THAILAND - More than 600 officials yesterday made a predawn surprise search at the Nakhon Si Thammarat Central Prison in their bid to stop this correctional facility from being a base for drug-trafficking gangs.
Some inmates have reportedly paid over Bt350,000 (S$14,100) to have an iPhone for use while behind bars there.
The prison's chief Narong Yongnarongdejkul was immediately transferred out of his post yesterday. He appeared under stress throughout the search operation, which started at 3am and ended at around 9am. The search uncovered about 300 cell phones, including iPhones and tablets, 1,700 meth-amphetamine tablets, and one kilo of crystal meth-amphetamine or ice plus many gambling tools and weapons.
"I have tried (to enforce the ban on such stuff) but money power has prevailed," Narong was heard telling Nakhon Si Thammarat police chief Maj General Ronnapong Saikaeo.
Provincial Police Region 8 commander Lt General Santi Pensutra disclosed that the surprise search was arranged after most drug suspects confessed they had ordered illicit drugs from inmates at the Nakhon Si Thammarat Central Prison.
"We are going to determine how the cell phones and illicit drugs got into the prison," he said.
According to an informed source, a cell phone costs between Bt200,000 and Bt250,000 for an inmate at the Nakhon Si Thammarat Prison. A smart phone is more expensive, costing between Bt300,000 and Bt350,000. Inmates who do not own cell phones can rent the devices at between Bt10,000 and Bt18,000 each time.
Ronnapong said he could tell that some officials had brought cell phones into the prison for inmates for a delivery fee of Bt30,000.
"We are preparing to seek arrest warrants for them," he said.
Ronnapong said yesterday's search was a result of months'-long preparations. Police, soldiers and administrative officials joined in the search operation yesterday. Ongoing investigations has shown that two inmates at the Nakhon Si Thammarat Central Prison were responsible for the delivery of a huge amount of illicit drugs, each time worth several million baht.
"Many other inmates are medium and small-scale drug traffickers," Ronnapong said.
Nakhon Si Thammarat Governor Wiroj Jiwarangsan said officials at the Nakhon Si Thammarat Central Prison should be transferred to root out the problem.
Ronnapong said it was clear someone alerted some inmates about yesterday's search in advance.
"We found a short message in a seized cell phone telling the recipient the search would take place in two hours. That meant many banned items might have already been disposed of before the officials arrived," he said. He believed some illicit drugs might have thrown into toilets.
Corrections Department deputy director general Sopon Thitithammapreuk said Surapon Kaewparadai had been appointed chief of the Nakhon si Thammarat Central Prison in place of Narong.
"We will conduct similar surprise searches at other prisons too to check if inmates there have also have banned items in their hands," Sopon said.
Meanwhile, police found 280,000 meth-amphetamine tablets and six kilos of crystal meth-amphetamine in three bags on a public-transport bus that was intercepted at a checkpoint in Phayao.
The bus was targeted in response to tip-offs that illicit drugs were loaded into it.
A five-hour-long investigation showed the illicit-drug-stuffed bags belonged to no passengers and Weerapong sae Wang, a young man hired to label and arrange luggage in the bus, was the most likely suspect.
Police said the investigation was ongoing to determine whether he had any other accomplices.