Foreigners in Thailand are subject to the same laws and legal procedures as Thai citizens.
However, the process of arrest, trial, and conviction for foreigners may differ slightly from that of Thai citizens.
One thing that certainly differs is incarceration itself. Thai jails are very different to those you will find in the UK, US, Australia, or much of Europe.
In this article, I'll give you the lowdown on the important basics a foreign national should know about the Thai justice and prison system.
Please note: I am not a lawyer, or qualified in any legal discipline. A such, this article is not intended to be advice. If you require any legal advice, you should consult a Thai lawyer.
If a foreigner is suspected of committing a crime in Thailand, Thai authorities may arrest them. The police or other law enforcement agencies, such as immigration, may make the arrest and the foreigner will be taken into custody.
Under Thai law, the police may detain a person for up to 48 hours without a court order, as long as there is a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed a crime. This period can be extended for up to seven days with the approval of a court order, if there is sufficient evidence to support the continued detention.
During the initial 48-hour period, the police are required to inform the detainee of the reason for their arrest, the charges against them, and their rights under Thai law, including the right to legal representation and the right to remain silent. The detainee should also be given access to medical treatment if needed.
If the police intend to hold the person for longer than 48 hours, they must obtain a court order to do so. The court order must specify the reasons for the extended detention and may require the police to provide evidence to support the continued detention.
Once charged, the detainee is transferred to a prison and must attend court every 12 days for remand hearings. The prosecution has 84 days from the initial arrest to present their case to the Public Prosecutor. However, for minor offenses, they have a maximum of 48 days to prepare their case.
Once a person is in detention, they have the right to legal representation and access to medical care. They also have the right to communicate with family members and consular officials, if they are a foreign national.
Your lawyer will inform you if you're eligible for bail after being arrested. You can pay bail at the police station or in court after your first appearance. If the detainee can't afford it, relatives or friends can arrange payment. If bail is granted, the court will retain the detainee's passport. Travel within Thailand is allowed.
One must adhere strictly to the bail conditions set by the police or court, such as reporting to the police or staying in a specific residence. Failure to comply can lead to a new arrest warrant and forfeiture of bail money. Attempting to leave Thailand could also result in re-arrest or forfeiture of bail.
Foreign nationals have the right to an attorney both pre and during trial in Thailand. The Thai Constitution guarantees the right to legal counsel for all individuals, regardless of their nationality.
For charges with a maximum penalty of less than 5 years, the court may appoint a lawyer, at its discretion. However, court-appointed lawyers are often inexperienced and speak little English. In practice, however, the availability of legal representation may vary depending on the circumstances of the case and the resources of the accused.
Depending on the location of arrest and availability of an attorney, some foreign nationals may have difficulty finding an attorney who speaks English.
Additionally, the cost of legal representation in Thailand may be beyond the financial means of the individual involved.
The Thai legal system does not provide foreigners with state aid for legal representation. Unlike some other countries, such as the United States or the United Kingdom, there is no public defender system in Thailand to provide free legal assistance to those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.
Though as mentioned above, in some cases the court may appoint a lawyer at its discretion.
Foreign nationals who are facing criminal charges in Thailand are responsible for their own legal fees and must hire their own attorney or use the services of a legal aid organization, if available. Some embassies or consulates may be able to provide a list of local attorneys or legal aid organizations that can provide assistance to foreign nationals.
It is important for foreign nationals to be aware that legal fees in Thailand can be high, and that the cost of hiring an attorney will depend on the complexity of the case and the experience of the lawyer.
It is advisable for foreign nationals facing criminal charges in Thailand to seek the assistance of a qualified attorney who is familiar with the local laws and customs, and to ensure that they fully understand the costs involved before proceeding with legal representation.
Foreigners in Thailand have the right to a fair trial, and the legal process is conducted in Thai language. If the foreigner does not speak Thai, they have the right to an interpreter.
If a foreigner is charged with a crime, they will appear in court and will have the opportunity to defend themselves, with or without a lawyer.
After the formal charging court hearing, a “meeting of parties” will be arranged by the court for both the defense and prosecution to agree on trial dates.
If a person pleads guilty to a charge that carries a minimum sentence of 5 years in prison, the court must hear witness evidence. However, if a person pleads not guilty or doesn't enter a plea, the court must also hear witness evidence. Trial dates can often be set quite far into the future, with dates up to two years away being common.
The trial will follow the same procedures as it does for Thai citizens, including the presentation of evidence and witnesses, cross-examination of witnesses, and closing arguments.
80% of Thailand’s prisoners are incarcerated for drug-related offences; 78% of drug-related offenders were convicted for offences related to yaba (methamphetamine tablets); and 76% of these drug-related offenders were convicted for possession with intent to sell.
If a foreigner is found guilty of a crime in Thailand, they will be sentenced according to Thai law.
The sentence may include fines, imprisonment, or deportation. In some cases, a foreigner may be deported after serving their sentence, and may be banned from entering Thailand again.
It is important to note that it is possible for a foreigner to be held in pre-trial detention for a significant period of time before trial.
Drug offenses are the most common convictions in Thailand among foreign nationals,.
The sentence for being caught with drugs in Thailand can vary depending on a range of factors, including the type and quantity of the drug involved, the circumstances of the arrest, and the individual's criminal history.
In general, however, Thailand has some of the harshest drug laws in the world, and those convicted of drug offenses can face severe penalties, including lengthy prison sentences and even the death penalty.
For example, under Thai law, possession of even small amounts of certain drugs, including methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine, can result in a prison sentence of up to five years and/or a fine of up to 100,000 baht (approximately $3,000 USD).
Possession of larger quantities of methamphetamine, for example, whereby the accused is considered a dealer, can result in a prison sentence of 15 years, or 20 years if caught selling to a minor.
For more serious drug offenses, including drug trafficking and production, the penalties are even more severe. Those convicted of these offenses can face life imprisonment or the death penalty, depending on the specific circumstances of the case.
It is therefore important to avoid any involvement in drugs while in Thailand, and to be aware of the risks and potential consequences of drug-related offenses.
The length of a sentence that a foreigner has to serve in a Thai jail depends on the nature and severity of the crime committed. Thai criminal law applies equally to foreigners and Thai citizens, and the same penalties and sentences can be imposed on both.
For example, a foreigner who is convicted of a minor offense, such as a traffic violation or petty theft, may be sentenced to a short term of imprisonment or a fine. However, for more serious offenses, such as drug trafficking or violent crimes, the sentence can be much longer.
In general, a foreigner who is convicted of a crime in Thailand and sentenced to imprisonment may be required to serve the entire sentence in a Thai jail. This includes both pre-trial detention and post-conviction imprisonment. However, in some cases, a foreigner may be deported after serving their sentence, and may be banned from entering Thailand again.
In general, Thai law allows for a reduction in sentence for good behavior, participation in work programs, and other factors. The amount of time that can be reduced varies depending on the length of the sentence, but the reduction can be up to one-third of the sentence for those who show exemplary conduct.
For example, if someone is sentenced to 10 years in prison, they could be eligible for a reduction of up to 3 years if they demonstrate good behavior and participate in work programs. However, it is important to note that eligibility for early release is at the discretion of the prison authorities and is not guaranteed.
Additionally, under Thai law, prisoners who have served two-thirds of their sentence may be eligible for release on parole, which allows them to serve the remainder of their sentence outside of prison under certain conditions.
Early Release and International Transfer
In the Thai prison system, good behavior can lead to a reduction in sentence. Prisoners are initially placed in the ‘moderate class' and can move up or down the six-tier system, including excellent, very good, good, moderate, bad, and very bad, based on their behavior. Maintaining a higher class level can result in a reduced sentence, which is typically calculated during a Royal Amnesty (see the next section).
Foreign prisoners in Thailand who wish to serve the remainder of their sentence in their home country may be eligible for early release through a prisoner transfer program. This program is governed by the International Transfer of Offenders Act.
To be considered for transfer, the prisoner must meet certain criteria, including having a valid reason for the transfer, such as family or medical reasons, and having at least six months of their sentence remaining. The prisoner must also consent to the transfer and provide information about their home country and the conditions of their confinement there.
Once a prisoner has been approved for transfer, the Thai authorities will notify the receiving country and coordinate the transfer. The receiving country must also approve the transfer and agree to supervise the remainder of the prisoner's sentence.
It is important to note that the decision to approve a transfer is at the discretion of both the sending and receiving countries, and that not all requests for transfer will be granted. Additionally, prisoners who are serving sentences for certain types of crimes, such as political offenses or crimes against the state, may not be eligible for transfer.
Foreign prisoners in Thailand who wish to explore the possibility of early release through the prisoner transfer program should consult with their embassy or a qualified attorney who is familiar with the process.
Those deported from Thailand after serving a sentence often face a ban on returning for a period ranging from 1 to 10 years or more, depending on the case. However, the exact length of the restriction varies and may not be disclosed by the deporting police officer
Getting a Royal Pardon
A Royal Pardon in Thailand is a form of clemency granted by the King, which can result in the early release of a prisoner or the reduction of their sentence. To be considered for a Royal Pardon, a prisoner must meet certain eligibility requirements and follow a specific application process.
Eligibility for a Royal Pardon in Thailand is based on a range of factors, including the nature of the crime, the length of the sentence, and the prisoner's behavior and conduct during their time in prison. In general, those who have been convicted of serious crimes, including drug offenses and violent crimes, may not be eligible for a royal pardon.
To apply for a Royal Pardon, a prisoner must submit a written request to the Office of His Majesty's Principal Private Secretary. The request must include information about the prisoner's personal history, the nature of their offense, and any mitigating factors that may support their case for clemency. The request must also be accompanied by a recommendation from the prison authorities.
Once the request has been received, it will be reviewed by a committee of advisors to the king, who will make a recommendation to the King based on the prisoner's eligibility and other factors. The King has the final authority to grant or deny a Royal Pardon.
It is important to note that the process for obtaining a Royal Pardon in Thailand can be complex and time-consuming, and the outcome is not guaranteed. It is recommended that prisoners seeking clemency work with a qualified legal professional who can guide them through the application process and provide advice and representation throughout the process.
The number of people per cell in a Thai jail can vary depending on the size and capacity of the prison, as well as the specific regulations and policies of the Department of Corrections. However, overcrowding is a common problem in many Thai prisons, and cells may be packed beyond their intended capacity.
Thailand presently has one of the highest prisoner-to-population ratios in the world (524 prisoners per 100,000 population in 2018), and the world’s highest share of female prisoners (14%).
It also suffers from one of the highest rates of overcrowding, with over three prisoners for every available prison space. Upward of 40 prisoners may be housed in a single cell, with less than 1.2 square meters for each male inmate and 1.1 square meters for each female inmate (source).
The situation may also be different for different types of cells or prisoners. For example, cells for pre-trial detainees or those serving short sentences may be less crowded than cells for long-term or high-security prisoners.
Standards of healthcare in Thai prisons are poor in comparison to the Western world. Poor sanitation, inadequate ventilation, extreme temperatures, lower grade food and people sleeping in close proximity to each other – often shoulder to shoulder – can allow the spread of infections. Colds and stomach bugs are common, and in recent years there have been reported outbreaks of tuberculosis (TB) (source).
Working in Prison
Prisoners in Thailand are allowed to work inside the prison, subject to certain conditions and restrictions. There is also a well-known drain/sewer cleaning program that enables prisoners of good behavior to occasionally clean drains in the outside community, under supervision.
The work that is available to prisoners may vary depending on the specific prison and the resources available.
In general, work assignments in Thai prisons are aimed at providing prisoners with vocational training and skills development, as well as a means of earning a small amount of money that can be used to purchase additional food or other basic necessities.
Some examples of work assignments in Thai prisons may include tasks such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, or maintenance work.
Prisoners who wish to work in Thai prisons must meet certain eligibility criteria and must apply for permission from the prison authorities. In some cases, prisoners may be required to undergo a medical examination or a background check before they are allowed to work.
It is important to note that the availability of work assignments in Thai prisons may be limited, and that prisoners who are unable to find work may have limited opportunities to earn money or occupy their time. Stories regarding work vary from prison to prison, with some prisoners reporting that opportunities are few if any and others reporting opportunities but unreasonably low pay.
It must be noted that the wages earned by prisoners for their work are typically very low and are unlikely to provide a significant source of income. Some argue that this is justified, and that even earning a small amount is a privilege.
The food ration for all foreign prisoners in Thailand usually consists of 1 bag of cooked rice weighing 800 grams and one Thai side dish twice per day.
Any extra food must be paid for. There is a shop within all prisons, but the shop prices are always considerably higher than for the same items outside of the prison. Therefore, it is essential that foreign prisoners have family and friends send money to them to ensure a diet that meets their nutritional needs.
Each prisoner has a prison account, where money for food can be sent. This money can be deposited by Consular staff into the prison account or sent via postal order. Some prisons have a limit of how much money you can have in your account at any one time.
Risks During Incarceration
Foreign nationals who find themselves in a Thai prison should be aware of several potential risks and challenges that they may face. Here are a few considerations.
- Language barrier: Communication can be a challenge for foreigners who do not speak Thai, as many prison staff members may not speak English or other languages fluently. This can make it difficult for foreign nationals to understand the rules and regulations of the prison, as well as to communicate their needs or concerns effectively.
- Prejudice: The language barrier and difference in nationality may bring with it prejudice and hostile treatment from other prisoners, particularly if the foreign national has family members and friends sending in money to ensure the foreign national can buy additional food and toiletries.
- Cultural differences: Foreign nationals may encounter cultural differences in Thai prisons that can be difficult to navigate. For example, prison staff members may have different attitudes toward personal space, privacy, and personal hygiene than what foreigners are accustomed to in their home countries.
- Health risks: Thai prisons may have limited access to medical care, and prisoners may be at risk of contracting illnesses or infections due to overcrowding and poor sanitation. Hepatitis is a particular risk. Additionally, foreign nationals may also be at risk of experiencing adverse reactions to local food or water.
- Gang activity: Some Thai prisons may be home to organized gangs or groups, and foreign nationals may be targeted by these groups due to their perceived vulnerability or lack of familiarity with local customs and rules. It is reported that a prisoner can pay for additional protection from a gang, but this regular stipend may not be affordable for everyone.
- Corruption: Bribery and corruption can be a problem in some Thai prisons, and foreign nationals may be at risk of being extorted or mistreated by prison staff or other inmates who demand payment for services or goods. In this regard, paying for protection, or earning favour with guards, is often necessary for those doing a long sentence.
Please note: If you know someone who has been arrested or sentenced to jail time in Thailand, you can contact your embassy to find out more details, and to arrange a virtual or in-person visit with your friend or family member.
Know someone in jail in Thailand? Been there yourself? Share your questions or experiences below.