In one drawing, dozens of men sit crammed into a single room, bent over with their knees together, every inch of space taken up. In another, they are lying back to back on the ground, their faces strained with discomfort.
Fourteen sketches smuggled out of Myanmar’s Insein prison and interviews with eight former prisoners offer a rare glimpse inside the country’s most notorious prison, where thousands of political prisoners have been sent since the coup Last year’s military state and where communication with the outside world is severely limited.
The rough blue ink sketches show the daily life of groups of male prisoners in their dormitories, queuing to get water from a trough to wash themselves, talking or lying on the ground in the tropical heat.
Beyond those depictions, the eight recently released detainees told Reuters that the colonial-era facility in Yangon is infested with rats, a place where bribes are common, prisoners pay to sleep on soil and generalized diseases are not treated.
“We are no longer humans behind bars,” said Nyi Nyi Htwe, 24, who smuggled the sketches out of prison when he was released in October, after spending several months on a defamation conviction, for charges he denies, in connection with joining protests against the coup.
Reuters could not independently verify the accounts provided by the former detainees.
Myanmar’s junta, which took power in the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and the prison administration did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the conditions shown in the sketches and described by the former inmates.
Rights groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Reuters they had been denied access to the prison.
Built by the British in 1871, Insein is Myanmar’s largest prison, housing many people arrested for opposing the junta.
Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, convicted of breaking Myanmar’s official secrets law in 2017, have spent most of their 511 days behind bars at Insein. They were released in an amnesty in 2019, before the latest coup.
THE PRISON POPULATION INCREASES
The artist drew the prison sketches between April and July last year. Later released, he declined to be questioned or identified, telling Nyi Nyi Htwe that he feared being arrested again.
Nyi Nyi Htwe, who met the artist in prison, said he drew prisoners on demand and sketched prison scenes wherever he went, saying he felt more relaxed while drawing. He gave the sketches to Nyi Nyi Htwe as a birthday present.
Nyi Nyi Htwe said he smuggled them out upon his release to show his friends, family and others the conditions inside.
Since the coup, 10,072 people have been detained in the Southeast Asian country, including Suu Kyi and most of her cabinet, and more than 1,730 people have been killed, according to the nonprofit. non-profit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, whose counts are widely quoted. The junta said the AAPP figures were exaggerated.
Many of these detainees were sent to Insein.
Built to incarcerate around 5,000 people, the prison has seen the number of inmates rise to more than 10,000 since the coup, an AAPP spokesperson said. Reuters could not confirm the figures.
The sketches reflect the increase in the months following the coup, Nyi Nyi Htwe said.
In one late April, a few prisoners are sitting apart in their dormitory, some reading books. A photo from June shows around 60 people in the same room – many lying in tight rows in the center, the others crouching against the walls.
Nyi Nyi Htwe said he and up to 100 other people were crammed far beyond their capacity into a room where they “slept within a fingertip of each other”, and that he saw officers prisons beating inmates with batons and having to pay bribes to send messages to family that he was often told did not arrive.
“LUCKY NOT TO DIE”
Overcrowding has been accompanied by water shortages, disease, fatigue, prisoner fights and flourishing bribes, people released in recent months have said.
“Rats were running around the room. The toilets were dirty. The food was mixed with flies. Those who couldn’t pay a bribe had to sleep next to the toilet bucket,” said Sandar Win, an assistant 42-year-old social worker. imprisoned in Insein for several months for defamation after protesting against the junta.
She was released under an amnesty pending sentencing on the charges, which she denies. She has since fled Myanmar.
Access to outdoor latrines was limited, forcing prisoners to defecate in buckets in their rooms, three former inmates said. These unsanitary conditions allowed skin and bowel diseases to spread, and there was little medical help, they said.
A handwritten note from a group of anonymous Insein detainees, smuggled to a prominent human rights activist in February, documents several instances of medical negligence, including failure to treat people beaten unconscious and a person who had suffered a stroke and was paralyzed.
“These cases are happening right in front of us,” said the note, which was shown to Reuters by activist Nan Lin. “We are asking for urgent help from international organizations and local organizations.”
Reuters could not independently verify the authenticity of the note, but several former detainees said they witnessed or were beaten by guards and there was little medical support.
Despite a Covid-19 vaccination campaign at Insein last summer that was publicized in state media, former inmates said the coronavirus was thriving in the overcrowded prison. At least 10 prisoners are believed to have died of the disease, according to the AAPP. Read more
Nyi Nyi Htwe, who joined an armed rebel group, said nearly two-thirds of her dormitory was sick with Covid symptoms last summer.
“They put all the sick people in our room – high fever, coughing and sick,” he said. “I was lucky not to die.”