On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Hard life behind packed bars

Last Thursday, I was invited to visit the sprawling Sungai Buloh prison, built on a 10ha site. It has the best electronic system and was built to house prisoners from Pudu Jail, which was built in 1895.

Any corrective facility is meant to keep criminals out of society, but at the same time the humane treatment of its residents should not be overlooked.

In Sungai Buloh, the prisoners are not entitled to electric fans in their cells. From a corrective point of view, there is no justification to have a fan because prisoners are supposed to feel the impact of a jail sentence. From the security angle, the authorities do not want any inmate to use the fan to hurt himself.

The prison has taken great pains to ensure that death-row prisoners have all their meat, whether fish or chicken, de-boned. They are supposed to be hanged, not choked, to death. For ordinary prisoners, they have to eat their meals using their hands because forks and spoons can be used as weapons.

To my surprise, I learnt that they have five meals a day, including a minimum of 300gm of rice each for lunch and dinner. That is according to the United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMR), of which Malaysia is a signatory.

Preparation of meals by the prisoners begins as early as 3am. There is no difference in the kind of meals served, whether they are convicted thieves or "VIP prisoners" such as ex-politicians, lawyers or police officers, which fall under the "high-risk category".

By high-risk, it means these are prisoners who could find themselves harmed as a result of their previous positions or jobs, especially former police officers or prison warders.

I was told that a former police officer was slapped by a fellow prisoner despite being escorted. The culprit was punished for his action but he seemed prepared to take the risk.

Then there are those who are in a position to organise or influence prisoners.

I asked to have a look at the prison cell of former Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. The front section of the cell has been converted into a medical treatment room.

Despite loose talk that Anwar had special privileges, including an air-conditioned room, what I saw was an ordinary jail cell with an open toilet hidden by a low partial wall, like those used by other prisoners. Neither was there a fan. Ironically, funds for the prison were approved when he was finance minister.

For remand prisoners, an average of 50 people would share a dormitory where they sleep on double-decker beds, minus mattresses. There are three semi-covered toilets for them to share. For convicted prisoners, three to five of them share a cell.

Less talked about is the welfare of the warders. Besides those who operate the prison, 100 more are involved in administration, and driving and guarding remand prisoners to the courts and hospitals.

It is an unhealthy situation. Should a riot break out, the lives of these outnumbered warders would be seriously threatened. In the Suhakam 2003 report, it states that the lack of trained personnel to attend to the health of detainees is not consistent with the requirements of the SMR.

Furthermore, with the increase in the number of inmates suffering serious and chronic illnesses like tuberculosis, hepatitis and AIDS, there is need for medical services to be improved.

There is concern that warders have contracted some illnesses from the inmates, especially tuberculosis. In Sungai Buloh, there are 2,000 inmates with HIV/AIDS.

The warder's job is a tough one. The starting salary is as low as RM553 a month, which is almost poverty level, and many of these warders have to supplement their income by working as part-time drivers or pasar malam traders.

They deserve higher salaries and allowances to meet the demands of current times. Theirs is indeed a high-risk job and surely their working conditions need to be reviewed, especially when they have to work overtime in an overcrowded place.

I was also given the opportunity to give a pep talk to about 40 "young prisoners" below the age of 20. These youngsters had committed crimes ranging from petty crime to rape.

I did not want to sound like a policeman or preacher. My message was short and simple – repent and stick to your religion. As humans, we all make mistakes and continue to do so but we must be remorseful.

I told them they could laugh at me or just ignore my words but I hoped that what I said would be remembered 10 or 15 years from now. It would still not be too late.