Government must urgently address dire COVID-19 spread in prisons
19 October 2020
We refer 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 are from those detected in the Penang Remand Prison, Seberang Perai Prison, and the Alor Setar Prison.
Even though the Health Director-General, Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham has in response to these spikes stated that there is a need to relook into the COVID-19 standard operating procedures (SOP) in prison, this may have negligible effect to curb the spread of infection 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. It has been reported that the prisons facilities are 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 SOP in place is likely to fail and the consequences may be catastrophic, not only to the prisoners but also 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 that it will grant inmates release on licence (ROL) to minor offenders who were sentenced to less than one year imprisonment that has less than three month left to serve. While we welcome this announcement, there have been no reports of how many inmates have been released under ROL to date, if any. Furthermore, the limited criterion of those eligible for ROL would mean that this proposed solution would not drastically reduce overpopulation of inmates in our prisons and our detention facilities would remain a breeding-ground for COVID-19 infection.
Inmates right to life and liberty under Article 5 of the Constitution remain 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 in order for SOPs to be effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. In order 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 2/3rds of their sentence as well as at risk prisoners. Similarly, the large number of foreigners or immigrants currently being held in prison for 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.
Lawyers for Liberty