Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Overcrowded Thai prisons need reform

Thai prison: "Inmates live in inhumane and degrading conditions."
Thai prison: "Inmates live in inhumane and degrading conditions."
Thailand's long-standing policy of harsh sentences for drug offenders including petty drug users and small time dealers has overcrowded its prisons, forcing female and male prisoners to live in inhumane and degrading conditions. Jails in Thailand are the most cramped in Southeast Asia. The country's prison occupancy rate is also the world's 10th highest.

Even though reforms of harsh drug laws are ongoing and an amended penal act was just passed, much-needed substantive penal reform is yet to be achieved. This is unfortunate for the country which has led the United Nations' efforts in setting global standards for female prisoners.

Basically, overcrowding in Thai prisons is still rife. Thailand's prison population has increased annually since 2011. With 425 prisoners per 100,000 people, 70% of the inmates are drug offenders. The prison occupancy rate, according to statistics published by the International Federation for Human Rights, is 224%.

That means the average human has an allocated floor space of approximately one square metre. And, in many prisons, the occupancy rate passes 300%, with nine provincial or district prisons topping 400%.

Furthermore, Thailand has the world's highest incarceration rate of women, approximately 39,000, many of whom are "drug mules".

Overcrowding drives inhumane and degrading treatment, including lack of access to medical treatment, insufficient food and drinking water, and poor sanitation facilities, with prisoners surrounded by their own urine and fecal matter. The overcrowding particularly impacts women, especially those pregnant or with babies.

Thailand has explicitly committed itself to international standards for humane prisons. The Thai Department of Corrections' motto reads "Caring Custody, Meaningful Rehabilitation, International Standard Achievement". This claim to international standards means attaining minimum standards compliant with a number of international treaties to which Thailand is a party.

These include the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights' Article 5 which guarantees the right not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as elaborated on in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well as in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Moreover, Thailand is bound to implement the 2015 United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs) and the 2010 UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, or "Bangkok Rules", championed by Her Royal Highness Princess Bajrakitiyabha.

In February 2017, Thailand amended its 1936 Penitentiary Act, formalising the adoption of various improvements over the years, including the 2005 ministerial regulation revoking flogging. For the first time, it included specific clauses on female prisoners with children and on pregnant prisoners, as well as healthcare. It also announced the formation of a 20-member penitentiary affairs committee to formulate guidelines and improve penitentiary affairs.

Nonetheless, the revised act falls short of meeting international minimum standards. Specifically, under Article 21, Thai prisons still employ shackles and leg irons when "restraint is deemed reasonable by the official in charge of the escort". This means restraints are still used as a first, rather than last, resort. This is contrary to the SMRs, which state such restraints can only be used as a precautionary measure during transfer, or to prevent prisoners from damaging property or injuring themselves. In addition, under Article 69 of the amended act, the period of solitary confinement in Thai prisons is double that of the recommended SMRs maximum of 15 days.

Moreover, Article 23 of the revised act permits free use of firearms in the case of escape or when three or more prisoners act together to cause a disturbance or to open or destroy prison gates, fences, or walls, or other buildings, or attempt to violently injure another person.

This is contrary to the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, where firearms are only permitted when there is clear danger, such as self-defence.

Further, Article 30 encourages the culture of impunity enjoyed by state officials. Under certain circumstances, it exempts prison officials from civil and criminal liability, negating Article 2 of the ICCPR, which states that some form of remedy must exist for those whose rights have been violated, "notwithstanding that the violation has been committed by persons acting in an official capacity".

Finally, Article 33 permits the Department of Corrections to designate places other than prisons as custodial centres. This provision circumvents the entire penal system by legalising additional detention facilities set up at military bases around the country, including the now notorious Nakhon Chaisri temporary detention facility inside the 11th Army Circle base in Bangkok. The obvious problem with military "grey" detention facilities is the lack of access to independent observers and the increased risk of inhumane conditions, including torture.

Thus, despite some improvements, Thailand still falls far short of its own goal of meeting international standards. In several criteria, its prisons remain amongst the worst in the world.

Yet, Thailand also has great potential to serve as a beacon for reform. HRH Princess Bajrakitiyabha, a trained lawyer and prosecutor with a doctorate from Cornell University, founded the Kamlangjai (Inspire) and Enhancing Lives of Female Inmates Projects to assist female prisoners, directly leading to the 2010 UN's "Bangkok Rules".

Ultimately, while reductions in sentencing for drug offences were recently implemented via Narcotic Act reforms, more alternatives to both imprisonment and the death sentence need to be better explored. Efficacy of punishment is less related to severity of sentence than to likelihood of detection.

This is why the death penalty is not an efficient deterrent. Moreover, though Thailand is secular, various Buddhist sutras depict kings rejecting execution for humane reasons and to avoid kammic consequences.

To achieve rapid and substantial reforms, a specially appointed penal reform and death penalty commission, empowered with clear terms of reference and chaired by an inspirational and qualified charismatic figure, would be more efficacious than the current bureaucratic committee approach.

Source: Bangkok Post, John Draper, Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, March 25, 2017. John Draper is director, Social Survey Centre, College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa Phd is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.

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