The 13 new prisons are a really bad idea

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Eliminating Deaths and Abuse in Custody Together (Edict) has grave concerns about the government’s decision to prepare 13 centres for gazetting as prisons.

Through that decision, the government has signalled to the judiciary that it expects them to sentence thousands of movement control order violators to imprisonment.

A prison is much more than buildings. Buildings are merely one part of a prison system. A prison needs more than walls, fences and locks. A prison must have medical examinations and registration at entry, uniforms and laundry arrangements, food provisions, provisions for detainees to take prescription medicines, health and safety provisions, monitoring provisions, visitor controls, trained staff, transport, etc.

Hundreds of wardens will be required to operate the new prisons. What’s needed are wardens, not security guards. To qualify, wardens must undergo extensive training and testing. They must take specialised courses. They must be closely supervised.

We remind the government of three key matters.

First, the government is responsible for the welfare, health, and safety of every prisoner, even in a prison which houses only “MCO detainees.”

Second, people who are imprisoned are prone to thoughts of suicide. Prison staff must be provided with all necessary means to detect and respond to suicidal behaviour. And, they must also be held accountable for any attempted suicides.

Third, there will be aggressive, violent individuals among the detainees. Fights may break out. Prison staff must anticipate and prevent fights. They must break up fights. They must isolate individuals as necessary. The staff must be provided with all necessary means to do so.

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Judges often find against prisons in cases of deaths in custody. Consider for example, the case of Kamarulnizam Ismail. He died in the custody of Tapah prison within days of beginning to serve a 14-day sentence. Twelve individuals and the government were found liable for causing his death.

In his judgment, the judge observed “Knowing that the deceased was not well, the warden officers should have kept an eye on him and been more vigilant towards a prisoner under their care.” The judge awarded costs of RM162,000 plus interest from 2014.

We also remind the government and the judiciary that since there will be no social distancing, each prisoner must be isolated until he is confirmed Covid-19-negative through testing. Only then can he be put in prison. If testing is not done, the prisons will become new Covid-19 clusters.

Edict again calls on the judiciary not to imprison movement control order violators. Edict further reminds the judiciary and the government that sentencing is the prerogative of the judiciary, not the government.

Imprisoning movement control order violators is a bad idea. Creating 13 new prisons is a really bad idea. They will be centres of much harm. Taxpayers will have to pay the awards handed out by the courts for wrongful deaths – money which could be put to much better use.

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