Myanmar: New, upgraded family visit facility at Insein Prison to reduce strain of separation

Myanmar: New, upgraded family visit facility at Insein Prison to reduce strain of separation

Article 22 June 2019 Myanmar

With 13,000 detainees and with thousands of visitors per day, Insein Central Prison is a very busy place. The day usually opens with the eager expectation of detainees and their loved ones being able to see each other and catch up on personal news. In the waiting area, there is an overlap in feelings between relief and stress as hundreds of people crowd in for a visit.

But in the sparsely-lit rooms, packed with news and emotions, dissatisfaction quickly elbows in as both detainees and their visitors strain to be heard or get a proper look at one another from either sides of the iron mesh that separates them.

Yi Yi Soe, an inmate of Insein Central Prison, and her parents will tell you that an uninterrupted conversation is nearly impossible. In prison for 21 years now, Yi Yi Soe looks forward to the visits with her ageing parents but also agonizes over how they press in to the mesh, trying to focus on her amidst all the background noise of simultaneous conversations.

They cannot see or hear properly. It makes me very sad as I watch them try hard to raise their voices so that I can hear them clearly. I don't want them to struggle any more than they already are. 

An average of 900 family members visit close to 600 detainees in the busy central prison every day. The facility allows visitors as often as they want, even multiple times a week. But with the increase in prison population and only two small separate rooms for male and female detainees, accommodating all the visitors and ensuring that the visits are stress-free is a huge challenge. People wait several hours to meet their loved ones, entertain their children in the limited space and deal with leaking roofs on rainy days.

But the experience is going to change as the Prisons Department in partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) inaugurate a new family visit facility on 23 June. The result of a two-year project that cost 350,000 US dollars, the new visiting rooms have been built with better ventilation and privacy, improved lighting, new washrooms, a coffee shop and a playground for children so that detainees and their families can meet each other in a more humane and relaxed environment and are in a better frame of mind when they see their loved ones.

"The visitors of Insein Central Prison often bear the worries to their loved ones. The new visiting waiting area and rooms are the result of the tireless efforts of the collaboration between our Prisons Department and the ICRC to reduce the anxiety of the families and also for them to meet with their loved ones in a comfortable and family environment," states U Aye Thwin, the director for Yangon Region of Prisons Department.

Helping to streamline the visits further, a new system that includes computerized registration of visitors has also been set up to reduce waiting time and provide better working conditions for the staff. The aim is to make the experience more comfortable and natural for both the detainees and their visitors, ultimately reducing the strain of separation and allowing people to maintain better relationships even when they are apart. Better working conditions for the staff should also decrease stress levels, thus keeping the atmosphere amiable. Improvements to the parcel registration and money deposit systems, and a new playground for children in the waiting area are additional services that will benefit everyone at the facility.

The process of re-modelling the space began in 2017 when the ICRC and the prison authorities committed to improving the family visit system at Insein Central Prison. After conducting a series of assessments and many planning meetings to discuss possible improvements that would best be adapted to the conditions of Myanmar's largest prison, the ICRC started constructing the new facility in mid-2018.

"The ICRC has been working in detention for over 140 years, and observations worldwide have shown that one of the things that matter the most to a person deprived of freedom is maintaining contacts with their family and relatives until they can be united again", said Stephan Sakalian, head of delegation for the ICRC in Myanmar. "We are therefore very happy about the completion of this project, which is a milestone of our ongoing cooperation with the Myanmar Prisons Department, and we look forward to continuing our collaboration for other projects in the future."

The ICRC aims to secure humane treatment and conditions of detention for all detainees, regardless of the reasons for their arrest and detention. We also seek to alleviate the suffering of their families, particularly by restoring communication between detainees and their relatives