Cops Hunting for Fugitive From Prison Riot Over Coronavirus

Smoke rises above Buriram Prison as prisoners stage a riot on March 29, 2020.
Smoke rises above Buriram Prison as prisoners stage a riot on March 29, 2020.

BURIRAM — A prisoner is still on the loose Monday after he fled a northeastern prison during a riot reportedly sparked by fears of coronavirus outbreak.

Justice minister Somsak Thepsuthin said authorities are on the hunt for inmate Thanyapong Sinpoon, 26, who escaped from Buriram Prison during the “unprecedented” chaos on Sunday. Thousands of inmates were moved to nearby correctional facilities after prisoners broke furniture and torched buildings, forcing it to be shut down.

A mugshot of Thanyapong Sinpoon.
A mugshot of Thanyapong Sinpoon.

“I have to admit that this incident is unprecedented,” Somsak said. “The prison sustained almost 100 percent damage. We are assessing the total cost of damage and we have established an inquiry committee to find out who’s behind the agitation.”

Ten of the 11 inmates who were able to break out were recaptured soon after, Somsak said.

Officials tell the media the riot appeared to follow a rumor in the prison that inmates are vulnerable to coronavirus infection. But the justice minister said only one prison inmate has been infected with the virus so far.

“Please be rest assured. The incident at Buriram Prison was only a rumor to stir up chaos in a bid to break out,” Somsak said. “Every prison has COVID-19 measures in place. No one can get in or out of prisons and we also have isolation cells to quarantine new inmates.”

Local police, soldiers, and rescue workers were deployed to help contain the situation, while roadblocks were set up in the vicinity to prevent inmates from fleeing. The prison housed more than 2,100 inmates, both men and women. Corrections officials say about 100 prisoners took part in the rioting on Sunday morning.

Although gunshots were heard from inside the facility, six prisoners were wounded during the uproar by stepping on shattered glass, corrections department chief Naras Savestanan said Sunday.

Police spokesman Kissana Phattanacharoen said it is not clear whether the riot was ignited by fears of an outbreak or an attempt by prisoners to break out their cells. He added that authorities are still looking for the mastermind behind the chaos.

Similar panic over the COVID-19 also sparked prison riots across Iran – the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East – on Monday. At least 70 inmates had escaped from a prison in Iran’s Western Kurdistan province, Iranian state-run media reported.

Last week, a similar riot broke out at a prison in the Colombian capital of Bogota, resulting at least 23 deaths, according to multiple reports by international news outlets.

Soldiers in riot gear stand guard in front of the prison.
Soldiers in riot gear stand guard in front of the prison.
Damage caused by the arson at one of the buildings inside the prison.
Damage caused by the arson at one of the buildings inside the prison.