‘Imprisonment should be last resort’

Kajang Prison is one of the largest correctional facilities in the country and has separate sections for men and women.

TODAY is Prison Day, an occasion to appreciate the work done by prison officers nationwide.

The 233rd Prison Day marks a continuation of the sea change in the way the Malaysian Prison Department (JPM) is dealing with the more than 60,000 prisoners nationwide, in advocating a more rehabilitative approach instead of a punitive one.

This year’s theme,“Reformation Towards Civilised Humane Culture Development Centre” (CHCDC), brings added focus to a landmark programme launched by JPM last year in collaboration with the various agencies inside and outside Malaysia.

Malaysian Prison headquarters staff professionalism development division deputy director Senior Asst Comm Ahmad Mustaqim Che Bisi told StarMetro that CHCDC’s focus was on behavioural modification to improve inmates’ self-management, reduce criminal thinking and encourage prison staff in committing to the rehabilitation process.

“In the past, rehabilitation processes for inmates involved special programmes for specific purposes done only by a rehabilitation officer.

“But with this initiative, all prison staff are roped in,” said SAC Ahmad Mustaqim.

During the launch of CHCDC last year, Prisons Department commissioner-general Datuk Nordin Muhamad had said JPM aimed to reduce the national recidivism rate to 10% from the current 15%.

This target, he said, could be achieved within 10 years with the implementation of various rehabilitation programmes, including CHCDC.

Other strategic partners include the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, British High Commission, United Kingdom’s His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), International Committee of the Red Cross and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Focus on restorative justice

SAC Ahmad Mustaqim said the focus previously had been on punitive justice or the rule of law.

“We need to bear in mind that the world today has shifted to restorative justice where imprisonment should be the last resort.”

JPM commenced community- based rehabilitation programmes in 2008 by introducing the parole system.

SAC Ahmad Mustaqim says recidivism among inmates who have undergone the community correction programme is lower.SAC Ahmad Mustaqim says recidivism among inmates who have undergone the community correction programme is lower.

SAC Ahmad Mustaqim said this community correction programme was not just JPM’s agenda; it is stipulated under international instruments such as United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-Custodial Measures (The Tokyo Rules), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on Dec 14, 1990.

“Based on past records, recidivism was lower among inmates who underwent the community correction programme.

“Prisoners who continue their sentences under the community correction programme have a better chance to reintegrate into society.”

He said the community correction programme had proven to be more effective because of the implementation of three main conditions, namely the prisoners need to gain employment, have a place to reside and receive a salary, all of which will guarantee their commitment to change.

SAC Ahmad Mustaqim said the CHCDC initiative had improved the prison environment as it had enabled the staff to think more creatively about how to make the prisoners’ experience more rehabilitative.

“This initiative will also strengthen the staff-prisoner relationship and encourage all prison employees to be more involved in the rehabilitation process.”

For prisoners, the initiative has allowed them to have a new perspective of the rehabilitation process, he said.

“It gives them a chance to be more altruistic.

“When they see they are accepted by the community, they will in turn be more productive,” he added.

Embracing a challenging job

Two officers who have clocked in decades of service in JPM have no regrets about their decision even though they were initially hesitant about joining.

Assistant Superintendent Khairul Zakri Shoib, 37, who has worked in Kajang Prison for 13, years said the humane approach similar to the ways advocated by the CHCDC in handling inmates had long been practised in Malaysian prisons.

However, he said the collaboration with HMPPS might have increased awareness of the importance of such methods.

“About 20 years ago, Malaysian prisons took on a regimental approach in managing inmates. Bad behaviour was often punished to instil discipline.

“However, those methods have reduced since the late 1990s due to more awareness of human rights and best methods for behaviour modification,” he said.

He added that inmates were now treated and spoken to with respect to protect their dignity.

When asked about challenges on the job, ASP Khairul Zakri said it was intimidating at first but he has learned the ropes.

“JPM was one of my last choices when I applied to join the public service.

“I was put in charge of supervising prison staff working in inmate cells.

“Part of my daily routine was to be present during headcount four times a day.

“Imagine having about 400 inmates in a confined space with only five staff on guard.

“Some inmates are able to accept their fate but others become bitter.

“But I soon realised that not all inmates were bad people.”

He is happy when he hears how some former inmates are now leading a good life after their release from prison.

“But about 8% to 10% of inmates suffer from mental health problems in Kajang Prison, especially those that have been disowned by their families.

“We have programmes designed based on the length of their prison terms to ensure they are able to integrate into society and not repeat the same mistakes.”

He added that vocational workshops were organised to teach the inmates useful skills so they could cope with life after their release.

ASP Khairul Zakri recounted an incident in 2014 when an inmate locked himself in his cell while holding a staff hostage with a sharp object.

“He had mental health problems and was desperate to meet his family.

“The situation was tense; we took some time to calm him down and persuade him to release the staff unharmed.

“Everyone needs family support when they are on the wrong path.

“I hope society will end the stigma facing ex-prisoners and help them turn over a new leaf,” he said.

ASP Thameyanthi says being a prison officer has made her more grateful to be able to go back to her family every day.ASP Thameyanthi says being a prison officer has made her more grateful to be able to go back to her family every day.

For Kajang Women’s Prison Assistant Superintendent R.B. Thameyanthi Balakrishnan, 44, the CHCDC approach taught her to be calm while on duty and how to handle difficult inmates.

ASP Thameyanthi was involved in the HMPPS pilot project last year and is now a CHCDC trainer for other prison staff.

She said the staff were taught how to identify specific problems with an inmate and tackle it accordingly.

“In the past, when an inmate was acting up, prison officers would always dismiss their emotions and reprimand them.

“Now, we are trained to allow the inmates to express themselves and address the problem later,” she said.

ASP Thameyanthi said the prison walls were also decorated with colourful murals to lift the mood inside the prison.

“In the past, walls would either be bare or have motivational quotes. Now, there are paintings of sceneries to keep the inmates happy.”

She also said her experience working in the correctional facility served as a lesson on leading a good life.

“I like being in uniform and had hoped to land a job in the Customs or Immigration Department.

“When I received the offer letter from JPM, my mother was not very happy but gave her blessings nevertheless.

“My father was supportive and advised me to have an open mind and do my best. It has been 19 years now,” she said.

She has held several positions including parole officer, rehabilitation officer and record officer, and served in several prisons in the country.

ASP Thameyanthi, who has a five-year-old daughter, is grateful to be able to leave the prison at the end of the day to be with her family.

One of her most unforgettable moments was in 2013, when she had to escort family members who were visiting an inmate on death row for the last time.

“The inmate profusely sought forgiveness from his mother, father and siblings, which was difficult to watch.”

Inmates finding a purpose

Sathia*, 39, is serving a 12-year sentence for voluntarily causing grievous hurt. The sentence includes eight strokes of the rotan, which is pending appeal.

Being in prison has helped him manage his anger, be disciplined and become more spiritual.

Before he was convicted, Sathia worked as a lorry driver for a furniture business.

Now that he is behind bars, he is learning how to make chairs, tables and photo frames.

“Once I am released, I want to upskill myself for the digital economy and set up an online business.

“Being in prison has taught me to become more calm and kind.

“Before, I was impatient and angry every day, but now I know how to control my emotions,” he said.

Rizal*, 47, is serving a three-year sentence for falsification of accounts.

“Jail is not the end. We all make mistakes, pay our dues and move on.”

The father of five, who was a civil servant, said he was expanding his business knowledge.

“It’s something to look forward to when I am released.

“Being in prison teaches me that not everyone is ‘bad’”, he said.

Prisoners say they have changed for the better while being behind bars. — Photos: LOW LAY PHON/The StarPrisoners say they have changed for the better while being behind bars. — Photos: LOW LAY PHON/The Star

At Kajang Women’s Prison, Safia*, 29, is serving an eight-year sentence for culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

Her mantra in prison is “We come in with nothing, we leave with something.”

The mother of two said she was learning to sew and getting trained in spa/salon certification.

“I have to thank the prison officers for teaching us discipline, time management and responsibility.

“This rehabilitation process gives us a second chance to become better people,” she said.

Rina*, 38, a former travel agent, was originally sentenced to death for drug trafficking but escaped the gallows on appeal.

“From not knowing any skill, I can now sew a dress!

“The real challenge when I entered prison was overcoming my sadness and regrets.

“I didn’t think I could move on, but I had no choice but to accept the situation,” she said.

Supportive prison guards have played a big part in Rina’s journey towards becoming a better person.

“They look into our welfare and provide psychological help too,” she said.

(*Names have been changed to protect inmates’ identities)

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