HE had just completed his Penilaian Menengah Rendah examination when I met him at Kajang Prison, where he was being detained for the murder of his tuition teacher’s daughter.
The boy, then only 15, had started serving his sentence for the murder of the 11-year-old girl. But unlike other convicts who knew the duration of their prison sentence, the boy killer was to be detained in prison at the pleasure of the King.
In short, he could be kept in prison for a long time simply because he was a juvenile. If he had been an adult, he would have been sent to the gallows as Section 302 of the Penal Code carries the mandatory death sentence for murder.
The Child Act 2001 states that the death sentence shall not be passed on a juvenile but the flipside is that pardons are rare. Never mind if they are juveniles who are first-time offenders with no previous criminal records.
On July 12, the Court of Appeal ruled that detaining the boy at the King’s pleasure was unconstitutional. On Wednesday, the appellate court freed him as there was no law that prescribed a sentence for a child convicted of murder.
It was near noon when I was brought by the prison warders to meet him two years ago. He was shy but I remember his smile and politeness.
The warders appeared to be fond of him, even sympathetic. Their main concern for the boy, who will turn 18 next month, was the lack of tuition and books for him.
Sharing the cell-like room with him were eight other juveniles, who were Form Five students of Sek Agama Dato Mana Petra Maamor in Ampangan, Seremban, Negri Sembilan.
They were in jail for the murder of their schoolmate Muhammad Farid Ibrahim in the school dormitory. Like the boy, they were detained at the pleasure of the King – in this case, the Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan as the offence was committed in the state. In an interview last year, the boys said the first thing they would do after their release would be to visit Muhammad Farid’s grave to seek forgiveness.
These boys were placed in the same cell, away from adult convicts, but it was obvious that deprived of proper learning facilities, their chances of passing their exams were near impossible.
Peering through the grilles in the classroom, I could see hundreds of squatting prisoners in red T-shirts in the huge compound of the prison. They were all drug offenders – this was the daily view for the kids.
Classes were merely a way of passing time and perhaps to learn a bit whenever volunteer teachers showed up. Except for volunteers from Shelter Home, led by Pastor James Nayagam, the reality is that there are not many teachers who would take time away from school and tuition for these kids.
One by one, these kids showed their drawings to me. They patiently explained to me what their drawings symbolised, giving me the impression that they had not given up hope. I wasn’t sure whether they were putting up a brave front for me but I hoped that they would remain determined.
The warders also took me to talk to one of two sisters who had been charged with the murder of their Australian businessman stepfather in Subang Jaya, Selangor, in 2003.
The sisters were acquitted by the High Court last year without their defence being called but their two boyfriends were sentenced to 10 years’ jail, the maximum penalty for manslaughter.
The girl, who was studying for her SPM exam when I visited her, was another sad case. Her sister was also in the same prison. Their mother, who had returned to Sarawak to start a new life, rarely visited them.
Very much left to themselves, they still had dreams and gladly shared with me what they wanted to do when they walked out of prison.
But the reality is that while there may be sympathy for these juvenile prisoners, the families of victims would be less forgiving.
For example, the mother of the girl murdered by the boy said that freeing him was unacceptable. She described the court decision as “unfair” to her daughter and family members. Their anger is understandable given the nature of the killing.
Still, our overcrowded prisons are no place for juvenile convicts. The Sungai Buloh prison, for example, has over 5,100 prisoners, with 263 of them being below the age of 20. There isn’t much that prison staff can do to constructively motivate or counsel the young prisoners.
The maximum capacity of the prison is 2,500 prisoners but it only has 500 warders who handle duties which include manning security and driving prisoners to court. Ten of them have even doubled up as counsellors.
These youngsters are restless, energetic and short-sighted, and it doesn’t help when they feel their situation is hopeless and that no family members want to see them.