KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 12 — The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) has estimated that prisons and detention centres nationwide have exceeded their intended capacity by at least 40 per cent, greatly increasing the risk of spreading Covid-19.
Commissioner Jerald Joseph said the total capacity for prisons is 53,830, while the actual number of inmates as of October 15 stands at 72,903.
“Similarly in Immigration depots, the capacity is supposed to be 12,530 but as of July 1, the number of detainees stands at 15,163,” he said during a virtual press conference on Suhakam’s findings on the conditions in prisons and detention centres in Malaysia.
He added the overcrowding, which can make physical distancing difficult, needs to be addressed as quickly as possible to prevent another outbreak of Covid-19 in prisons and detention centres.
“Now is the time to find serious answers to overcrowding in the Malaysian penal system. To this, Suhakam has several suggestions for the authorities including the Prison Department to consider.
“For example, remand prisoners with light or non-violent offences, or drug addicts who pose no threat to the public, and those with chronic illnesses, should either be granted early or at least conditional release.
“This also applies to inmates currently being detained for minor offences or socio-economic problems, senior citizens with existing illnesses, as well as those suffering from mental illnesses,” Joseph said.
Suhakam also proposed the authorities adopt an approach utilising non-custodial measures, such as when it concerns inmates who are kept detained because they are unable to pay the bail bond.
“These inmates account for 30 per cent of the total prison population, and commonly include the aforementioned categories of light or socio-economic offences, or those suffering from chronic illnesses.
“Suhakam recommends the government use alternative methods including non-cash bail or bonds, support from guarantors, or the suspect reporting to the nearest police station on a daily basis, and other suitable mechanisms, so as to reduce the number of inmates during a time when Covid-19 is spreading,” he said.
Joseph added that priority should be given to categories including underaged prisoners, non-violent offenders and drug addicts.
“In the case of drug addicts, existing laws should be amended to enable them to be treated as patients in health institutes or rehabilitation centres, rather than being sentenced and held in prisons.
“Similarly to curb Covid-19 during prisoner transfers or other related journeys, we advise tight screening be conducted in all court lockups under a focal agency, the relevant body temperature measurement and self-hygiene, among others,” he said.
Joseph stressed that the authorities should look at addressing the addiction of drug addicts, rather than merely treating them as criminals.
“Community-based rehabilitation is the soundest way, and now is the best time for serious reflections on how to manage this efficiently,” he said.