of a prisoner's problems.

Few people know that when in prison, convicts can wear anything - T-shirts and jeans or pyjamas. Only when they are to go outside, like appearing in court, are they required to wear the inmate uniform.

The official wear now is a short-sleeved shirt and shorts for men. Women have to wear a long sarong. They are of the same colour, with light and dark shades of brown.

A prisoner told me he was okay with the uniform. While in jail, what troubled him most were the living conditions.

For example there is limited space for prisoners to hang wet clothes, which remain damp and smell bad. When it is time for meals, it is especially hard to find a piece of meat; when it comes to sleep, the place is crowded - in some prisons, inmates lie down shoulder to shoulder.

Added to these living conditions, they also feel stressed by social judgements. Some insist they are innocent. Some, charged under lese majeste law, are distressed. Some, in old age, suffer because of the absence of proper healthcare.

In a way, large numbers feel they have been put in a cell for the wrong reasons. Many lawyers and activists agree they have been.

"There is a connection between poverty and jail. It's a correct perception that only the poor go to jail," said an activist at a seminar last weekend.

Some may ask - why should we take care of these people?

Well, the reason is these people belong to our society. People can commit crimes, but they deserve another chance. Second, guilty people should be punished, but not to the extent they have to give up all human dignity.

It is difficult though for the system to obtain better services and conditions.

Today, national prisons hold more than 200,000 people, despite their limited capacity, which explains a lot about the tight space and poor food.

A nursing home is budgeted at about Bt120 for food for the elderly; but the allowance for each prisoner is a lot less.

Those who cannot get bail, or cannot afford bail payments, languish in prison, waiting for their trials to end.

Thailand has a large number of scientists. They should be clever enough to design a technology that facilitates the monitoring of these people, if they are not to be put in jail.

The problem is that once men, usually the poor, get charged, society considers them wrongdoers who deserve punishment. Few - aside from their family members - would wonder or care how much punishment was enough.

The activist, who has been in many prisons, said there are a large number of prisoners who have no visitors throughout their serving time - and who have not a single dime to spend on items like soap or shampoo. She suggested donations as a way to make merit, to living people.

My own experience is that at some prisons there are also a large number of old people. The guards told me most of them had done nothing wrong, but they had volunteered to go to jail to save their children, mostly dealers in drugs.

Prisons are like another world to the people outside, but inside there are living people.

If Thailand must have places to contain wrongdoers, they should be entitled to better treatment, at least with cleaner clothes and better food. Indeed, having their freedom ripped off them is bad enough.


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