Separate prisons a victory for LGBTI inmates in Thailand

Inmates of Bangkok Remand Prison competing in a “Gangnam Style” dance contest, 2012. Photo: toledoblade.com

Nachacha Kongudom was detained on account of her political activities, having taken part in a protest rally marking the first anniversary of the 2014 coup d’état. This student activist was sent to a male prison, despite her plea to be sent to a women’s prison, for fear of being harassed for being transsexual. In response to her petition, the authorities stated that, by law, she was still a man, and there is no document in Thailand identifying trans women as female.

“When I reached the jail, I was the focus of attention among the staff and prisoners. Some made fun of me for being there,” she tells Equal Times. The young woman, charged with two offences, managed to secure release on bail a few hours later.

Human rights organisations have long been warning that trans people, and trans women in particular, are highly vulnerable to sexual abuse and harassment in male prisons. It is this threat that prompted human rights organisations to call on the Ministry of Justice to introduce designated detention facilities for LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people.

Transgender women are particularly exposed to abuse when detained in prisons for men, which is the gender they are considered to be in Thailand, in accordance with their identity documents. No account is taken of the fact that they have undergone complete surgery so that their body reflects their gender identity.

The petitions have been effective and the Department of Corrections is planning to reserve a separate detention facility for LGBTI prisoners to prevent abuse, according to the deputy permanent secretary of the Justice Ministry, Kobkiat Kasiwiwat. He spoke during a press tour of the Remand Prison in the city of Pattaya, on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand, in early July. The visit was organised to show media and NGOs the conditions of LGBTI inmates.

There are currently 4,448 prisoners in Thailand who have chosen to be classified as LGBTI. According to the Department of Corrections, 2,258 are women, 2,156 are men and 34 are transgender. LGBTI detainees account for approximately 1.5% of the country’s 300,000 prison population.

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Pilot programme

Kasiwiwat announced that the Min Buri jail will be used as an LGBTI prison as part of a pilot scheme. The official told the press that, under the pilot scheme, when a trans person is jailed, a nursing official, together with a female assistant, will perform a medical examination to ensure that the person’s identity no longer coincides with the information on their identity documents.

Transsexual women have already been separated from male inmates at the men’s prison in Pattaya, following the regular abuse suffered at the hands of other inmates. Transgender women and men do, however, work together on the tasks assigned in the prison, explained the Thai official.

Other countries, such as the United States, have already adopted similar initiatives to that being taken in Thailand. The government of Nepal has also announced plans to set up separate detention centres for trans people, explains Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Asia, in an interview with Equal Times.
He points out, however, that transsexual women, although segregated, continued to be abused by staff at detention facilities, as highlighted in a report drawn up by HRW in the United States this year.

Robertson underlines that the measures taken to provide better protection for LGBTI people in detention are a positive step forward, but will not necessarily put an end to the abuses. “Proper application is crucial,” he concludes.

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