Prison Conditions

Here, taken from our 2016 thematic report, ‘“Prison Conditions in Burma and the Potential for Prison Reform ”, is an overview of prison conditions in Burma. For more detailed information please read the report.


Despite existing legislation meant to protect against prison overcrowding, a number of sources indicate that the problem persists in the prison system in Burma. The latest figures (2002) from the International Centre for P Prison Conditions in Burma and the Potential for Prison Reform September, 2016 September, 2016 Prison Conditions in Burma and the Potential for Prison Reform labor camps, is 26,100, with the occupation level at 144.3%. More recent reports indicate that this trend continues. During his 2012 country visit, for example, Special Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana observed that, “the number of prisoners held in Insein prison far exceeded its maximum holding capacity and that the issue of prison congestion was ‘an important source of grievances that should be addressed in a timely fashion.” The State Department made similar findings in their 2015 report, noting that in some prisons, pre-trial detainees were held together with convicted prisoners and political prisoners were occasionally held together with common criminals; overcrowding is a significant contributing factor to this. Furthermore, site visits by the MNHRC investigation team in 2016 have revealed overcrowding in Hktami Prison, Sagaing Region, which was reported to hold 688 prisoners despite its 300 people capacity; and Loi-Kaw Prison, Kayah State found to be holding 518 prisoners despite a capacity to hold 409 prisoners.

Health Conditions

Despite the strict provisions laid out in Burmese law, the lack of proper health provisions in prisons in Burma is well documented. Prisoners are plagued by a large number of different illnesses, including heart disease, malaria, high blood pressure, and tuberculosis; with dysentery and scabies considered a fairly normal condition in prison. HIV/AIDS rates also remain high due to the use of syringes and sexual abuse in the prison system.1Not only are diseases such as these more prevalent in prisons, but basic health conditions such as diabetes and asthma are exacerbated due to the substandard living conditions that prisoners are faced with.  Yet health issues reach beyond simply disease and infection. In their submission to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2011, AAPP confirmed “that malnutrition, poor sanitation and unclean water are a serious problem throughout the prison system, posing a major health risk.”Extensive research conducted with ex-political prisoners in 2016 confirmed poor levels of sanitation, little or no provisions of food and water, and a severe shortage of quality health care.Eighty-eight percent of expolitical prisoners surveyed said they felt they did not receive all of the provisions described in the Jail Manual, revealing that in practice the Jail Manual is rarely adhered to.Sewage containers overflow with excrement while cell blocks leak, allowing for stagnant bodies of water to become breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Many of the above medical conditions, therefore, stem from the poor dietary and sanitation conditions in the prison system, while other conditions are compounded by them. One example is drawn from Sittwe Prison, where it was reported that the water wells and sewage holes are so close to one another that, during the rainy season, sewage flows into the drinking water causing cholera outbreaks and prisoner deaths.More importantly, malnutrition and lack of access to clean drinking water are serious health concerns in their own right, with some prisoners living on the brink of starvation. 

Contributing to the abysmal health conditions in prisons is the inability, or sometimes refusal, of prison authorities to administer proper medical care in a timely fashion. As of 2011, AAPP found that there was one doctor for every 7,314 prisoners and that at least 12 prisons were without a designated doctor.In addition to not being able to provide adequate care, AAPP has also documented a pattern of abuse whereby political prisoners have been infected with incurable viruses such as HIV and leprosy or are denied lifesaving medical treatment resulting in death.This is corroborated by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), who found that convict porters, “were denied basic and/or lifesaving medical treatment” and died from curable injuries and diseases. Individual cases of such occurrences are rampant: In May 2010, political prisoner Kyaw Soe died due to prolonged ill-treatment in custody and lack of access to medical care; Kay Thi Aung miscarried in Mandalay Prison due to the fact that she did not receive proper medical care during her pregnancy, and she suffered from malnutrition and heart problems following her miscarriage; and Phyo Wai Aung died five months after his release in a case that former Special Rapporteur Thomas Quintana said, “highlighted the inadequate health care that prisoners are provided with in Myanmar’s prisons.”AAPP’s 2016 survey of ex-political prisoners revealed 27 deaths in prison, largely from preventable and treatable diseases. The U.S. State Department report for 2015 records the death of 120 persons in 46 prisons and labor camps between 2011 and 2014, as a result of “weather, diet, lifestyle, and accidents.”These cases merely highlight the systematic denial of medical treatment and the inadequacy of the prison health system to care for its inmates. The health of many prisoners has also been compromised due to their transfer to prisons far  from their homes. Some have been transferred over 1000 kilometers away from their homes, where they previously relied upon family and friends to provide them with their necessary medication. This once again illustrates the interconnectedness of many of the problems that prisoners face, as unlawful prison transfers negatively affect prisoner health.

Torture and Mistreatment

Human rights observers have long documented the use of torture in detention facilities not only as a means of extracting information and false confessions, but also to punish, degrade and humiliate detainees. The use of torture in detention centers in Burma continues to be documented. As recently as November 2015, AAPP has received evidence of the torture of two pre-trial detainees in MyinGyan Prison.Both Amnesty International and the US State Department in their most recent reports have expressed concern about torture in prisons in Arakan State, where prison conditions are among the worst.Furthermore in 2014, the report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar cites ongoing concern, “about the ongoing practice of torture in places of detention in Myanmar and the absence of accountability” which have been reiterated in 2016 .  Reports have come from multiple prison facilities, with multiple allegations of prisoners dying in prison due to their torture. According to a report by ND-Burma,  political prisoners have died since 1988 due to “grievous torture and severe ill-treatment perpetrated by prison authorities.”  Ex-political prisoners interviewed in 2015 and 2016 reported at length the effect torture in prison has subsequently had on their lives after release, leaving many psychologically and/or physically damaged. Of those interviewed in the report by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) and Former Political Prisoner Society (FPPS) 72 percent of former political prisoners surveyed reported having been subject to physical torture and 75 percent to psychological torture demonstrating the systematic and widespread nature of torture in Burma, particularly against political prisoners. The report detailed various methods of torture including beatings with rods and chains, hooding, forced stress positions, electric shocks, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement.

The use of torture by the government and military in Burma, in addition to contravening multiple pieces of international law is institutionalized. As AAPP stated in their submission to the UPR in 2011, “evidence suggests [torture] has become a cultural norm, amongst the military, police, and security officials, for extracting false confessions, creating a climate of fear and as a punishment.” For example, torture methods that were originally documented by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar in 1993 have been found to have been used consistently between the years 1988 and 2010. Such torture methods include: beating with rods and chains, the ‘iron road’, the ‘motorcycle position’, mock execution, mock suffocation and drowning, water torture, sleep deprivation, water deprivation, forcing detainees to watch others being tortured, and solitary confinement.Other evidence corroborates the charge of systematic torture, including the routine use of secret detention centers, incommunicado detention, and vague emergency laws that allow for the military and government to operate with impunity. In particular, the substantial network of secret detention centers indicates the development of a planned system of repression from one administration to another. In one former prisoner’s own words: “To be taken to a secret detention center means to disappear. It is as if one has arrived in another world where blackness replaces vision, silence replaces sounds of life, and shackles and thumb cuffs restrict movement and touch.” Such circumstances are far too common in Burma; ending torture, and especially the systematic use of torture in detention facilities, is therefore of utmost importance to any prison reform project being undertaken.

Solitary Confinement

In Burma, “Solitary confinement is routine, and the practice is not motivated by legitimate penological concerns but a political will to demoralize and marginalize political prisoners.” It is one of the most common forms of punishment, especially with regard to political prisoners.A research report by AAPP identified a number of punishment methods used against political prisoners during their incarceration. Of those interviewed for the report, 32 percent were kept in solitary confinement during their prison sentence.Prolonged solitary confinement is often used as a form of punishment within Burma’s prisons. More specifically, the use of ‘dog cells’ has been well documented.The dog cells are remnants of the colonial era and were originally meant for canines used by the police. Now they are used as a form of punishment in Burmese prisons: “Once in the dog cell, [prisoners] are forced to crawl on all fours, beg for food, and are not allowed to talk. The cells are 8 feet by 8 feet with no mats, no windows, and one pot for use as a toilet. The cells are also effectively soundproof.192The use of these cells goes far beyond the parameters set out in both international and domestic law, and constitutes a form of inhuman treatment which amounts to torture due to the psychological effect that it has on individuals. Their continued use is indefensible.

Deaths in Custody

Deaths in custody have been reported consistently in Burma for over twenty years. AAPP has documented 242 political prisoners who have died while incarcerated from 1988 to 2016 and this number does not reflect the death of criminal prisoners or political prisoners unaccounted for by AAPP. In 2008, during Cyclone Nargis and riots at Insein Prison, 36 inmates were killed by riot police with no one being held accountable; in the aftermath, four additional inmates died during interrogation. More recently, in 2013, allegations were made that prisoners in Buthidaung Prison were tortured to death.That year also saw the custodial death of Than Htun and Myo Myint Swe. On October 4, 2014, Aung Kyaw Naing (aka Ko Par Gyi) was killed while in the custody of the military; he was shot five times.205 In the follow up investigation, headed by the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC), the commission largely sided with the government in what has been criticized by many as a cover up.Deaths in detention continue to be documented throughout Burma, particularly in conflict areas. The Shan Human Rights Foundation reported the extrajudicial killing of at least three civilians on May 19, 2016 after they were arrested by the Burma ArmyThis continued disregard for the basic sanctity of human life is indicative of the long and arduous process that prison reforms in Burma face.

Pre Trial Detention

Pre-trial detainees constitute a disproportionate percentage of overall detainees in Burma, with the latest figures (2009) estimating that one in ten prisoners falls under the category of pre-trial detainee. As a percentage of the prison population, this number has been steadily declining since 2001 (15.7%); however, overall numbers have increased from 4,966 in 2001 to 6,495 in 2009. As a report from 2013 states, “Arbitrary and lengthy pre-trial detentions resulted from lengthy legal procedures, large numbers of detainees, judicial inefficiency, widespread corruption, and staff shortages.” This list mirrors closely the causes of pre-trial detention outlined in the introduction to this section.

The UN Special Rapporteur noted in 2016 “procedural failings for individuals in detention, such as the length of pre-trial detention and the denial of bail, including for those with chronic or serious health conditions, remain issues of concern.”  Pre-trial detention is often arbitrarily extended in Burma, particularly in the cases of political prisoners. In 2015, frequent arbitrary extensions of pre-trial detention by authorities were reported.In March 2015, 127 individuals were arrested for a protest held against the National Education Law in Letpadan, 53 of which remained in detention facing trial over a year after their arrest.  Another area of particular concern is the use of pre-trial detention to stifle political opposition and activists within Burma. Although bail is often granted for those criminal prisoners who can afford it, it is often denied to political prisoners. AAPP has conducted extensive research on this particular issue, with a number of concerning findings. Research conducted by AAPP has found “Many of the political prisoners have never even been convicted of a crime, and are held in pre-trial detention for prolonged periods of time, sometimes waiting years before attending a trial.”

Prison Labour

Prisoners in Burma are forced to labor in prison. Hard labor along with imprisonment is a sentence that continues to be handed down in Burma. The nature of the labor inside prisons depends on the location of the prison, it can consist of carrying barrels of water, or bags of rice, carpentry, gardening and disposing of other prisoners’ waste. Prison labor can pose additional health and safety risks to inmates already facing dire conditions in prison. In prison labor camps prisoners often face even worse conditions. Government figures place the number of camps at 46, with over 10,000 inmates serving the hard labor components of their sentences there. Food, clothing, and medical supplies are scarce in the camps, making labor camp conditions “harsh and life threatening.”Prisoners are forced to work on dangerous jobs, contributing to the building of large scale development and infrastructure projects for the government.

A first person account provides an accurate portrayal of life at the prison camps: We had to start hard labor by carrying heavy logs for firewood while fettered. In hilly Chin State, as you know, there are many ravines and steep hills. We had to carry these heavy logs from the bottom of the ravines to the hilltops, including Sundays, without holidays. When carrying logs, the man in back must keep pace with the front man, otherwise the security guards would beat him up. When someone fell to the ground from exhaustion after a long workday, a security guard would come and kick him in the chest. We had such ill-treatment and persecution in this labor camp… We had our meals rationed, the notorious so-called ‘Briyani’ (Danbauk) meal. It was a mixture of small stones, un-husked paddy and even some mice faeces. The work was so hard but we were poorly fed. Within two to three weeks, the prisoners became pale and lost weight due to malnutrition. Some fell ill and others got bruises and abscesses due to our fetters. Some got boils. I myself got a boil three or four times. A monk from Myitkyina died of the harsh prison environment on the last full moon day of Waso. According to Burma’s Minister for Home Affairs, “over one thousand inmates died in Burma’s prison labor camps between May 2004 and August 2014.”Such deplorable conditions are unacceptable.

The situation of forced porters is of equal concern. A report published by KHRG entitled From Prison to the Front Line provides a thorough analysis of the issues surrounding the use of prisoners as military porters in Burma.The report documents the use of prisoners as forced porters since 1993, with at least 700 verified cases between January and July of 2011 alone.During their research, “57 of 59 porters interviews reported serious violations of international humanitarian law, including: failure to protect porters from dangers arising from military operation; execution of porters; refusal or failure to care for wounded or sick porters; and other forms of cruel or inhuman treatment, such as corporal punishment.”Their research draws from 24 different prisons and prison labor camps, with the porters they documented coming from 13 out of 14 government delineated states and divisions. Their treatment violates a number of the rules listed above, as they were often forced to walk for up to 14.5 hours in a day with extremely heavy packs, little food, and inadequate drinking water.The way in which porters were deployed is also cause for serious concern: they were deliberately alternated with soldiers, were used as human shields by government soldiers, and were forced to walk through mine fields in order to clear mines for the government forces. Eliminating forced porter service, and correcting labor camps, as well as harsh and forced labor in prison should be of primary concern to prison reformers in Burma.

Visitation Rights

Current research highlights a number of trends with regards to prison visitations in Burma. Although prisoners are legally entitled to two visitations per month, they are often limited to one visit with family members on their ‘immediate household list’. In addition, prisoners, especially political prisoners, are often transferred to remote prisons without any notification being given to their families, making family visits prohibitively expensive.Prison authorities have also been known to forbid prison visits for ‘security reasons’, and have used the withholding of visitations as a form of punishment.In the case of one political prisoner, Noble Aye, “authorities responded to her protest by essentially holding her incommunicado in a punishment cell with an absolute and indefinite ban on family visits.”In another case, Ye Min Oo was held incommunicado for over one year prior to finally being sentenced. Such abuses are unacceptable according to both international norms and domestic laws.