End jailing of minor drug offenders, says medical expert

Epidemiology expert Dr Ehab Salah says preventive measures such as social distancing cannot be applied in the prison setting. (Reuters pic)

PETALING JAYA: An expert in epidemiology has called for a halt to the jailing of minor drug offenders, saying this would reduce overcrowding in prisons and be in the interest of containing the spread of Covid-19.

Dr Ehab Salah, who works for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said the existing prison environment was not conducive to measures to contain virus transmission.

Key preventive measures such as social distancing and the use of face masks were not applicable in the prison setting, he added.

Ehab alleged that prisoners were not receiving healthcare services of the same standard available to the public at large.

Prior to the Covid-18 pandemic, he said, the spread of tuberculosis, HIV and Hepatitis C in Malaysian prisons were always a health concern.

Noting that minor drug offenders make up significant portions of prison populations, he called for non-custodial measures, early release and the temporary suspension of sentences.

Ehab was on the panel of a webinar on overcrowding in places of detention.

Also on the panel was lawyer Samantha Chong, who said jailing minor drug offenders caused more harm than good and would not solve the problem of drug addiction.

“Addiction is not just a social problem, but also a medical issue,” she said. “The problem is that prison officers are not trained to treat drug offenders. In fact, imprisonment cannot rehabilitate them.”

She also said that many minor drug offenders were not violent and therefore did not deserve imprisonment.

She noted a report saying Malaysian prisons held more than 70,000 inmates in 2019, nearly 20,000 more than they could accommodate.

It has been alleged that places of detention in Malaysia, including prisons, are bursting at the seams with overcrowding, do not have fully functional health services and are poorly ventilated.

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