We must address spread of Covid-19 in prisons

LAWYERS for Liberty refers to the alarming spike of Covid-19 infections on Oct 17, when 869 new cases were recorded – the highest to date – of which 186 cases were from the Penang Remand Prison and Seberang Prai Prison in Penang, and the Alor Setar Prison in Kedah.

Even though Health director- general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah has, in response to this spike, stated that there is a need to relook into Covid-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs) in prison, doing so may have only a negligible effect now that the number of cases is increasing alarmingly.

The crux of the problem that needs to be addressed is the overcrowding in our prisons. It has been reported that prisons are

currently housing 73,000 inmates in spaces intended to only hold 52,000. Without significantly reducing the number of inmates, any SOPs are likely to fail and the consequences may be catastrophic – not only for the prisoners but also prison staff, their families and, consequently, the community at large.

We note that the director-general of the Prisons Department had, on Oct 6, announced that offenders sentenced to less then a year of imprisonment and with less than three months left to serve would be granted a release on licence (ROL). While we welcome this announcement, there have been no reports on how many inmates have been granted an ROL to date, if any.

Furthermore, the ROL’s limited criteria would mean that this solution will not drastically reduce overpopulation and our detention facilities will remain a breeding ground for Covid-19.

Inmates’ right to life and liberty under Article 5 of the Constitution remain intact in spite of their criminal charge or conviction. The government must therefore ensure that their welfare is adequately protected while they remain in the custody of the state.

The government must swiftly address the real risk of increased infections in our overcrowded prisons. Other countries have done so by releasing their inmates not long after Covid-19 was recognised as a pandemic: Indonesia released 30,000 prisoners in April, Turkey passed a Bill for the release of 90,000 inmates in the same month while Iran has furloughed over 100,000 prisoners to date.

We therefore urge the government to take similar action and reduce the number of inmates to below the maximum capacity so that SOPs will be effective in curbing the spread of Covid-19 in prisons.

The government should not only immediately release prisoners detained for minor offences as previously announced but also those detained for nonviolent crimes, those who have served two-thirds of their sentence, and those who are at higher risk of catching Covid-19.

Similarly, the large number of foreigners or immigrants currently being held in detention centres on remand or those who have been convicted of immigration offences who are not categorised as asylum seekers should be repatriated immediately to their countries of origin.


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Covid-19 , prisons , overcrowded


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