BANGKOK – Every day of the year, every inmate of a Thai prison is expected to survive on Bt49 worth of food and cooking gas.
That meager amount appears in the official budget found in the Budget Bureau’s paper.
However, that budget is allocated to feed the “average” prison population of 190,200 inmates. In reality that average is often far exceeded by the actual number of prisoners.
This month, the number of inmates has already soared past 350,000 and they are sharing the same food budget as was intended for 190,200 inmates.
As a result prison authorities can spend all of their official annual budget for food in just five months.
And the budget of Bt49 per head per day on food and gas for 190,200 prisoners has remained fixed for the past five years, even as the cost of food has increased and the number of prisoners climbed.
Certainly, feeding prisoners is a large budget line item, totalling Bt3.3 billion a year. And every Thai shares the burden through paying VAT and other taxes collected by the government.
So what do prisoners get to eat in a day, given how small the budget is provided by the government? The menu looks nice enough.
On a recent day, for example, breakfast featured a bowl of rice prepared alongside chicken soup and sweet potato. For lunch, prisoners received a bowl of boiled rice plus a serving of stir-fried chicken or pork with bean sprouts and bean curd sheets.
And dinner again started with boiled rice, to which was added a sweet chicken curry with pumpkin.
To help tide them over to the next day, they were also given vegetables and spicy dip, fruit or dessert at dinner.
Prison rules require prisoners to return to their sleeping quarters by 3pm. They must finish their last meal of the day before then and wait nearly 15 hours for their next meal.
Dishes provided by the government, in spite of the meager budget, are nutritious enough.
But many prisoners find it hard to scrape by with only the state-provided food.
If their family can afford it, they may spend up to Bt300 a day on additional food and beverages sold in the prisons.
An informed source said the Corrections Department had also tried to feed inmates under its care by buying food on credit terms.
“Usually, the annual budget provided lasts for five months only. After that, the Corrections Department will rely on credit terms and try to ask for additional money when the government allocates its mid-year budget,” the source said.
The Corrections Department has used e-bidding to source its food supplies.
Perhaps surprisingly, successful bidders have offered a food price between 30 and 40 per cent lower than standard prices.
The auction winners will usually have to give the Corrections Department a long credit term, waiting while the department seeks additional budget funding around the middle of the fiscal year. The actual cost of feeding the prisoners is clearly not being fully addressed from the beginning of the annual budget cycle.
By Piyanuch Thamnukasetchai