Putrajaya urged to free minor offenders early to mitigate Covid-19 risks in crowded prisons

DAP senator Liew Chin Tong (pic) and lawyer Sangeet Kaur Deo said since it was known that 70 per cent of inmates now were convicted on drug-related offences and mostly minor offenders, the authorities should consider early release for those who are eligible.  — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim
DAP senator Liew Chin Tong (pic) and lawyer Sangeet Kaur Deo said since it was known that 70 per cent of inmates now were convicted on drug-related offences and mostly minor offenders, the authorities should consider early release for those who are eligible. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

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KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 18 — DAP senator Liew Chin Tong and lawyer Sangeet Kaur Deo today warned that overcrowded prisons in the country are a breeding ground for Covid-19. 

Speaking at a webinar this morning titled “Covid-19 Seeking Solutions for Prisons & Refugees” the two panelists said since it was known that 70 per cent of inmates now were convicted on drug-related offences and mostly minor offenders, the authorities should consider early release for those who are eligible. 

“Malaysian prisons are overcrowded very much due to the way we handle drug offences. Up to two-thirds of inmates are linked to drugs one way or the other.

“Malaysia’s prisons are designed to house 52,000 inmates. Currently, there are close to 72,000 inmates. The over-capacity means that prisoners are housed in inadequate, often inhumane conditions.

“This makes social distancing impossible, prisons have become hotbeds of Covid-19 and increased the risk of spreading the disease to the local community,” Liew said. 

He said there are 11,018 minor offenders who were sentenced to less than one year of imprisonment and have less than three months left to serve and will be eligible for the Release-on-license according to the Prison Act 1995. 

“Why can’t the government look into this and take immediate action so that we can reduce the risk. Prison inmates have as much right as anyone else to remain safe from diseases. This is all the more so when the disease is as infectious and dangerous as Covid-19. With zero mobility, prisoners become sitting ducks,” he said. 

Liew added that based on what happened in Sabah during the Covid-19 third wave, it is proven that outbreaks in prisons will spread to the community.

“Prison guards, families, contractors, and workers serving the prisons are also exposed to the risk and eventually the community at large,” he said. 

Sangeet who is a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group Malaysia for the Reform of All Places of Detention (APPGM) said the current overcrowding situation in prisons in the country is not only a breeding ground for Covid-19 but any kind of virus and disease. 

“If we do not look into this crisis then all the billions spent on Covid-19 containment by the government since last year is absolutely pointless as it will cripple our overstrained health system,” she said. 

Sangeet said to address this, the authorities must look into policy reform that must translate into legislation.

“Sending a minor drug offender straight prison will not solve the problem, incarceration does not address the issue of drug abuse in the country. The Prison Act 1995 provides for options such as early release and parole for minor offenders,” she said. 

Both Liew and Sangeet also highlighted that there are a high number of remand prisoners currently, which also contribute to overcrowding in prisons. 

“Based on reports, 20,000 out of 60,000 prisoners currently are those under remand because they are unable to post bail from financial difficulties brought upon by the pandemic. 

“They really do not need to be there if there are other measures in place,” she said. 

Both speakers agreed that it is the right time to use a health-based approach on the war against drugs. 

“As long as drug use is a criminal offense drug users are not going to come out and ask for help. Many had proposed for the drug and substance abuse act to be tabled soon which will focus on rehabilitation, I urge the authorities to consider this as an immediate priority,” she said. 

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