A new start for both prisons and prisoners

New life: Ex-prisoner Sara (not her real name) learned how to bake breads and cakes during five years in Kajang women’s prison and is now working in a restaurant as a chef. — JPM

A QUIET revolution has been brewing within Malaysian prisons over the past couple of years.

The Prisons Department (JPM) has introduced some radical new programmes to offer inmates jobs and accommodation after they are released from prison.

It has involved all stakeholders in drafting a comprehensive plan to improve conditions for both wardens and prisoners. And it has submitted a package of proposals, which include prison reform, for the Twelfth Malaysia Plan (12MP).

Despite the political drama unfolding over the past fortnight, the 12MP for 2021 through 2025 appears to be on schedule so far. JPM has already submitted plans before the March 15 deadline, says Deputy Commissioner of Prisons (Policy Division) S. Gunasegaran.

The plan’s five core functions are safety and security, rehabilitation, reintegration, probation and community services, and treatment. The enablers are staff empowerment, facilities and infrastructure, community engagement, and law reform.

“The outcome is healthy prisons, and the way forward is to have two-thirds of the inmates in the community by 2030, ” explains Gunasegaran.

Gunasegaran says prison reform plans are on track. — SANTHA OORJITHAMGunasegaran says prison reform plans are on track. — SANTHA OORJITHAM

Addressing all the issues

Malaysian prisons have a capacity of 52,000 but are vastly overcrowded with over 71,000 inmates as of Feb 25 this year. The cells are so full that JPM is now planning to put in bunk beds as there is not enough room on the floor.

The majority of the prisoners are in for drug offences – over 46,000, which is almost 64% of the total prison population. That’s why the main target is to get prisoners out, mainly on work release programmes and through drug policy reform, says Gunasegaran.

“We have been planning prison reforms since 2018, ” he adds.

“The International Committee of the Red Cross, Malaysian CARE and the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) had reported findings about the rights and needs of the prisoners – including their treatment, security, safety and the issue of overcrowding, ” he explains.

JPM brought its needs up in meetings with the Home Ministry, Health Ministry and relevant agencies, including the National Anti-Drugs Agency (AADK) and the Royal Malaysia Police.

The first prison reform two-day workshop was co-hosted by JPM and Suhakam last September, bringing together all the relevant government agencies and non-

government organisations like Malaysia Care. Those attending broke up into clusters and brainstormed proposals for four areas: prisoner affairs, infrastructure and facilities, safety and correctional, and community reintegration. In November last year, a two-day colloquium presented the proposals for the 12MP.

Suhakam’s Complaints and Monitoring group deputy secretary Simon Karunagaram had approa-ched Datuk Nordin Muhamad, director of prison policy, around April last year.

“Various groups have been working on human rights issues in prison, ” he says. “We thought it would be good if everyone could do something together.”

Nordin told him they were already working on prison reforms and showed him a draft, says Karunagaram. “His ideas were in line with what Suhakam was promoting, so we could work together. That’s how we started.”

The reform plan addressed all the important issues, he adds, “including overcrowding, which has a major impact on human rights in prison, and the staff, and alternatives for drug users, who should not be put in prison but treated as patients and rehabilitated.”

Rehabilitate, not punish

The Prisons Department has a joint working committee for treatment and rehabilitation which was formed last month. Nordin is proposing 19 “drug clusters” to be set up on the perimeter of prisons to accommodate 9,500 drug offenders.

“We also want to collaborate with AADK on Cure & Care clinics in Sungai Buloh, Kajang (in Selangor) and Jelebu (in Negri Sembilan) prisons, ” adds Gunasegaran.

JPM recommends decriminalising those who test positive under Section 15(1)(a) of the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952, says Gunasegaran. Eventually, 17,000 drug offenders could be moved from prison into the drug clusters where they could get better treatment and rehabilitation.

Dean of Universiti Malaya’s medical faculty, Prof Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, supports decriminalisation of personal use and possession of drugs.

The 12MP should provide for community-based care for drug users by civil society, healthcare workers and AADK, says Prof Adeeba, who is also director of Universiti Malaya’s Centre for Excellence for Research in AIDS (CERiA).

“Funding should be for capacity building, job skilling and reskilling, and effective prevention and evidence-based programmes focusing on amphetamine use in young people. It should also include expansion and strengthening of harm reduction programmes.”

But treatment should be voluntary because if it becomes compulsory, users would go underground, she stresses. A study published in 2016 by CERiA working with Yale University showed that half of those who undergo compulsory treatment in the Pusat Serenti drug detention centres relapse within a month. But half of those who get voluntary treatment at methadone clinics are still receiving treatment a year later.

One of the major improvements which JPM has already introduced is the resettlement programme. In the past, once prisoners were released there was no further contact with JPM.

But a pilot project in April last year appointed resettlement officers in the Seremban and Kajang men’s and women’s prisons to help the prisoners find jobs and a place to live after their release.

For the first three months at the worksite, the resettlement officers supervised the ex-prisoners with visits, phone calls and WhatsApp messages. At the end of the three months, if the employer was happy with their work and if they wanted to stay, they were hired permanently.

In July last year, the programme went national with at least two resettlement officers in each prison. To date, Gunasegaran reports, jobs have been found for 764 prisoners while 180 companies and NGOs have registered with the programme.

Employers, NGOs and the public all have a role to play, he notes.

Family support needed

Sgt Siti Fadilah and Sgt Nurul Hasimah were appointed to the pilot resettlement project in the Kajang women’s prison. They now have 16 former prisoners under supervision, while 35 have successfully completed the supervision period. Another 23 didn’t make it.

“Some ask for further supervision after the three months, ” says Nurul Hasimah, adding that “outside the prison, they call us ‘kakak’ (sister).”

Siti Fadilah hopes incentives like tax deductions for giving jobs to ex-prisoners will encourage more companies to hire them.

She also hopes NGOs and members of the public could help some of the newly released ex-prisoners with starter packs when they begin work because they need basics like soap, toothbrushes, sanitary napkins and, in some cases, clothing, including underwear.

But above all, she stresses the role of their families.

“Accept them back and give them moral support, ” she urges.

“Many don’t know where to go, feel sad and have no direction.”

Santha Oorjitham is a coordinator with the Policy, Advocacy and Research Department of Malaysian CARE (Christian Association for Relief).

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