By Puangchompoo Prasert
Bali, Indonesia - Experts at an international conference in Bali have voiced concern about the spread of HIV/Aids in Thai prisons and say many inmates admit to having unprotected sex or sharing needles with other addicts.
Dr Sutayut Osornprasop, a human development specialist at the World Bank's office in Thailand, said sex and drug abuse is rampant in prisons despite strict bans imposed by relevant authorities.
"Top officials at the Justice Ministry won't admit that such things happen, but in reality they do," Sutayut said.
He said he received the information while conducting a survey alongside diseasecontrol officials over the past month or two.
"Some inmates revealed that they offered sexual favours in exchange for cigarettes or chocolate," Sutayut said.
He was speaking at the ninth International Congress on Aids in Asia and the Pacific, which ended yesterday.
He said campaigns against Aids should extend to prisons.
"Inmates should be educated about Aids and how to guard themselves against the disease. They should have access to condoms and lubricant. Blood tests should also be provided to those who want to see if they have contracted the disease," he said.
Sutayut said fresh needles should be available for older inmates with a drug habit.
"Younger inmates usually take methamphetamines, so they don't need a needle, but the older inmates have different habits," he said.
Medecins Sans Frontieres - the acclaimed medical group also known as 'Doctors Without Borders' - started a pilot project in three jails in and around Bangkok to provide cheap antiretroviral drugs to prisoners with HIV or Aids, and train and educate health workers, guards and prisoners about the disease.
The project was undertaken at Bang Kwang, Minburi and Pathum Thani prisons from 2003 but ended late last year.
Minburi jail director Kongkrit Pornkongtwatch said at the time he was sad the MSF project had ended and feared HIV infections would continue at the jail. "It has made a lot of improvements, as we can't even afford a fulltime doctor here. If prisoners get infected, there is no way to protect other inmates.
"Staff in other jails need to be trained too. It's important that prisoners be released with training and counselling [about the disease]. This is a good model for other prisons, but that is a policy decision for the Department of Corrections."
But it is not known if the department considered the curriculum developed by MSF on treatment for prisoners with HIV with a view to replicating the project at other jails.
Former senator Jon Ungpakorn said inmates with good behaviour should be allowed conjugal visits, because this would reduce the risk of Aids.
"Since it's normal for humans to have sex, it would be better to let inmates have sex with their spouses," Jon advised.
He said protection should be give to sex workers, migrant workers, homosexuals, drug addicts, plus homeless and stateless people.
"These people have been marginalised and thus have limited defence against Aids. If we help them, there will be fewer Aids cases in society overall," Jon said.