Government must urgently tackle dire Covid-19 spread in prisons

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We need to avoid congestion in cells and prisons - File photo: themalaymailonline

Lawyers for Liberty refers to the alarming spikes of Covid-19 infections on 17 October 2020, which recorded 869 new cases – the highest to date – of which 186 cases were from those detected in the Penang Remand Prison, the Seberang Perai Prison and the Alor Setar Prison.

Even though health director general Dr Noor Hisham has, in response to these spikes, stated there is a need to relook into the Covid-19 standard operating procedures in prison, this may have a negligible effect in curbing the spread of infections in prisons now that the cases are increasing alarmingly.

The crux of the problem that needs to be addressed is the overcrowding of detainees in our prisons. The prisons facilities are reportedly currently housing 73,000 prisoners in spaces intended to only hold 52,000 inmates. Without significantly reducing the number of inmates in our prisons, any standard operating procedures in place are likely to fail, and the consequences may be catastrophic, not only to the prisoners but also to the prison staff and their families, as well as the community at large.

We note that the director general of Prisons had on 6 October 2020 announced it would grant a release on licence to minor offenders sentenced to less than one year’s imprisonment who have less than three months left to serve.

While we welcome this announcement, there have been no reports of how many inmates have been released under this release on licence so far, if any. Furthermore, the limited criterion of those eligible for such release means this proposed solution will not drastically reduce the overpopulation of inmates in prisons, and our detention facilities would remain a breeding-ground for Covid-19 infections.

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The inmates’ right to life and liberty under Article 5 of the Constitution remains intact despite 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 the standard operating procedures can effective in curbing the spread of Covid-19 in prisons.

To do so, the government must not only immediately release prisoners who are detained for minor offences as previously announced but also those detained under non-violent crimes; inmates who have served two-thirds of their sentence and at-risk prisoners.

Similarly, the large number of foreigners or immigrants currently being held in prison under remand or upon conviction for immigration offences or minor offences who are not categorised as asylum seekers should be repatriated immediately to their countries of origin.

Zaid Malek is coordinator of Lawyers for Liberty

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