In Myanmar’s Insein Prison, inmates shared bath water and were denied medical care

Activists have endured dismal conditions while detained in Myanmar’s notorious Insein Prison since the military seized power in a coup, according to a former detainee, who said that she survived COVID-19 and other illnesses in the facility and remains haunted by her experience despite being released last month.

A 30-year-old woman, who referred to herself by the pseudonym Grace in an interview with RFA’s Myanmar Service, was arrested on March 3 while protesting the junta’s takeover during a rally in Yangon’s Kyaukmyaung Ward. She was sentenced to more than eight months in Insein Prison for making statements questioning the legitimacy of the government but released on Oct. 19 as part of a general amnesty.

Grace, who withheld her real identity for fear of reprisal, said that she and the other nearly 300 inmates who were held in the No. 2 Women’s Dormitory were denied clean water and that she continues to suffer from severe skin rashes and lesions as a result.

“The water pumps often broke down and the authorities would ask for donations [to get them fixed],” she said.

“The water in the bathing tanks was often dirty with sediment because about 200 inmates had to share them. We were allowed to have a bath once a day, either in the morning or in the evening, but there would be too many people in the mornings and the water would be filthy in the evenings. That’s how I got my skin problems.”

While Grace has been freed, she told RFA that she remains traumatized by her time in Insein. She regularly experiences anxiety attacks and nightmares, and says she often thinks of the country’s political prisoners who remain behind bars.

Grace said prison authorities did not provide inmates with proper medical care, and many of them suffered from skin afflictions similar to hers. In July, she and several other inmates became infected with COVID-19 and a 60-year-old woman died. The conditions were so deplorable that the inmates tried to care for themselves, believing that to be a better alternative that seeking help from prison staff.

“Whenever we had shortness of breath, we used plastic bags as an emergency oxygen supply,” she said. “Otherwise, if we reported we had fever or sickness, we would be sent to the prison hospital and that was something we didn’t want, because you’d be all alone and unattended there.”

After the woman died, the inmates demanded to see the prison warden to complain about official negligence, “but the dorm-in-charge said the warden wouldn’t see us simply because we made demands.”

“We were infuriated and said we would make him come to see us. That day, we refused to observe the prison rules, we didn’t go out for the roll call, didn’t gather for the prayer session, etc.”

Detainees stage protest

On July 23, the inmates collectively began singing “I want to go home,” a song written by detained musician Po Po. After that, they sang political songs, and staged a protest, demanding an explanation from officials about why the COVID-19 victim had not been properly cared for, as well as access to proper medical treatment. The inmates’ chants of protest could be heard well outside the walls of the compound, Grace said.

“The inmates got carried away and started singing political songs and chanting slogans. At that time, the assistant warden and other officers came in a rush,” she said.

“We saw that the prison staff had batons tucked under their jackets. … We tried to calm the young people … and told them not to make a fuss or make their mistake ours and they all sat down quietly on the floor. And so, there was no violence.”

“A week later, prison officials told us that our demands had been forwarded to higher authorities.”

Prison officials told the media at the time of the protest that full medical care had been given to those with COVID-19 infections.

The protest came three days after the junta’s July 20 order to release all prisoners held under a group of 11 charges that include gambling, possession of illicit liquor, drugs and prostitution. The release, which the military said had been granted to protect against the spread of COVID-19, drew criticism for omitting detainees who had spoken out against the junta’s Feb. 1 coup d’état.

Nine months after the coup, security forces have killed 1,270 civilians and arrested at least 7,344, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Many of the deaths and arrests have occurred during crackdowns on anti-junta protests.

Detainees who’ve endured torture and other forms of abuse at the hands of Myanmar’s junta security forces say they suffer from severe depression and mental illness long after their release and live in constant fear of rearrest.

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