Tackling the deadly nexus between overcrowded prisons and Covid-19

Odoo • A picture with a caption
Tough fight: Alor Setar Prison staff took early measures to protect against Covid-19, but their worst fears were realised.

WHEN news of the novel coronavirus first emerged from Wuhan, China in January this year, Alor Setar Prison placed hand sanitisers at the main entrance.

“Our staff wore masks and practised social distancing, ” a warden there says. Their prison director briefed staff about crucial standard operating procedures (SOP). The 127-year-old prison is crammed with some 1,800 inmates – about double its capacity of 900 to 1,000.

“And what our director worried about became real, ” says the warden.

The prison is now under an enhanced movement control order (MCO), like several other prisons in Sabah and Kedah.

Alor Setar Prison’s plight is a grim reminder of overcrowding in 10 of Malaysia’s 39 prisons.

Odoo • A picture with a caption
Heavy toll: Under EMCO, Alor Setar Prison staff can’t see their families or send their children to school.

And it underlines the need, as Budget 2021 is tabled this week, to fast-track the Prisons Department’s (JPM) target of moving two-thirds of the inmates into the community by 2030. As of Oct 23, there were 72,048 prisoners, although the prisons’ capacity is 53,830.

Fighting the spread of Covid-19 in the prisons and reducing overcrowding will require more than a physical upgrade for bulging and ageing prisons – with 14 over 50 years old.

It should include amending or introducing laws to enable alternatives to jail sentences (especially for drug users), encouraging use of alternative sentences, and a revamp of how new inmates are channelled into the prisons from multiple enforcement agencies.

Without a review of how the relevant agencies and laws operate, prison reform is due to fail. Budget 2021 should also provide for facilities and services for ex-prisoners to reintegrate into the community.

Short-term measures are already being taken, with release on licence (ROL) for prisoners sentenced to less than one year, who have less than three months left to serve. The first batch were released on Oct 26.

In addition, between 2,600 drug users newly sentenced under Section 15(1) of the Dangerous Drugs Act as well as those newly sentenced to less than one year will be placed in six National Service Training Programme camps.

Allocations will be required for the camps and for additional staff with critical allowances. In fact, all prison officers should receive critical allowances as they struggle to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Throughout the MCO, not all prison staff have been receiving frontline allowances – only selected officers.

JPM has also asked for upgrading of the old prisons. With the need for social distancing, they are requesting new, high-rise blocks over the next five years, with a capacity of 1,000 prisoners each.

Since almost two-thirds of the inmates are in on drug offences, JPM is pushing for decriminalisation of those who came out positive on urine tests.

As of Oct 23,42,600 or 59% of the total prison population were sentenced for drug and drug-related offences, including users who tested positive under Section 15(1)(a) of the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952.

JPM has requested 19 drug clusters to be set up on the perimeter of the prisons, where drug offenders could be rehabilitated.

So far, only three have been approved as a pilot project but they have yet to be set up.

Further allocations are needed for this under Budget 2021 and through the next five years.

Another major strategy for moving prisoners back into the community is probation and community correction, using alternative sentences. In December 2018, the Home Ministry sent a report to the Chief Justice (CJ) and Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) asking for urgent action on this.

This, too, should be fast-tracked.

The Offenders Compulsory Attendance Act already provides for those with a sentence of less than four months to do community service under the surveillance of the parole and community service division. The Home Ministry is asking for the law to be amended so that it will apply to those sentenced for a year or less.

Amendments or new laws are also needed to provide for deferred sentences (for Malaysians sentenced 12 months and below, on good behaviour bonds under supervision of JPM), home detention (especially for the elderly and those with chronic diseases), correctional orders (for those sentenced three years and below), pre-release programmes and day parole for minor offences, and prison supervision at halfway homes or under the supervision of JPM (for those who will soon be released into the community).

The courts should make full use of these alternatives to jail sentences.

“Compulsory attendance is happening, but only certain states and magistrates are giving such sentences, ” notes a Home Ministry officer.

“We want it to be extended 100%. The CJ and AGC have to advise court officers and lawyers. And if all these forms of alternative sentencing are approved, then the budget should be in place.”

From Oct 15, there has been a halt to incoming and outgoing prisoners. In the long-term, there should be a review of how the various enforcement agencies send new inmates to the prisons.

For example, as of Oct 23, there were over 14,000 foreign prisoners on various offences, including immigration.

If the laws were amended to allow those arrested for immigration to be deported instead of being jailed, this would help to reduce the prison population.

Finally, Budget 2021 should cover community-based reintegration of ex-prisoners.

The tax exemption of up to RM4,000 for hiring each ex-prisoner, granted in Budget 2019, is due to expire. This should be extended in Budget 2021, urges commissioner Jerald Joseph with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, and more employers should be encouraged to provide jobs for ex-prisoners.

Malaysian CARE’s Eric Ruban, who coordinates three classes for the juveniles at Pusat Koreksional Puncak Alam in Selangor, calls for an allocation for students coming out.

“Budget 2021 should provide for their accommodation in halfway homes like Malaysian CARE’s, voluntary rehabilitation of drug users, job support and placement, as well as academic and vocational training, ” he says.

JPM also hopes to have more halfway homes. The 52 parole districts have 13 halfway homes under them for ex-prisoners and parolees who have no families to stay with, but there are no places for women.

Under the 12th Malaysia Plan, JPM is asking for 80 to 100 parole districts, almost double the present number. This would cater for getting two-thirds of the prisoners into the community.

And helping to meet this goal would not only reduce overcrowding and improve conditions in the prisons, but is urgently needed to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sunday, 01 Nov 2020. By SANTHA OORJITHAM

Published by permission. Original article from Star: 

Santha Oorjitham is a coordinator with the Policy, Advocacy and Research department of Malaysian CARE.