‘Vermin’ in the prison

SEPTEMBER 17 ― Some Malaysians have a tendency to be extremely harsh. They’d go for the jugular, so to speak, of individuals they deem deviant or social misfits.

One only has to remember how, for example, a local Malay actress, who consciously decided to remove her hijab because she wanted to be true to herself and, most importantly, God, was mentally hounded recently by her detractors in the most extreme manner imaginable.

Their behaviour gives us an inkling into the kind of society we have increasingly become, i.e. one in which certain groups and individuals are quick to “punish” individuals they perceive to have crossed the line.

It is as if they ― having been driven by their unbridled self-righteousness ― have forgotten that even God is compassionate.

Given such a social environment, it is therefore not so surprising that former Court of Appeal judge Mohd Noor Abdullah had the gall to suggest that our local prisons be infested with mosquitoes, cockroaches and rats so as to make them an effective deterrent to convicts.

And, lo and behold, his suggestion, which was also supposedly aimed at compelling the prisoners to repent, gained support from Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed.

It is distressing that so much emphasis is given here to the act of punishing prisoners to the extent that it violates their human rights and devalues human decency. At the same time, such a punitive approach also renders the principle of rehabilitation, which should be part and parcel of imprisonment, almost untenable.

To be clear, this is not the same as saying that we should be lenient towards the convicted individuals, particularly the so-called hard-core criminals. As it is, the fact that a portion of a convict’s precious freedom is taken away by the prison sentence is in itself a form of punishment.

Deliberately making a prison cell an inhumane abode by, for instance, throwing in vermin into it would degrade prisoners in the eyes of prison officers as well as members of the general public because this involves the issue of human dignity. The life of a prisoner in this case is worthless as he or she is condemned to the world of lowlife vermin.

Such a circumstance would make the effort of reintegrating ex-convicts into the larger society an uphill undertaking as the task of reinstating the prisoner’s self-esteem may be problematic. Subsequently, social alienation may set in after their release from prison as he or she encounters various challenges from the outside world with eroding self-worth.

And when this happens, it’s likely that the rate of recidivism would escalate because the ex-convicts may somehow be induced to go astray, return to their past and be in the company of “friends” who are more accepting ― which defeats the very purpose of rehabilitation in the first place.

One would think that rehabilitation is vital especially for those first-time and light offenders who need to be given a second chance in life and be encouraged to turn over a new leaf ― i.e. after accepting responsibility for the offences that they have committed.

In the prison, the prisoners should have access to educational facilities and vocational training, apart from providing medical care, so as to prepare them for a re-entry into larger society ― and subsequently become useful and respectable members of society.

If the punitive inclination of the Deputy Home Minister (as seen from his “positive” reaction to the ex-judge’s suggestion) is indicative of the country’s prison system as a whole, then the prison authorities could do with taking a leaf from, say, the Norwegian book on prisoner rehabilitation and prison management that puts heavy emphasis on rehabilitation of prisoners.

The stress on rehabilitation reportedly has resulted in a marked reduction of prison inmates in Norway.

This is of course not to suggest that the local prison authorities also emulate their Norwegian counterpart by constructing, for instance, luxurious cells for prisoners and recording studios for the musically inclined to the extent of putting a heavy strain on tax payers. In short, not a VVIP treatment for the prisoners, as the former judge cautioned.

But at the very least, the prisoners are expected to be treated decently as human beings who have hopes, desires and aspirations. The prison authorities ought to harness ― if they haven’t ― these human elements so as to bring out the best in the prisoners at the end of the day.

Having said that, though, what is equally disturbing is that among the groups and individuals in society who are swift with their “punishment”, there are those who are not willing to apply promptly the same principle of punishment on miscreants in society’s high places who indulge in misdeeds that could cause untold damage to society, such as big-time corruption.

It is unfortunate that these people seem to have been imprisoned in their own warped sense of selective justice and double standards.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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