Rights group Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) today called on the government to address the problem of overcrowding in prisons following the recent spikes in Covid-19 infections recorded at facilities in Penang and Kedah.
LFL coordinator Zaid Malek acknowledged the health ministry’s response recognising the need to relook Covid-19 SOPs in prisons but said this might have only a negligible effect in curbing the spread of infections.
“The crux of the problem that needs to be addressed is the overcrowding of detainees in our prisons,” he said in a statement.
He noted reports estimating that as many as 73,000 prisoners are housed in facilities meant to hold a maximum of 52,000, saying any SOPs in place are likely to fail without a significant reduction in number of inmates.
Yesterday, daily Covid-19 numbers hit a new high of 869 new cases of which 186 were detected in the Penang Remand Prison, Seberang Perai Prison and Alor Setar Prison.
Zaid said other countries had already addressed the risk of increased infections in overcrowded prisons by releasing inmates shortly after Covid-19 was recognised as a pandemic.
“We therefore urge the government to take similar action and reduce the number of inmates to below maximum capacity in order for SOPs to be effective in curbing the spread of Covid-19 in prisons,” he added.
“In order to do so, the government must not only immediately release prisoners who are detained for minor offences as previously announced, but also those detained under non-violent crimes; inmates who have served two-thirds of their sentence as well as at-risk prisoners.”
Likewise, he said, foreigners or immigrants being held for remand or upon conviction for immigration or minor offences who are not categorised as asylum-seekers should be repatriated to their countries of origin.
“Inmates’ right to life and liberty under Article 5 of the constitution remains intact despite their criminal charge or conviction,” he said.
“The government must therefore ensure that their welfare is adequately protected while they remain in the custody of the state.”