KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 13 — Seputeh MP Teresa Kok has called for prison reforms, noting that the third wave of the Covid-19 epidemic in Malaysia started at a detention facility.
The current Covid-19 wave originated from the Benteng LD cluster that was first identified on September 1 at the Lahad Datu district police lock-up involving undocumented immigrants, and subsequently Tawau prison.
Health authorities claimed on September 8 and again on October 9 that the Benteng LD cluster was “contained” because it was isolated from the general public, which was later proven wrong as the virus spread to the community in Sabah.
Covid-19 cases surged throughout Sabah after the September 26 state election, as the infection also spread to the rest of the country. More than two months after the index cases of the Benteng LD cluster were first discovered, the cluster has racked up 1,145 Covid-19 cases across Lahad Datu, Tawau, Sandakan, Kinabatangan, and Tuaran, including 18 new infections reported on November 8.
“The third wave of Covid-19 started from a prison and immigration detention centre in Sabah. After that, the spread of Covid-19 also happened in prisons in many states,” Kok said during her debate on Budget 2021 at Parliament yesterday.
“This shows that the crowding in prisons is so serious until it has become the cause of the spread of the infection now,” added the former primary industries minister.
On November 2, Deputy Home Minister II Jonathan Yasin told the Dewan Rakyat that a total of 1,156 prisoners and 83 prison staff and family members have tested positive for Covid-19.
Moreover, he said as of October 19, Malaysian prisons have exceeded actual capacity by 43.88 per cent, accommodating 66,791 prisoners when the jails can only accommodate 46,420 prisoners. Overcrowding means that Covid-19 outbreaks can continuously occur in prisons, despite previous mass testing exercises, as only inmates remain isolated from the general population, while staff are free to move around in public areas outside the prison compound.
Kok also said that Malaysian courts have the tendency to impose heavy sentences on offenders and accused people, even though their cases do not involve serious offenses.
“Many countries in this world have implemented the prison reform programme in prisons and also programmes that replace incarceration with other forms of punishments, like community service, as many parties find incarceration not to be an effective method in dealing with criminals.”
The DAP lawmaker called for a discussion on harmonising criminal punishments and reducing the punishment on minor offenders as a measure to reduce the number of prisoners, besides releasing prisoners who have been incarcerated for a very long time.
Medical experts have previously urged the government to grant an early release to non-violent offenders, especially those serving short sentences, to prevent coronavirus outbreaks in overcrowded prisons.
The Prisons Department reportedly announced last month that it would grant certain inmates release on licence, who are minor offenders sentenced to less than one year’s jail, with less than three months to serve. Prisons director-general Zulkifli Omar said as of October 5, there are 11,018 inmates eligible for such early release.