PETALING JAYA: The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) said now is the best time for the government to discuss prison reforms to address overcrowding and human rights issues in light of the Covid-19 clusters at prisons, police lock-ups and detention centres.
It recommended that the judicial institutions, Attorney-General’s Chambers, home affairs ministry and relevant agencies such as the Prisons Department work together for the conditional or early release of certain groups of prisoners.
It said this might include prisoners who were in custody for light, non-violent offences and also drug users who did not pose a risk to public safety. It added that those with chronic diseases could also be considered.
“We are not saying release all of them,” said its commissioner Jerald Joseph during a live stream press conference today.
Suhakam also recommended that the government look into “non-custodial measures” or allow alternative legal action against those who were sentenced to jail but were unable to raise bail.
This could include allowing non-cash bail or bonds and having the offenders regularly check-in at nearby police stations either in-person or online.
It said priority for this alternative could be given to youth offenders, non-violent criminals, low-risk drug users and those with chronic illnesses.
Non-custodial sentencing could also be applied to prisoners held for socio-economic crimes such as stealing out of poverty or economic stress. Similarly, elderly prisoners with health problems, including mental health problems, can also be considered.
“For drug users, the law can be amended to allow them to get treated as patients at healthcare institutions or rehabilitation centres, instead of being sentenced and held at prisons,” Joseph said.
Currently, the maximum capacity at prisons nationwide stands at 53,830 people. Official figures show there were 72,903 prisoners as at Oct 15.
An estimated 30% of the total prison population consists of those imprisoned for not being able to pay bail, small-time offenders or socio-economic-related offenders.
Meanwhile, for immigration depots, there are currently 15,163 detainees, exceeding the 12,530 capacity as at July 1.
Immigration should stop major raids for now
Joseph also said there were 2,054 prisoners, defined as immigration offenders, who had completed their sentences but were still in prison due to the overcrowding at immigration depots.
“These prisoners should have been moved to immigration depots, so that immigration can carry on with the deportation processes. But because the immigration depots are overcrowded, they are still at prisons, hence, worsening the overcrowding there and delaying their deportation.”
He said prisoners consisting of refugees or asylum seekers who were registered under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should also be released.
Suhakam also recommended that the Immigration Department put a stop to large-scale immigration raids and operations targeting undocumented migrants, and instead find alternative ways to solve the problem such as through regularisation or amnesty.
Joseph said these systemic issues contributed to the spread of Covid-19 in prisons, lock-ups and detention centres.
He also called for dedicated funding under Budget 2021 to all institutions involving prisoners and detainees such as the Prisons Department, Immigration Department, police and the National Anti-Drugs Agency, so they could produce personal protective equipment (PPE) for prison staff and also personal hygiene items for prisoners.
He added that there should also be funding for increased on-site healthcare services at detention centres by providing sufficient heath officers and medical supplies.
Allow UNHCR to meet immigration detainees
Meanwhile, on the issue of UNHCR, Joseph said the government should allow it access to detainees at immigration detention centres.
Yesterday, it was reported that the government had not allowed it to meet detained refugees and asylum seekers for more than a year.
Previously, UNHCR had been given access to visit the centres to determine who should be released and given refugee status.
“I think the motivation is to find a better way to determine their status.
“While we’re finding a better way, the present mechanism should be allowed to operate. We cannot stop, because if you stop, the numbers (at immigration centres) will grow.
“We already know Rohingya detainees don’t have documents, hence, if you want to deport them to Myanmar, you can’t do so,” Joseph said.
He said UNHCR or other agencies should be allowed to handle such cases and that it could not be delayed.
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