COVID-19 sweeps through Thailand's overcrowded prisons

A coronavirus surge sweeping through Thailand's prisons has thrown the spotlight on the kingdom's overcrowded penal system, where some inmates have less space to sleep than the inside of a coffin.

More than 22,000 people have tested positive inside jails, where inmates living cheek by jowl have been encouraged to keep wearing their masks even while they sleep.

Authorities have floated plans to give early releases to prisoners with underlying medical conditions and have announced funding for more testing and medical care in recent days.

But those behind bars say they have been kept in the dark about the seriousness of the outbreak.

"Prisoners don't have the knowledge to protect themselves," said Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a high-profile activist facing charges under Thailand's harsh royal defamation law.

Somyot was bailed last month and told AFP that he had not been tested for COVID-19 once during his 10-week stint in custody.

He was not worried about contracting the disease while in jail because he had no idea about the level of risk.

"But after this I'm so scared (for everyone still inside) ... if you are inside the prison you are at risk, it's unavoidable," he said.

Thailand's prison outbreak has skyrocketed from just 10 publicly announced cases a month ago and sparked growing public concern after a handful of prominent activists contracted the illness.

Among them was student leader Panusaya "Rung" Sithijirawattanakul, who helped lead a series of rallies last year demanding political reforms in the kingdom, and who tested positive after she was released on bail.