The speed at which Thailand’s prisons are becoming more and more overcrowded and the alarming increase in the incarceration rate of Thai women is pushing many Thai officials and legislators, behind closed doors, to reexamine the country’s fifty year war on drugs.

Thailand’s now imprisons its women more than any other country in the world. It is a stark and disturbing fact driven by little pink yaba bills of crystal meths. 82% of all Thai women imprisoned last year were arrested for drug related crime, 90% of  which, related to metamfetamine. The plight of Thai women and the chronic and tormenting overcrowding in Thailand’s prisons is driving a discussion for reform behind closed doors on how Thailand handles its drugs problem long term.

Thailand now imprisons more of its women than any other country. The surge in the incarceration rate for Thai women is due to the prevalence and use of metamfetamine or crystal meths in the country. The surge has driven Thailand ahead of its War on Drugs ally, the United Sates, for the first time. A visit in February 2018 by the Global Post, an international news website, to a Thai women’s prison in Chonburi, shed a light on conditions in Thai prisons, where overcrowding is the main issue for women. It is a constant torment and has resulted in appalling conditions. New moves to rethink Thailand’s approach to drugs are believed to be underway, behind closed doors. Relieving the plight of Thai women is considered to be a priority. Right: Picture shows Faa, a Thai prison warden at Chonburi Women’s Prison in February 2018 when the Global Post reported on conditions at the prison. Left: A Thai female prisoner talks to AFP on conditions in a Thai Prison. (Source: Lauren DeCicca/PRI and AFP)

The plight of Thai women, locked up in overcrowded cells for 15 hours at a time, serving stiff sentences, sometimes for years at a time, for possession of a few pink pills, is begin to gnaw at the conscience and sense of justice of many officials and those in authority.

Something significant is brewing in Thailand when it comes to the war on drugs. And the key focus for those who would like to see Thailand pursue a more progressive, softer and merciful approach, is the plight of Thai women in Thai prisons. In fact, Thailand is now the country in the world that incarcerates more of its women than any other, even more than the United States. Both countries are, in fact, imprisoning more and more of their women folk and the reason is clear. Drugs, more particularly metamfetamine, crystal ice or meths. Over 82% of women in Thailand’s prisons are there because of drugs and over 90% of these women are small time crystal meth or metamfetamine users.

Thai prisons simply not sustainable as Thailand jails more women than any other country in the world

An insightful and revealing news report, published in February 2018, saw reporters visit a Thai women’s prison in Chonburi for the Global Post, a highly respected international news website. It revealed, perhaps, a more relaxed atmosphere than some of the high security and more notorious prison institutions in the country. Thailand imprisons 66.4 women per 100,000 in the population, making it officially a world leader. It is a statistic that many in Thailand upper echelons find distasteful and has begun to bother more and more of them. Thailand’s 144 prisons are currently reaching a break point with three times and even four times the prison population that the facilities were initially built to handle. It is simply not a sustainable proposition.

Pinks pills that are landing more Thai women in overcrowded prisons for long jail terms

The situation has been made even more precarious as 2018 saw increased loads of metamfetamine being transported into the country. This followed record levels of production across the border in the Golden Triangle drug states, where the drug pushers found a new, more inexpensive formula. The price of metamfetamine pills has dropped to as little as $3 or $2 a pop. This drug itself comes in pink pills and gives its users an 8 hour boost, allowing many Thai people, particularly those employed in demanding labor and essentially boring occupations, to receive a sense of empowerment for hours at a time. It has long been a popular drug among laborers in Asia, helping sometimes more vulnerable workers such as the more aged or infirm cope with the rigors of demanding and physical work. In the modern era, the drug is used for recreational purposes but also by students who get a productive boost from its effects on the nervous system.

Former Thai Justice Minister suggested legalising drugs, like other countries, as war is lost

The problem starts after the drug’s effect begins to wane, often leaving the user with a indistinct feeling of both paranoia and in some instances, hearing voices or extra sensory promptings. The addictive properties of the drug and the real mental effects of  continuous usage mean the dangers of the drug cannot be simply discounted. However, the counter argument is that should be a matter of person responsibility. Yet the danger to society from users suffering negative side effects from widespread usage of the drug may yet prove significant. However, some countries, like Mexico and Uruguay have already legalised it. Even Thailand’s hardline Justice Minister up to 2016, Paiboon Khumchaya, has suggested legalising the substance. ‘The world has lost the war on drugs,’ he was quoted by the news agency Reuters as saying. ‘Not only in Thailand’.

Revealing glimpse of a disciplined and orderly Thai women’s prison in Chonburi Province

A typical cell at Chonburi Central Women’s Prison can hold more or less 100 prisoners. Officially the figure is 94. In reality, however, it normally has to hold three to four times this capacity. In Thailand’s female prisons, to have 300 or 400 prisoners packed together in one single cell is not uncommon. Such a high concentration of inmates is commonly thought to lead to violence, but this is not the case in women’s prisons across the Kingdom. The Global Post profile records a portrait of the prison from the outside with slab outer walls and barbed wire but inside, there are neatly swept squares, one with a Buddha shrine and palm trees. The inmates live in this place that smacks of order and discipline. The warden of the prison walks, supervising day to day life, like a feudal leader, shielded from the sun by an umbrella held by an assistant. She is profiled walking among the open areas with inmates bowing and greeting her respectfully. As she observed to the visiting reporters, respect for seniority in Thailand is observed and deeply ingrained in Thai culture. It is a portrait of a well run and not altogether unhappy institution where women, both inmates and prison staff, work in harmony together. Another Thai cultural attribute.

Unarmed prison guards mingle with Thai women prisoners with cleavers used to prepare prison food including fish pies

Even the prison guards at the women’s prison were reported as unarmed, they did not even carry batons. They mingled freely with prisoners handling  large cleavers used for food preparation, including savoury smelling fish pies, without fear. One of the prisoners told a reporter that serious violence in the prison was very rare. In fact, one prison guard who explained that the prison was a pleasant surprise for her on her first day at work, having expected to see something like the US institutions portrayed on Netflix and popular TV shows, replete with riots and vicious shank attacks. Chonburi’s prison for Thai women is nothing like that.

Thai prison guard openly questions the jailing of so many Thai women for personal drug use

In fact, Supicha, the prison guard, later went on to become that warden’s principal assistant. She openly questions the imprisonment of many of the women at the prison for small amounts of drugs including metamfetamine. ‘Honestly, I just don’t think drug users belong in here,’ Supicha told the Global Post reporters. ‘They’re sick. They should be treated as patients, not arrested. Sure, keep punishing the dealers because drugs destroy lives. But send the drug users to clinics. Not to prison.’ The prison officer revealed that even after working at the prison for an extended number of years, she had never seen a serious fight. This is not surprising as only 2% of Thailand’s female prison population have been sentenced for crimes involving violence. It is, in fact, part of Thailand’s unique culture and one of the reasons why even staunchly hardline and nationalist politicians and officials have become very uneasy about Thailand’s unique and perhaps shameful record of imprisoning more of its women folk than any other country in the world.

Cramped and overcrowded conditions are a daily torment for imprisoned Thai women

While security in Thailand’s female prisons is not the concern, the cramped and overcrowded conditions are. For Thai women, despite the camaraderie and lack of violence, spending time in a Thai prison is a miserable experience, because of overcrowding. And this relates directly to the war on drugs. A 40 year old Thai woman who worked as a housekeeper, received a 4 year prison sentence for possession of methamphetamine or meth. Her case is not uncommon and representative of what is normal in Thailand where Thai women can be sent away from their families, often comprising of young children for years for the possession of two or three pink metamfetamine pills. The woman explained that prison in Thailand is not violent but the overcrowded conditions are a source of daily and constant torment. Thai prisoners are often locked up in large rooms, where lights never go out for up to 15 hours everyday. They are expected to sleep sideways, in a spooning position while trying to sleep. Ging, the Thai woman, recounts her memories of the experience: ‘At sleeping time, everyone is lying so close — as close as the teeth of a fish. Strangers sweat actually gets on your skin.’

‘Riding the chopper’ is the jailhouse slang term for the appalling nightly experience in jail

In fact, there is a Thai slang to describe the Thai jailhouse sleeping position. It’s called  ‘riding the chopper.’ Not a helicopter but the knees bent position required to ride a Harley Davidson motorbike. In order to have enough space to sleep in a tiny, crowded cell, prisoners are forced to bend their legs at the knee during sleep like riding a chopper. Body heat, odor and unwanted touching are unavoidable.

Plight of jailed Thai women is a rallying cry for reformers who want to see changes to Thailand’s drug policy and new approach

The plight of Thai women imprisoned is a emotional one for many Thai people and a rallying call for those, in the corridors of power in Thailand, who are looking askance at the conventional wisdom behind the ‘war on drugs’ and Thailand’s relationship with the US in prosecuting it. It is very much seen as a problem inspired by the US. Thailand, for the last five decades, has been a country in love and indeed still is, with the American dream. It is what makes Thailand popular with middle aged Americans and western people as a place to holiday, to live and retire. It is why many westerners increasingly come to live in the country together with it attractive climate, lower cost of living and warm people including for many, love and relationship attachments to Thai women. The crackdown on drugs, that began in earnest with the Nixon era, is still ongoing. Today, many of Thailand’s senior officials, including a few who have fought in the front line, are beginning to feel a jaded attitude towards fighting a battle that, essentially, can never be won. The effect of this war on relatively harmless Thai women and the suffering caused to their families, raises many questions.

To most Thai people, drug user are criminal. It is still a conservative, right wing society

The truth is that today in Thailand, all drugs users, whether violent or not, are treated as criminals. Society and popular opinion sets its face against users, often even family members among that 6% of Thai people who use drugs. Implementation and respect for the law in Thailand is a strong value when it comes to criminal matters at least (less so with more modern nanny state provisions that are seen to limit personal freedom) that serves the Thai nation well. Thailand has been very much a conservative, right wing country, at least up to now. Suspects caught with even small quantities of meths can be charged automatically by Thai police as dealers. Such offenses can and do lead to multi-year prison sentences. The battle against drugs forces the Thai police and authorities to be adversarial. How else can any war be won?

More Thai women being arrested and prosecuted in dragnet police crackdowns on drug use

Thai women seem to more likely to be detected for the crimes: More than 80 percent of Thailand’s female inmates are locked up on drug-related charges and 90% of these are for meth use. As in the United States, where prisons are packed with drug users and small-scale drug dealers, Thailand finds itself with overcrowded prisons filled mainly with prisoners convicted on narcotics charges. It is estimated that the country locks up about 300,000 inmates, more than any other Southeast Asian country and second only to America. However when it comes to imprisoning women, who make up nearly 14% of Thailand’s prison population, Thailand is ranked as the World number one. The rising incarceration rate for Thai women is linked to the dragnet approach employed by Thailand’s police in the fight against drugs. Thai women are not as capable of evading random searches and even random urine tests at parties when police, often accompanied by the military, conduct shock raids. The ongoing crackdown is leaving more and more Thai women separated from their families and serving hard time.

New law legalising medical use of cannabis and kratom may be sign of a new approach

However, as the general consensus on how to deal with the drugs issue is changing, there are signs that the Thai attitude is changing as well. In some countries around the world and some US states, where the inspiration of Thailand’s anti-drug effort originated, recreational cannabis has been legalized and possession insignificant amount of drugs is no long a crime. Drug users are increasingly viewed as patients and given access to addiction therapies. Last year, a proposed legal statute that could send anyone in possession of small amounts of narcotics to jail was scrapped. Medical use of cannabis and other less harmful substances has also recently been passed as legal with an historic provision carried into law by Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly. The new law appears to envisage government involvement through the Thai Ministry of Health which opens up a new vista for a more caring approach to drug addiction.

$3.1 billion cost of the Thai war on drugs another incentive but a change of tack will require skill but the Thai State has shown such capability before

Another incentive is the cost. The hardline American approach that reportedly requires an expenditure of up to $3.1 billion on drug control activities is falling out of favor, with many officials advocating a more humane, European style, policy. This method is aimed at teaching drug users how to cure or reduce their addiction rather than locking them up in jail. The problem for authorities is that Thailand has a different culture and economic system to Europe. It is also not yet proven whether these more progressive approaches are more successful in the long term despite UN and WHO support. There may also be unforeseen negative consequences from the new approach and the huge difficulty of being caught between both models, if not managed well. But it appears that this may be what Thailand’s government officials have in mind, to find a unique Thai solution for Thailand’s own drugs problem. The Thai State has shown the capacity and capability before when faced with the threat of poverty and the scourge of Aids, it can do it again for the drugs problem. And the starting point, Thailand’s women, languishing for years in prison for possession of a few pills.