Covid-19 outbreak turning prisons into “death traps” – Where is Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin?

Media statement by DAP National Political Education Director and Member of Dewan Negara Liew Chin Tong on 7th October 2020 

As of 6th October, 8.3% of Malaysia’s Covid-19 positive cases are prison inmates and prison officers or staff (1,126 out of 13,504 total cases). Cases from prisons increased by 453 cases on 6th October alone. This is a worrying sign that the Covid-19 spread has been exacerbated by the overcrowding problem in prisons.

If we assume the cases in Sabah had originated from prisons, approximately 20 percent of total cases (2,738 out of 13,504) can be traced to the Tawau and Lahad Datu prisons. This does not include those who carried it from Sabah to other states as a consequence of the recent snap polls. 

At the moment, 6 prisons are affected by Covid-19, namely, Tawau, Alor Setar, Pokok Sena, Penang, Kamunting Correctional Centre and Kajang Women Prison. Of the 1,126 prison-related positive cases, 39 are prison officers or staff.  

I dread thinking what would happen next if it spreads to other prisons which have a higher inmate population, for instance the prisons in Sungai Buloh, Kluang, Sungai Udang etc. 

I would like to offer my solidarity to all prison officers and staff who are vulnerable to the outbreak. When I met some prison officers during my time as a member of the government, they shared with me privately their concerns about the spread of tuberculosis in prisons that is slowly becoming a silent killer of officers and staff. This was the situation in 2019. 

I know how worried and concerned the prison officers and staff are about the spread of the dangerous Covid-19 pandemic. 

Many in the community have a misguided impression that there is nothing wrong with allowing the infection to spread to prisoners. But that is not right. 

The Covid-19 virus does not discriminate between the world’s most powerful man – US President Donald Trump, and millions of migrant workers and prisoners. 

Without intervention, prisons will become a death trap for Covid-19, the transmission rate will be higher due to the impossibility to implement social distancing. Moreover, the infection will not remain behind bars, it will also threaten the community at large. 

We need a new mindset to realise that each and every prisoner, prison officer/staff and their families, all deserve to be protected from the spread of Covid-19.   

This is a grave crisis that puts everyone in the community at risk – from the most vulnerable and marginalised, to the most powerful and privileged. The government must intervene swiftly.

Where is the Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin? We have seen the activities of Hamzah, the politician, but we have not yet heard a single word from the Home Minister. 

For the prison system and the overall criminal justice system to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, there must be political will from the top to reform the prison and detention system. 

I have been very concerned about the situations in our prison system and in April I had openly urged the Government to consider ways to reduce the prison population from around 70,000 to the originally planned capacity of 52,000 inmates. 

In a Dewan Negara reply to me by the Home Ministry in September, as of 17th August, there are currently 68,730 inmates in prison, of whom 39,846 are convicted persons while 24,578 are remanded persons, 2,758 are detainees under Dangerous Drugs (Special Preventive Measures) Act 1985, the Prevention of Crime Act 1959, and Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015. There are 1,548 inmates in Henry Gurney School. 

I welcome the statement by the Director-General of Prison’s Department yesterday where he outlined specific measures to deal with the alarming rise in prison-related Covid-19 cases, namely:

– 11,018 minor prisoners with less than a year of sentence time will be eligible for the Release-on-license (according to the Prison Act 1995, these prisoners may be recalled at any time should they forfeit any conditions).

– 2,800 minor drug offenders to be transferred to temporary prison facilities at National Service Training Programme (PLKN) centres.

These measures are crucial because the issue of overcrowding in prisons had already existed before the Covid-19 outbreak. Locking up those who recently violated MCO and SOPs would also worsen the overcrowding problem, thereby increasing the risk of infection within the confined area.

On its own, the Prison Department would not be able to keep Covid-19 from spreading to the prisons and its officers who have contact with the public. 

There needs to be a national urgency from the Home Ministry to deal with prison overcrowding issues and work across agencies and ministries, as well as working with the judiciary to explore non-custodial sentences or alternative punishment options. 

In the fight to keep our community safe from Covid-19, prisons and detention centers should not be left out. Convicted prisoners deserve their just punishment under the law, but not be left to die by Covid-19.

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