Thailand: floods turn prison into refugee camp
In less than two weeks, the population of Rachaburi Central Prison has leapt from 300 inmates to 1540. With prisoners sleeping in corridors and gardens, the ICRC has been providing blankets and other essentials to make conditions a little more bearable.
Rachaburi Central Prison, west of Bangkok, is a pilot project for female prisoners and their babies. At first glance, it hardly looks like a prison: once you pass the high security walls, the little nursery with its dolls and colourful animals immediately gives a feeling of warmth and care.
A few days ago, the nursery had only one guest: four-month-old Lawan. In Thai, her name means beautiful, and it suits her! But since last week, Lawan has had lots of new friends to play with.
"The facilities are made to host 300 inmates. Over the last two weeks, we've kept on receiving evacuated inmates from flooded prisons in and around Bangkok. We now have 1540 prisoners!" explains Rachaburi Central Prison Chief Surachai Phumkaew.
Lawan is fast learning the meaning of sharing. Today, her room is home to 30 other babies, the youngest only 7 days old. Their mothers are here too, along with pregnant inmates. Lawan seems to enjoy the company, but not everyone is so happy.
Outside, hundreds of women sit shoulder to shoulder, taking advantage of whatever shade they can find. Endless lines of blue and brown clothes are drying on ropes. And what used to be a garden is now flatten by huge tents. "The prison has become a refugee camp," sighs the guard showing us the facilities. "But we need more room for the newcomers. We're making the best possible use of space, but we're forced to accommodate some of them outside."
Every corridor of the building is now transformed into a dormitory at night. "There's only one guard for every 150 prisoners, so to prevent tensions we're doing things like installing more TVs and separating the most violent inmates from the rest." Staff also take pains to explain to the existing inmates that the newcomers are victims of the floods who have to be looked after temporarily.
The inmates appreciate the ICRC's efforts. The organization is distributing hundreds of blankets to inmates who have to sleep outside, protecting them from the cold nights. Everybody will receive a hygiene kit, so no-one will have to share. Most of all, the ICRC has helped evacuees let their relatives know where they are, which reduces stress levels slightly. The wildest rumours were circulating about what had happened to the inmates of the flooded prisons, and it was a relief for them to know that their families, in Thailand and abroad, knew that they were safe.
"At least we know that we won't be receiving any more detainees now. The waters are receding, so everything should be back to normal in a few months," explains Phumkaew. Until then, the ICRC will monitor conditions in flood-affected prisons and offer appropriate assistance.
Since the beginning of the floods, the ICRC has worked with the Department of Corrections to help 40,000 flood-affected detainees, prison staff and their families. The organization has distributed safe drinking water, food, blankets and hygiene kits to cope with the worst effects of the flooding, together with hundreds of sandbags.