From Bad to Worse: Health in Burma's Prisons

This is the fourth of seven posts from Dina Fine Maron and M. Francesca Monn, writing from Mae Sot, Thailand, a town on the border with Burma. Maron and Monn are PHR interns who are collecting information about medical conditions and human rights abuses inside Burma’s prisons. This research is being completed with the help of Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP-B), a Thailand-based advocacy group consisting of former Burmese political prisoners.

Political prisoners and criminals alike have suffered from substandard living conditions in Burmese prisons. Interviews with former political prisoners at the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, Burma (AAPP) revealed telling details about prison conditions that can lead to detainees’ ill health. Prisoners reported that they were packed together in cramped prison cells, that storage containers overflowed with excrement, and that cell blocks leaked during the rainy season and became breeding grounds for mosquito larvae and bacteria.

Chronic medical conditions present in the general Burmese population, such as hypertension, diabetes, asthma, coronary heart disease, and stomach problems, are severely exacerbated by the poor conditions in the prisons.

According to many former political detainees, infectious diseases are the most common cause of illness in prison. Among other infectious diseases such as malaria and TB, dysentery is considered a normal part of life. Cholera is particularly common in the rainy season, mainly because drinking water and sewage water sources are often in close proximity, leading to contamination of the drinking water. Without adequate stores of medical supplies, sleeping medications and simple analgesics are often the only remedies offered to suffering prisoners.

A 48-year-old male former political prisoner described coughing up blood and despite pleas for assistance from his cellmates for assistance, he was ignored by the guard. When a medic was finally called, the prisoner was only provided a sleeping medication. It wasn’t until three days later when the prisoner managed to show the warden that he was coughing up blood that he was moved into an area of isolation for TB treatment. Even then, his family was forced to obtain and supply the TB medication for the duration of his treatment. At no point did he receive a chest x-ray or other test to confirm the diagnosis.

Complications from interrogation are widespread and are also common sources of ailments. Many political prisoners continue to suffer from severe headaches and life-altering behavior changes long after their prison sentences have ended.

A 48-year-old former political prisoner who was imprisoned on four separate occasions for his political activism described his plan for committing suicide in interviews. All it would take, he said, was a chance during interrogation to put an end to his suffering by repeatedly banging his head against the prison wall. Although the opportunity for him to enact his plan never arose, the fact that he—and his colleagues—experienced suicidal ideations with the intent of acting upon them underscores the severity of the mental health crisis among political prisoners.

Few prisoners were allowed to speak with mental health professionals during their imprisonment, and many still do not feel comfortable asking for assistance because of the pervasive social stigma against mental illness in Burmese culture. Accessing mental health services upon release remains uncommon.

Human rights abuses often occur in prisons when they are closed to public investigation and when inmates have no recourse when they are abused. This is especially the case for political prisoners. Over the last 20 years, PHR has conducted investigations in abuses and medical conditions in prisons in Cambodia and in Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, Haiti, and New York State, and has documented abuses and conditions similar to the ones reported by ex-political prisoners in Burma.

Our investigations promoted improved living conditions and the availability of health care in some of the prisons we visited. Documentation is the first step in improving condition in prisons in Burma. We urge the Burmese government to recognize the problems highlighted here and to take immediate action to remedy them.

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