By Clarence Fernandez

A visit by a Thai princess to a women’s prison on Thursday spotlighted the need for reform in a country that houses some of the world’s most crowded jails, partly because of its battle against the scourge of illicit drugs.

Several Southeast Asian governments, led by the Philippines, have adopted hardline policies on drug-related crimes, putting a heavy burden on their jails, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says.

Thailand has about a tenth of Southeast Asia’s population, but about 40 per cent of its prisoners, most convicted of drug offences.

“We have to ensure fair and equitable justice, understand the reasons people are ending up in prison, and we also have to address the specific needs of women,” Thailand’s Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol said.

The remarks came as she led diplomats on a visit to the Women’s Correctional Institute in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, to show how it had applied rules embodying a more gender-sensitive approach.

The prison is one of ten in Thailand piloting the “Bangkok Rules”, or guidelines for the treatment of female prisoners adopted by the United Nations’ General Assembly in 2010.

“Women have very different needs,” Jeremy Douglas, UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told Reuters. “They have health needs, they have children. So if they follow a male prison model it doesn’t work.”

 Thailand has the fourth highest number of women prisoners in the world, after the United States, China, and Russia, says a French non-government body, the International Federation for Human Rights.