Guest Column

The Need to Improve Prison Reform

By Bo Kyi 5 September 2018

The recent launch of new standard operating procedures (SOPs) regulating prison health care by the Health and Sports Ministry is a step in the right direction toward improving dire prison conditions.

However, strangely, I have been unable to find a copy of these new SOPs. They have not been shared with civil society or organizations working on prison issues. I am curious to know what is included and whether counseling provisions are touched on at all. Such provisions are important to include. I say this from my own experience.

Even though I see this as a positive step, I doubt this by itself will implement reform. Much change is needed and these SOPs are not nearly enough.

There are 46 prisons and more than 40 labor camps in Burma. In addition, there are many more detention centers that are under the remit of police, military and non-ceasefire groups.

Failings of the judicial system, corruption, and underinvestment in prison infrastructure, coupled with the rampant level of overcrowding in Burma, makes a perfect storm for torture, health problems and a lack of justice.

Reform is badly needed. Conditions in detention centers and treatment in prisons are shocking. Human dignity is routinely violated by police or prison authorities. This is done through the practice of torture, alongside overcrowding and substandard prison conditions.

Electric shocks, genital mutilation, waterboarding, stress positions and other methods of physical torture are all routinely used in detention centers, as are psychological forms of torture such as threats, hooding and blindfolding, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement.

Regarding prison conditions, healthcare, food and sanitation are sorely lacking, as is the presence of counselors and healthcare professionals. Overcrowding is rife. Insein Prison, which has a capacity of 5,000 prisoners, currently has some 12,000 inside.

Furthermore, when giving out sentences, hard labor is prescribed far too often. Conditions are even worse in labor camps, with prisoners shackled and forced to work outside in all conditions in remote camps with little to no healthcare access. Sentences are often designed to punish, not rehabilitate.

After release, prisoners carry around the effects of their incarceration. Their suffering continues long after their sentences have finished. Counselors need to be provided for prisoners so they can deal with the long-term effects and trauma from torture and treat cases of depression and mental health. Treatment and counseling must be available and must make up a substantive part of the SOPs.

Another important issue is that the Health and Sports Ministry did not consult with civil society. The SOPs were developed alongside the UN and INGOs, yet their conception did not involve civil society in Burma. A question must be asked – did they think former prisoners had no thoughts on prison reform?

Former political prisoners are victims of prisons and the penal system. They must be listened to. Due to their experiences at the hands of their jailers and judges, who knows more about the failings of prisons and the need to implement SOPs than Burma’s political prisoners themselves? Years of incarceration and abuse have made them experts on these matters.

The SOPs are ineffective and incomplete as a result of this lack of consultation. There is a need to understand that the effects of substandard prison conditions and torture continue long after release.

Prison reform has to be large, systematic and take in all aspects of the penal system. It is not just within a jail that prisoners are abused. It is from their first step inside Burma’s judiciary system. It is futile to attempt to reform the prison cell without also reforming the prison system.

Any reform must be based on a holistic approach. Isolated reform will simply not work. In order to have better results, we must all work together. Only by working together can we succeed.

Bo Kyi is the joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).