KUALA LUMPUR: Prison guard and sketch artist Ewam Lin uses his artwork to push for reforms to the prison system in Taiwan and, he hopes, around Asia.
He taught himself to draw and, using a fountain pen his father gave him when he was at school, started sketching the daily life of prisoners in 2010 for what he calls his scrawling diary.
Overcrowding in the general prison population is a recurring theme, as is the contrasting isolation of death row inmates.
The warden has drawn over 1,000 pictures, many of them recently on display in Malaysia at the Abolish Death Penalty forum and art exhibition at Wisma WIM, Kuala Lumpur.
During the forum, FMT spoke to Lin about his life working in prisons and how he feels about rehabilitation and the death penalty.
Two decades ago and out of work, he had run out of job options so he took one of the few opportunities available and became a prison guard on April Fool’s Day, 1999, a date he still feels significant.
Now 48, he is a dedicated officer with some strong opinions about reform.
He has had some memorable moments. In his second year, four prisoners made a break for it one night during a typhoon.
“I was with a colleague sheltering from the storm behind a rock,” he recalled.
“The howl of the wind made us think the escapees were running past us. We chased them blindly in the dark and fell into a drain, injuring ourselves pretty badly.”
Over his years in the prison service, Lin has learned that most criminals are not simply lazy or unable to find work. “There are a lot of reasons why people commit crimes. With most, it is not something they enjoy doing.”
Asked whether the prison system can reform criminals, Lin pointed out the high reoffending rate of 83% at his prison.
“Most are drug abusers. If they are not given medical treatment, they will inevitably return to prison.
“Even within a prison drug rehabilitation programme, the addicts still socialise with each other. They actually find more ways to buy drugs in prison than outside. So is it a good idea to put them in prison in the first place?”
He is always particularly concerned about juvenile offenders.
In Taiwan they can be incarcerated in either a straightforward juvenile detention centre or a more reform-minded correctional facility.
Lin has seen how, when juvenile offenders are locked up in a normal detention centre, the experience often leaves them with terrible mental scars.
A young offender from his prison confessed to him how, when he was transferred to a correctional facility and began the rehabilitation programme, it was the only time he felt there was hope in his life.
Lin maintains that the bottom line favours adopting the more enlightened approach. A young offender imprisoned at a juvenile detention centre costs the taxpayer more than twice as much as one at a more humane correctional facility.
“But whenever we talk to the authorities about converting juvenile detention centres into correctional facilities, the government always says it has no money for that.
“So the juvenile offender loses an opportunity to reform, and the country has to pay a lot more than it should.”
Regarding the death penalty, the subject of the forum, Lin said in Taiwan there were no executions between 2006 and 2009 but they were resumed in 2010.
He said the debate over the death penalty in Taiwan is similar to that in Malaysia – very divisive. “It is not as simple as just a yes or no.”
Abolitionists worry that miscarriages of justice sometimes execute the innocent.
Those who want to keep the ultimate deterrent maintain that serious crime will increase without it.
In Malaysia, the Cabinet decided last October to suspend mandatory death sentences. It will decide next month whether to propose abolishing the death penalty to Parliament.
“Those who are pro-death penalty usually ask, if someone murdered your daughter would you be for or against the death penalty for the murderer?
“But when a murder victim’s relative is against the death penalty, the other side changes its argument to: well, you are not the victim, how do you know what they would have wanted?”
In Lin’s experience, most people want capital punishment to stay. He cited a survey of Taiwan prison wardens and prisoners, in which 90% said they support the death penalty.
“Even gang members support it because they believe if it is abolished, serious crimes will spiral out of control,” he said.
“A lot of my colleagues are concerned that if we abolish it, whole-life prison sentences will replace it. They are not in favour of prisons being used as hotels in which murderers are accommodated forever.”
Despite all the tribulations, Lin still finds being a prison officer interesting and rewarding, so he has no plans to forge a new career on the outside.
“If you like meeting people in challenging circumstances, you could do worse than be a prison officer.”
He hopes prison systems throughout Asia will one day adopt the idea that they are there to reform inmates.
“If people keep reoffending and being reincarcerated, it’s a sign the authorities really need to rethink their policies.”