Thursday, July 29, 2021

Locked behind bars with the spectre of Covid-19

With Sarawak prison inmates not yet on the list for vaccination, a father worries for the safety of his son who still has two and a half years to serve.

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For seven years, Jahar spent his one off-day every week meeting his son Khairul who is behind bars at the Puncak Borneo Prison in Kuching.

Khairul was convicted of robbery and sentenced to 10 years in jail. Under the current remission system, the 27-year-old has two a half years left to serve.

In order to visit him, Jahar would make a 40-minute trip by motorcycle from his home in Kampung Gersik. Once he arrived, he would wait for his son to pick up the phone at the other side of the glass divider at the prison visiting room.

Normally, they would have 30 minutes to talk and to tell each other what was happening in their lives. If it happened to be football season, the conversation would be dominated by Liverpool.

Half an hour each week wasn’t much, but it was all they had – until the arrival of Covid-19.

Prison visits were suspended to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus, and the weekly pockets of time with each other stopped.

“As a parent, as a father, sometimes you will have all kinds of thoughts like, what if he gets infected with the virus?”

Jahar has not seen his son since the start of the pandemic. He can only wait for Khairul to call him through the MyPhone initiative provided by the prisons department.

While other facilities such as video calls have been offered in place of face-to-face visits, these do not provide the same level of comfort for family members. For those like Jahar, who works as a security guard, internet cost is also a problem.

Jahar is particularly concerned about his son given the threat of the more transmissible Delta strain of Covid-19.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, he said he had heard stories of infections spreading in the prison.

“Given how crowded it is, my son is at risk of contracting the virus,” he said. “Every time I hear news about infections among the inmates in prison, my heart beats fast.”

He said he has spoken to Khairul several times by phone, but it is difficult to keep his emotions in check.

“As a parent, as a father, sometimes you will have all kinds of thoughts like, what if he gets infected with the virus?”

Vaccine hopes

Like millions across the country, Jahar is pinning his hopes on the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme (PICK).

He does not know if his son has been vaccinated, or if he has even registered for the jab, but he hopes that the government will not forget about those behind bars.

“He doesn’t have a mobile phone,” Jahar said. “Even if I could register for him, I wouldn’t be able to bring him to attend his appointment.

“As much as I’m worried, all I can do is to keep having faith, and to hope that I will not be left in the dark without any updates on my beloved son.”

Criminologist Akhbar Satar said PICK should be expedited for prisoners, warning that it will be difficult to contain the virus spread if inmates are left out of the vaccination drive.

“Prisoners should be prioritised for vaccination simply because prisons easily become Covid-19 clusters given their congested state.

“Infections in prisons would spread to all the prison staff and if they, too, contract Covid-19, then who would guard the prisoners?”

He told MalaysiaNow that prisoners who are about to be released should also be vaccinated.

“At least once they are released, they would also help protect the community.

“Prisoners are humans too, and should be treated like others in the vaccine rollout,” he said.

When asked whether prisoners in Sarawak had been given Covid-19 jabs, state prison director Mohamad Rosidek Musa said no.

“At the moment, they haven’t been registered nor have they been vaccinated,” he told MalaysiaNow.

“Prisoners are humans too, and should be treated like others in the vaccine rollout.”

However, he added that the department is working closely with the state health department as well as the state disaster management committee on how to get this done.

“We have also put SOPs in place for inmates before they are released from prison,” he said.

“They will be quarantined for 14 days at a transit centre and swab tests will be taken. If their tests come back negative, we will release them.”

Meanwhile, Jahar continues to wait for word on his son. He recalls the things he used to tell Khairul during their weekly conversations.

He would remind Khairul to stay positive and tell him that he believed he could become a better person.

“I always told him that whatever he did in the past, is past. As a father, I accept all his flaws and I will be waiting here until the day he is released.”

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