Pursuing an education behind bars

Young prisoners studying in their classroom within the walls of Kajang Prison.

Young prisoners studying in their classroom within the walls of Kajang Prison.

KAJANG: In the quiet classroom, Stephen* and Hussein* are hunched over their computers, working on an assignment for the final year of their degree programme in business administration.

Occasionally, they take their eyes off the screen to speak to classmates or ask their lecturer a question.

Nothing seems out of place, except for their cobalt blue jumpsuits, the steel-barred windows of the room and the presence of uniformed offi­cers. It is indeed a classroom but this is no university.

Stephen and Hussein, who face a bleak, uncertain future, are pursuing their academic ambitions from within the walls of Kajang Prison.

The 28-year-olds are among the young prisoners detained at the pleasure of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong under Section 97(2) of the Child Act. The average jail term served by such prisoners in Malaysia is 10 years.

Stephen, from Shah Alam, was jailed after he was involved in a dispute between a friend and her boyfriend, which ended in the latter’s death.

He was about to sit for his SPM examinations when it happened.

Being the eldest child of two working professionals, he had high hopes of living a successful, comfor­table life.

“Everybody makes mistakes. I made mine by mingling with the wrong people. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said.

Hussein’s family background and the circumstances that led him to jail are poles apart. The school dropout was 14 when he left Sabah to come to Kuala Selangor to become a kitchen assistant.

Angry over not being paid for five months, he caused the death of his employer during a confrontation.

“My family only found out that I was jailed a few months later. Apart from my younger brother who came in 2007, no one has visited me,” he said.

An indefinite time in prison would break anyone’s spirit but Stephen and Hussein were determined to make the best of their situation by joining a study group with a few others.

Hussein was hesitant to resume his studies but the other inmates and prison officials encouraged him. He passed the SPM in 2006.

The Sekolah Integriti Kajang was started in the prison complex the following year, enabling prisoners to continue their education under gui­dance by volunteer teachers.

Both Stephen and Hussein said prison had also educated them in other ways and agreed that the experiences of other inmates had motivated them to better themselves. They also learnt the true value of freedom, which they had taken for granted.

“We realise what could have been done with all the time we had,” said Stephen, adding that this had inspired them to keep trying for a chance to be freed by filing appeals every four years through the Prisons Department.

Stephen, whose last appeal was in 2009, said he would do so again but he had lowered his expectations to avoid disappointment.

His family members visit him almost every week and his mother guides him with his studies.

“When I asked her why she was paying so much attention to me while she had to attend to my other siblings, she said: ‘I can never abandon my son.’ A mother’s love is li­mitless. I am her first born and I know what I mean to her,” he said, as tears welled in his eyes.

Asked what they hoped to do if they were released, Stephen and Hussein were quick to say that they would return to their families and use their knowledge to better their lives.

“The first thing I will do is to repay my parents for everything they have done for me. Whatever friends you may have, at the end of the day it’s your family that will stand by you,” said Stephen.

Hussein said he would start a business to help his family financially.

“It does not matter what kind of business. I do not want my children to become like me because of the lack of education.

“We also understand that in cases like ours, we may be released tomorrow, the day after, a week, a month or even a year later. But we may also never be released.”

* Names have been changed to protect their privacy

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