Burma has ‘one doctor for every 8000 prisoners’

Details of healthcare professionals available to Burma’s estimated 200,000 prisoner population has exposed a grossly under-resourced sector, with one doctor available for every 8000 inmates.

The prisoner population is spread over 43 prisons and around 100 labour camps scattered across the country, from the notorious Insein prison in Rangoon, built by the British in 1871, to remote camps along the Burma-China border.

Tate Naing, secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP), says there are around 200,000 prisoners in total, although government figures are more conservative. Around 2,170 of these are monks, activists, lawyers, policians, relief workers and journalists.

Burma’s healthcare system outside of prisons is already amongst the worst in the world, with the ruling junta thought to spend only around $US0.40 per person each year.

But yesterday an official from the Prison Administration Department was quoted in the Weekly Eleven News Journal as saying that there are only 109 medical staff assigned to prisons and camps across Burma, 32 of which are trained doctors. A number of other specialists pay twice-weekly visits to prisons.

“Sometimes it can take two or three days to see a doctor,” said Kyaw Hsan, who in 2000 was sentenced at the age of 15 to five years in prison, and now lives in Thailand. “You’ll be sent to a clinic to assess you, and if it’s serious you go to the prison hospital.

“The hospital is really bad for criminals, not so bad for political prisoners. The politicals sleep in a bed but criminals have to sleep on the floor, with no mat. The toilet is a plastic bowl – we used to have to hand-wash the floor around the bowl and there were loads of flies and mosquitoes.

Medicine donated by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which the junta has now blocked from visiting prisoners in Burma, was often given to political prisoners, Kyaw Hsan said, while the common criminals were forced to buy their medicine from the doctors.

Only when it became obvious that the prison hospital could not treat the patient would they be sent to a local hospital outside of the gates, he added.

According to official government statistics, Insein prison has around 5000 inmates, although other estimates put the figure closer to 10,000. Mandalay prison holds around 3000. Inmates of remote labour camps and prisons are often subject to harsh weather conditions, particularly in the country’s far north where temperatures in winter drop to near freezing.

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