Pandemic action required in detention centres too

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

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic which has beset the world and made a strong entry into Malaysia, Eliminating Deaths and Abuse in Custody Together (Edict) calls upon Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin to pay particular attention to detention centres in Malaysia. In recent months, during coroners’ inquests, evidence has emerged of wretched conditions in lock-ups in Selangor and in Kuala Lumpur. It is very likely that conditions are no different in other lock-ups around our nation.

From the evidence of detainees, lock-up staff and doctors, we know of many failings in our lock-ups. There are a plethora of concerns. We highlight four.

  • Detainees don’t have a sufficient supply of drinking water. Thanabalan Subramaniam, who died in the Shah Alam central lock-up, had to quench his thirst by drinking flush water from a squat toilet. One of his cellmates testified that they captured water from the toilet using a bottle
  • Detainees’ basic needs are not fulfilled. They live in close quarters in overcrowded, poorly ventilated cells, sleeping on wooden platforms. They are unable to brush their teeth or have showers. They are exposed to diseases such as leptospirosis and contract skin diseases
  • Detainees’ medical needs are not fulfilled. When they are sick, they do not receive prompt medical attention. Even when they are prescribed with medicines, they are unable to take them as prescribed. Worse, some detainees who are severely ill are detained in lock-ups
  • Lock-up staff are anxious that their personal health is put at risk whenever they are in lock-ups or with detainees

We have highlighted conditions about which direct evidence has been given in coroners’ courts in recent months. We know the scourge of deaths and abuse in custody is not limited to lock-ups. The scourge is found also in immigration detention centres and in prisons.

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Police officers, prison officers, immigration officers and their detainees – as well as medical personnel who may treat them – are at extremely high risk of contracting contagious diseases, including Covid-19.

We urge the home minister to do the following:

  • Establish stricter criteria about evidence which must be in hand before detaining anyone. This will reduce overcrowding of lock-ups
  • Discipline any officer-in-charge who detains a person who has not been certified fit for detention by a medical officer
  • Take urgent action to rectify failings in lock-ups eg fix broken ventilation systems and provide adequate water
  • Establish goals, measures and means to ensure detainees have access to urgent medical attention and prescribed treatments
  • Initiate urgent cleaning, sanitisation and housekeeping of all detention facilities
  • Test all to-be-detained persons for Covid-19 and admit them to detention centres only if their results are negative

We remind the home minister that there is clear evidence of serious failings which threaten the health and welfare of officers and of detainees. We urge him to take prompt action.

Rama Ramanathan is vice-chairman of Eliminating Deatsh and Abuse In Custody Together (Edict).

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