Kajang Women's Prison has inmates who may never see beyond the 40-feet high walls that surround it, but to some, it offers hope.
The gardens are neat and pristine. Several women lean closely over large sheets of white cloth, painstainkingly putting colour into beautiful designs of what will later be one-of-a-kind batik material.
In the background, hungry babies cry, cranky and impatient for their mid-day feeding. Wafting along with the gentle breeze is the comforting aroma of freshly fried fish, the rice being cooked and pungent curry.
The setting is bucolic. But this isn’t an idyllic scene from a coastal village in the east coast states of Terengganu and Kuantan.
The 40 foot high walls that surround this area, are a concrete reminder that this is the Kajang Women’s Prison.
Some 616 inmates will call this their home for the duration of their sentence. Some of them will never step outside its confines ever again.
But Zuhana, 36, feels “lucky” that she will will leave one day. She was incarcerated for a drug crime.
Already in prison for the past two years, the mother of six girls whose ages range from three to 25, said that it took her a while to understand why she was given an eight-year sentence.
“When you commit a crime and you’re punished, the first reaction will be denial. You’ll be so angry and say, ‘My crime isn’t so serious, why am I being punished so severely?
“But the quiet nights give you time to come to terms with the severity of your actions, and then it hits you; that you could have been dished out something even more severe,” she said, a faint smile of contrition playing on her lips.
Teaching inmates patience and skills
The vocational skills training programme, such as the one Zuhana is involved in, was introduced in Kajang Women’s Prison in November 2007 to equip the inmates with skills to start life anew outside its walls.
The inmates are only allowed to join the skills training workshops upon the completion of the rehabilitation programmes.
The programmes comprise spiritual or group counselling and motivational talks conducted by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Apart from skills training, the illiterate are taught to read and write.
The workshops are usually conducted by trained prison employees and the inmates employed at the workshops are paid a daily allowance, one-third of which goes into their savings.
Under the programme, the inmates learn skills such as batik painting and printing, hair styling, massages and facials, reflexology, making cakes and pastries, catering, craft work and graphic design.
Some inmates also work in the prison’s frozen food manufacturing sector, others care for the babies in the nursery or do tailoring which is a skill Zuhana is currently taking up.
“The funny thing is, I hated to sew! I never had the patience,” she said gestures to her surroundings.
“But this is a place that will teach you patience and you learn to adapt.
“The women here are supportive and we gain strength from each other’s experiences and you really learn to appreciate this second chance. People may laugh, but it really is a second chance.
“I sometimes shudder to think what would have become of me if I were still leading the old life I used to,” she shared.
‘Peace through prayer’
“When I would work at the pub and see all these people come in and get drunk, I stayed away from the alcohol because I saw what it could do to a person and I didn’t want that for myself.
“(But) it is an ironic twist of fate that I would get involved in something other people would say, ‘I’ve seen what drugs can do and I don’t want to get involved in it,’” she said wryly.
“What makes me feel even worse now, is that I wasn’t a user, but I was caught in the fray of some drug dealing.
“I didn’t think about these things when I was outside, trying to make a few extra ringgit. But when I have the time to think about my actions and what it means, it embarasses me,” she said.
The healing process for Zuhana has come in the form of regular prayer time and the religious classes she attends.
She acknowledged that most people think that this is a cliché – being in jail with time to spare brings one closer to God.
But, she adds, this isn’t the case with everyone. She has seen resentment fester in some inmates.
Zuhana remains grateful that her time at the Kajang Women’s Prison has brought her peace through prayer.
“At the end of it all, you have your family and you have God. Sometimes, even your family won’t want you, but God always will.
“My husband was never present and was involved in other undesirable activities. I divorced him four years ago.
“My girls – the ones who are old enough to understand why I’m here are still struggling to accept it. I haven’t seen them in awhile and I don’t think they want to see me, but I get it – I understand why,” she said with resigned acceptance.
‘You must want change’
Getting her girls together and taking care of them is what Zuhana will do first when she is released.
When asked when will this be, she doesn’t even wait for the question to end and rattles the date, March 14, 2018.
Zuhana said that she knows things will be different when she gets out.
She knows what she wants to do and having a new set of skills has given her confidence to plan for the future.
For this, Zuhana adds that she is grateful for the opportunities provided at the Kajang Women’s Prison.
She paused for awhile and before adding that being in prison has shown her that a person must want to change and that things can and will get better if they elect this choice for themselves.
For Zuhana, knowing this liberates her and the walls do little to keep out the possibility of a better life.