Covid-19 outbreak in prisons: High time to speed up prison reform — Liew Chin Tong

OCTOBER 9 — Covid-19 is a great equaliser, affecting presidents and prisoners alike. The marginalised in society are often worst hit by the pandemic, as underscored by the outbreak in the migrant workers’ colonies in Singapore and lately, Malaysia’s overcrowded prisons.

Despite the public’s strong desire for law and order that fuels sentiment such as “let the prisoners rot”, the reality in today’s interconnected world is that issues faced by the prison community will have an impact on the wider society.

Covid-19 outbreaks in prisons will spread to the community, and vice versa. Further, prison guards, families, contractors and workers serving the prisons are also exposed to the risk.

Globally, many nations which grappled with the issue released minor offenders around April and May. I had publicly explained the challenges that prisons would face under Covid-19 as early as mid-April, which unfortunately fell on deaf ears.

Overcrowded Prisons a Hotbed for Covid-19 Spread

Malaysia’s prison system is designed to house 52,000 inmates. As of 17th August, there are currently 68,730 inmates in prison (Dewan Negara written reply in September 2020). The over capacity means that prisoners are housed in inadequate, often inhumane conditions.

As poor conditions in prisons make social distancing impossible, prisons have become hotbeds of Covid-19 and increased the risk of spreading the disease to the local community. Four out of six prisons which have Covid-19 cases, are operating at over capacity.

On 6th October, the Director-General of Prison’s Department Dato’ Sri Hj. Zulkifli bin Omar outlined specific measures to deal with the alarming rise in prison-related Covid-19 cases, including:

– 11,018 minor offenders who were sentenced to less than one year of imprisonment and have less than three months left to serve, will be eligible for the Release-on-license (according to the Prison Act 1995, these prisoners may be recalled at any time should they forfeit any conditions).

– 2,800 minor drug offenders to be transferred to temporary prison facilities at National Service Training Programme (PLKN) centres.

This is a step in the right direction. However, the Prison Department’s new Standard Operating Procedure alone will not be able to flatten the prison Covid-19 curve. The situation has come to a point that certain prisons had to rely on charitable acts by the public, for example from local celebrity preacher Ebit Lew, to assist the prison community. I think beyond that, it will take a whole-of-government approach to address this matter.

I would like to call on Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Security Cluster Senior Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri and Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainuddin to coordinate a national strategy to deal with the problem of prison overcrowding not only to tackle Covid-19 but also for the long term.

The following five-point agenda is a good place to start: –

First, alternative punishment methods

Apart from release-on-license, alternative punishment can be considered for petty offenders with less than a years’ sentence. Community service, house arrest and other rehabilitative forms of sentencing not only reduce overcrowded prisons and save taxpayers money, it also reduces the risk of the offender reoffending. In the words of some prison officers, prisons sometimes become a “university” for inmates with minor crimes to “graduate” with a wider criminal network and better skills.

It is time for the courts, the police and the government as a whole to consider whether alternative punishments can be adopted in the criminal justice system, beyond exceptions made for the Covid-19 outbreak. In fact, some of the petty offenders are serving jail time as they could not afford to pay the fines instead.

According to the Prison Department, there are currently 11,018 persons who have been sentenced to less than a year’s jail and have less than three months left to serve.

Second, reforming Malaysia’s strict drug laws

On 23rd December 2019, I texted the then Home Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin on the issue of reviewing laws related to drug policy.

According to Muhyiddin, a special committee had been set up including representatives from the Health Ministry, Youth and Sports Ministry, AADK (anti-drugs agency) to discuss various aspects of legislation on drug-related offences.

Interestingly, Muhyiddin told me that the committee had agreed in principle to move in the direction of decriminalisation. However, there were many technical details to be ironed out.

He reinforced the need to speed up the whole process, “as nearly 70 per cent of those that are in prison now are drug related.”

I know that the Prime Minister is convinced that dealing with drug addicts and usage from a medical and rehabilitation perspective would be more effective than treating it as a crime.

In view of the Covid-19 outbreak in the prisons, I hope he would push for speedier change on the efforts which began during his time as Home Minister.

Third, remand system

Of the 68, 730 inmates in our prison system, 39,846 are convicted persons while 24,578 are remanded persons. The number of remanded inmates is unnecessarily large.

The remanded persons would come in and out of the prisons to attend courts and other legal engagements. The judiciary would need to do more to reduce physical movements of remanded persons to help curb the spread of Covid-19.

At the same time, a more serious question needs to be asked: for those who committed bailable offences but have no money to post bail, are there any alternatives to deal instead of just adding them to the prison population.

Fourth, older prison inmates

Covid-19 impacts older persons more severely. Age should be a mitigating factor in consideration for parole and release-on-licence so to reduce the number of inmates above 60 or 65 years old. This will reduce risks for the older inmates themselves and for other prison inmates and prison officers.

Fifth, expand medical services in the prison system

Prison officers have shared with me that the prison system is sorely lacking in medical personnel. To battle Covid-19 and to ensure improved health conditions in the prison system, an appropriate sum of allocation should be given to the Prison Department to engage extra medical and auxiliary medical personnel to compliment the existing but limited medical personnel in detention facilities.

We must balance law and order and public safety during a pandemic. The nation does not have to choose between ensuring justice is served, and ensuring all members of society are protected during a pandemic.

Covid-19 has forced us to confront the longstanding need for prison reform, if only because you can’t keep a virus behind jail walls. Improving our prisons and criminal justice system is part of the institutional and democratic reform that Malaysia needs to deal with, even after the pandemic is over.

*This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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