Press Statement
Maria Chin Abdullah
11 October 2020

It is shocking to learn from the media that three prisoners who were tested were put together in the same cell as their inmate who died from Covid-19 on 5 October 2020. It grieved me to hear that lives of prisoners are treated with no respect, care or compassion.

Regardless of their alleged crimes, lives of prisoners matter and it is the duty and responsibility to protect the right of live of prisoners.

We certainly do not want to be wait for a prison riot to happen as what took place in Indonesia where prisoners protested on 12 April 2020 against crowded cells in Manado as they feared for their lives

The conditions in prisons is not only the issue of overcrowding in small prison cells but understaffing and lack of sufficient space to allow for social distancing. By cramping several prisoners into one cell is the antithesis of social distancing. If prison cells are kept unhygienic and if systematic testing is not carried out, then it is not surprising that prison cells will become natural COVID incubators.

The increase in covid-19 cases in prison is a clarion call for the much-awaited prison reforms to take place. These include but not limited to the following proposal:

1. Healthcare services as basic right of all prisoners
Immediately, there needs to be regular visits by medical staff to treat illnesses as well as mental health of prisoners. In times of crisis like Covid-19, greater caution and care need to be taken to ensure all prisoners are tested and that social distancing be implemented to ensure the safety of the prisoners as well as the frontlines such as the police, social welfare and health officers.

2. Governance that respects human rights
Establish a Prison Council that will oversee the key issues such as overcrowding, alternative punishment for prisoners, parole, basic needs of prisoners, held under long period of imprisonment while waiting for trials and as well as tasked to promote a humane perspective towards police officers as well as prisoners. The Council must be inclusive as the issues cannot be resolved singularly but require the cooperation of the Home Ministry, Foreign Affairs Ministry, PDRM, Immigration, Social Welfare Departments, and NGOs working on prison reforms.

The issue of rehabilitation must be taken seriously and implemented with the aim to reduce repeat of crimes. Rehabilitation must be innovative and there is a genuine awareness and involvement of the officers, prisoners as well as the families as they would be the support community once prisoners are released into society.

3. Empowerment of Frontline Officers and Personnel related to the prisons
The Prison Council should also develop and implement awareness programme among frontlines on governance and human rights perspective so that they can operate the prison with more humanity and compassion. This will help end death in custody, long term imprisonment without trial even for criminals and so forth.

4.Infrastructur and Facilities
Given the overcrowding and unhygienic conditions of the prisons, there is much that needs to do structurally which includes renovation of old prison buildings, rebuild new ones to accommodate overcrowding, making spaces for rehabilitation programmes (within or outside of the prisons) and basically to rebuild an environment that prioritise the prisoners, enable officers to serve better as well as to provide a healthcare services for all.

5. Reform of laws related to prison, detention and treatment of prisoners so as to end death in custody, sexual abuse of female prisoners and other abuse of powers.

6. Involvement of civil society
Involvement of civil society, employers, corporate and government agencies to work towards a prison reform that works for the better.

According to the World Prison Brief, the number of prisoners in Malaysian prisons is at 68 603 as at August 2020 (Ministry of Home Affairs). The challenge now is – can the government reduce the prison population by 30% by 2025?