Penang Remand Prison Cluster: Seen And Unseen Effects

The roadblock is manned by nine officers in total from the army, police, Rela, and civil defence, who work in three shifts (8am-4pm, 4pm-midnight, midnight-8am), without food supplied to them (except for the army, but that is if it’s on time).

I tap my thoughts once again, this time looking at the Kluster Penjara Reman Pulau Pinang, that innocuously “started” with the death of an 85-year-old inmate, who upon swab test at the autopsy, turned out Covid-19 positive.

Rumours were circulating fast, even with a “detailed police report” lodged in this case. Soon, the Prison Director would acknowledge what many had feared — there are cases within the walls of the Penang Prison.

Bearing in mind, at this time, vivid recollection of Covid-19 prison outbreaks round Malaysia had already reared its ugly head; namely Kluster Benteng LD (Lahad Datu, Sabah) and Kluster Tembok (Alor Setar, Kedah), with both hitting thousands of cases at its peak!

And so we have the same pattern in Penang, increasing bit by bit, till the century mark was breached twice; 12/10 with 141 cases and 17/10 with 160 cases. In fact, this cluster touched a cumulative figure of 512.

But the technical details and figures aside, now to the human aspect. Very understandably, an Enhanced Movement Control Order (EMCO) was imposed on both the prison and prison wardens quarters.

That means no moving out by ALL wardens, 320 petugas staying in the quarters + 220 petugas who stay outside. Meaning not only the families of the 320 are affected, even the 220 who have to now sleep on makeshift beds with the very barest of necessities for at least 14 days!

Night delivery of dinner to the roadblock personnel at Penang Prison on 23 Oct 2020. Picture by Boo Soon Yew.

Throughout this time, we in Penang have a “Penang Lawan Covid-19” Facebook page where the admin will update us on cases, how they spread over all the five districts in Penang; island and mainland. It is also through this comment thread where the good, the bad and the ugly comes out.

You can imagine the vitriol spewed out, accusing the wardens and their families of being possible spreaders before the EMCO. Some even were so ridiculous as to suggest that visitors of inmates (before EMCO) are infected and are now all over Penang!

Nevertheless, despite the gloom, you have the encouragers (me included), who would seek to point out that physical interactions between inmates and visitors are practically nil! Hence there is no risk there. As for wardens and families, they were pretty much in self-lockdown after the death of the 85-year-old inmate.

Now it is from this exchange of dialogue that one of the persons in the comments thread reached out to me via Messenger seeking help. From the tone of the message, you know it’s sincere and voicing out serious needs.

Tesco food items delivered to prison wardens and their families outside the Penang Prison Quarters on 19 Oct, 2020. Picture by Boo Soon Yew.

And so I mobilised my WhatsApp chat groups — my Penang Reds and my Penang Free School (PFS) Old Frees. And soon after, monies were collected to make this first purchase of Tesco food items worth RM1,072.35.

This would be followed a second food purchase, also via Tesco who was so kind to have their staff help me load up the trolleys, as was done in the first purchase. This time items amounted to RM1,381.35.

Again, all from generous giving, not just from my fellow Reds, Old Frees, but this time netizens, friends and eventually relatives who basically crowdfunded with me to be able to provide these basic needs for these families, who eventually have to traverse an extra 14 days as their EMCO was extended.

Electric kettles bought and presented to Penang Prison wardens at a roadblock on 6 Nov 2020. Picture by Boo Soon Yew.

This would lead to my third and final purchase for them: four electric kettles. Why, you may ask? Well, imagine 320 families + 200 individuals using whatever electric kettles they have for 28 straight days! I received their SOS around Day 21. So at least they had seven days to enjoy hot water again, plus of course good 3-in-1 Nescafe coffee!

Wardens aside, throughout this 28-day EMCO period, you need armed security personnel to enforce the road blocks. The roadblock that I interact with has nine persons: four army, two police, two Rela, and one civil defence.

They work in three separate shifts, so you have three separate teams coming in at 8am till 4pm, 4pm till 12 midnight, 12 midnight till 8am. No food is supplied to them, unless you were in camouflage and carried an M4 assault rifle.

Yes, only the army gets food, that too if they are on time. So imagine my concerns — how morale of these roadblock personnel can get sapped as they man their stations, through sun, rain, cold nights, and the searing heat of the day again.

Breakfast purchased from Kak Yatie’s Nasi Lemak stall at the food court outside Penang Hospital, near the Penang Prison, for frontliners manning the roadblock outside Penang Prison. Picture taken 3 Nov, 2020 by Boo Soon Yew.

Hence, I decided to mobilise my Old Frees again, this time reaching out further to the whole batch of F5 (1984) & U6 (1986). And soon, the generosity was just overwhelming! I was able to provide three meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner for 10 pax at a budget of RM5/ breakfast pax, RM10/ lunch pax, and RM10/dinner pax.

And even when funds dried up because of the 14-day extension of EMCO, generous netizens, friends, ex-students, and even relatives stepped in and chipped in to the cause!

And so we completed the mission. Google #MisiBantuPenjara or #PenjaraPulauPinang and you will see a pictorial log of what I have described.

This is just a speck of what I’m sure many others are also doing elsewhere to help those who are affected in this Covid-19 predicament we are in right now.

Connectivity has demolished boundaries. We can send money to help out a cause in Semporna, Sabah. Or even do an online transfer to someone who lost his job during the Movement Control Order (MCO) in March, but is now caring for 20 cats he rescued from the streets.

The possibilities are endless when we set our hearts to it, which will dictate our minds and our actions. May this little sharing encourage all of us in Malaysia, hey, worldwide even! #RakyatJagaRakyat.

Boo Soon Yew is an active Malaysian citizen who lives in Georgetown, Penang.

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