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11 Things You Should Know About Women Behind Bars In Malaysia

It would be strange to some when women are capable of ruthless and notorious crimes in Malaysia since criminal acts are stereotypically associated with men. As a result of the elusive nature of female prisoners in Malaysia, the topic of prison reformation focusing on females has been less frequently discussed. 

Listed below are 11 things you need to know about Malaysia’s female prisoners, their numbers, their motivations, and how their needs while being sentenced may have been overlooked. 

#1: Only 3 Out Of 52 Prisons In Malaysia Are Female Prisons

  • According to the Malaysian Prison Department, female inmates are placed in 20 institutions for various categories of offences nationwide[1].
  • Currently, only three prison facilities specifically house female inmates, namely the Penjara Wanita Kajang, Penjara Pengkalan Chepa and Penjara Wanita Kota Kinabalu[1].
  • Other known prison facilities that hold both male and female convicts in separate barracks are Penjara Sungai Udang in Melaka where 300 out of 2000 inmates are females. There is also Penjara Kluang, which has a maximum occupancy of 200 female inmates[1].

#2: Drug-Related Offences Are At The Top Of The List 

  • According to the Malaysian Prison Department, there were 3,652 female inmates in 2021, making up 5.9% of the prison population[2]. In another 2006 study, it was found that 52% of female inmates are foreign nationals who have been convicted of immigration offences[3].
Source: AFP
  • Most Malaysian national prisoners were imprisoned due to narcotic crimes or drug-related offences such as drug use and drug trafficking in 2016[4].
  • A qualitative study in 2019 found that female inmates have served time for crimes such as money laundering, abuse, and violence[5]

#3: More Foreign Convicts Compared To Malaysians On The Death Row

  • There are 1342 prisoners on death row as of February 2021 – 129 females (10%) were sentenced to death twice more than the global average[6].
  • In 2019, 95% of females were sentenced to death for drug-related crimes, compared to 70% of male inmates. In the same year, it was found that foreign national females were on death row at a higher rate (86%) than males (29%)[6].
  • 90% of females sentenced to death for drug trafficking in Malaysia were foreign nationals from countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Iran and China[6].

#4: Profiling Malaysian Female Inmates

A study on first-time female offenders found that the motives behind their transgressions vary according to their crimes. Crimes involving money such as stealing and laundering originate from difficulties to sustain themselves and their families[5]

I am from a poor background, I work in a pub, my husband works as a cashier. I need a friend’s help to pay rent. I was desperate to pay the house rent so I trusted my friend because he did give me money. I opened a bank account in my name for an online business and he cheated people. – A participant from a qualitative study[5]

  • Complicit crimes such as abuse and rape are derived from females’ fear of their husbands. 

I tried to stop my husband, but he slapped me. After that, I let him do what he did to my neighbour’s child and kept quiet, because I was afraid of being hit.  – A participant from a qualitative study[5]

Female offenders who were arrested for violent crimes such as attempted murder shared that they were in a fit of rage and some were stressed out. 

I scolded that person but he/ she didn’t admit it. I lost my temper and was very angry. I tried to kill the individual with a machete near the neck. – A participant from a qualitative study[5]

#5: The Facilities In Prison May Benefit From Some Improvements

  • According to a psychiatrist, Johari Khamis[7], the prison health clinic functions are similar to other clinics under the care of the Ministry of Health (MOH). Some of the services include daily outpatient clinics, methadone substitution therapy and dental treatment. In more advanced cases, the prisoners will be monitored under specialist treatment and follow-up at MOH facilities.
  • Prisoners with symptoms of mental disorders will be referred to government hospitals with psychiatric services. Psychiatric treatment is often delayed in prison facilities as there is no in-house psychiatrist in the prison. Psychiatric treatment is often delayed in prison facilities[7].
  • A study conducted on 80 convicted female offenders found that there is a 33.8% lifetime prevalence of suffering from mental disorders. The six-month prevalence is higher at 62.5%. Half of the female offenders have lifetime substance use disorder and almost half have antisocial personality disorder[8].
  • Female prisoners sentenced to death do not have access to specialised healthcare services such as gynaecologists. It was found that they did not receive enough hygiene and sanitary products and were forced to buy more to cover their needs[9]

#6: Expectant Mothers Are Taken Care Of In Prison 

  • Pregnant female prisoners will be monitored during their trimester by a doctor. Once she is about to deliver, the wardens will escort her to the hospital[10]. However, some of them said they had difficulty during delivery due to their limited movement. 

It is painful to have the contraction and to push (while treated as a prisoner)……and to face it alone. (I felt as if) It is a very long period of time. – a mother who gave birth in prison while serving time[11]

  • Inmates with newborns were separated from other females and were provided with exclusive cells. Newborns and babies are provided with baby cots and other newborn necessities, albeit limited, by relatives and prison authorities[10].
  • Mothers are allowed to breastfeed their babies until they reach the age of 2. In the newer prisons, there’s a space for breastfeeding mothers. However, in older prisons, babies will be taken care of by fellow inmates[10].
  • Those undergoing postnatal care shared that they did not receive enough nutrition at the prison facility. Some mothers have shared that the postpartum rituals or opportunities to practise their “berpantang” rituals were limited. 

I prepared my own ‘tungku’. I will collect plastic bottles, put warm water into it and place it on my stomach.  – a mother who gave birth in prison while serving time [11]

#7: Children Of The Females Inmates Are Allowed To Be Together With Their Mothers Under One Condition

  • Female inmates are allowed to bring in their children under the age of 3 with the approval of the Head Director[12]
  • However, once they turn three years old, the welfare officer will contact the next of kin to assume the responsibilities of caregiving. If there’s no one to take care of the child, they will be sent to social welfare. In special cases, the Head Director may allow inmates to take care of their children beyond the age of 3[12]

#8: Chances Of Lifelong Learning Are Available In Prison

  • Female offenders who were put into prison following criminal cases get to continue their education, on top of religious and self-development classes. The Ministry of Education’s Special Education sector provides the national syllabus and teachers are sent, assisted by prison officers. It is true that a few years ago, prison students sitting for their SPM papers made headlines[13].
  • Inmates are allowed to pursue degrees, Masters and PHD programmes at universities such as the University of Malaya. However, classes should be done online. A collaboration with Open University Malaysia (OUM) in 2009 led to 21 inmates graduating with diplomas, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in 2022[14].
  • However, the Prison’s Department data showed that most of the courses were enrolled by male inmates. As of 2017, 0 female inmates have pursued their further studies while 38 male inmates are studying for various educational qualifications[15].

#8: Equipping Them With Vocational Skills

  • In addition to rehabilitation that involves religious classes and personal skills lessons, inmates are placed under programmes that aim to open up opportunities for skilled jobs once they are freed. However, death row inmates are ineligible for this initiative [10]
  • The rehabilitation programmes allow inmates to learn any skills and include various pathways such as becoming a seamstress, beautician or even a baker.
Source: Penjara Wanita Kajang, retrieved from inreallife
  • The Kajang Women Prison inmates are trained and provide affordable spa and salon services to the public. Meanwhile in Pengkalan Chepa Prison, one of the success stories includes Anita* who joined culinary courses. She is apt at making various traditional kuih and cookies and cakes for festivities[16].
  • Inmates are given allowances for their crafts, which can be claimed upon their release. They are, however, paid according to the colour of their uniforms, which determines the level of their rehabilitation[10].

#10: One Step Into The Real World 

  • The prisons department in collaboration with NGOs provides halfway houses or homes to parolees and ex-prisoners who have just been released after serving up to three months in prison.
  • Currently, there are 15 halfway homes in Malaysia. However, all are occupied by former male inmates[17].
  • Halfway homes are a necessity as the process of reintegrating into society is one that is arduous and could be demotivating for former inmates. The transit centres provide emotional and mental support to former inmates, helping to reduce recidivism rates and issues of homelessness.

#11: Organisations Working To Reform Existing Prison System 

*Name has been changed to ensure the anonymity of the participant. 

Explore our sources:

  1. Institusi Penjara Malaysia. (n.d.). Link 
  2. Prison Studies (2022).Malaysia. Link 
  3. Y.K. Teh. (2006). Female Prisoners in Malaysia. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 43: 45–64. [CrossRef]
  4. Jabatan Penjara Malaysia. (2016). Statistik banduan wanita berwarganegara Malaysia di penjara seluruh Malaysia. Kajang: Jabatan Penjara Malaysia.Link
  5. S.K.Mohd Nor., M.R Kamaluddin& W.S.Wan Sulaiman (2019). Criminal Profile of Female Prisoners in Malaysia: A Qualitative Study.Akademika 89(2), Julai 2019. Link
  6. L.Harry. (2022). COMMENT | Foreign women bear the brunt of harsh drug laws. Malaysiakini. Link 
  7. J.Khamis. (2020). Prison Mental Health Service in Malaysia: Where Do We Start? Malaysian Journal Of Psychiatry.Link
  8. Ruzanna Z, Mohamed Hatta S. (2002).Specific psychiatric disorders among convicted female offenders in a Malaysian prison. Malaysian J. Psy. 2002; Vol. 8, No. 1: 34-42.
  9. Prison Insider. (n.d.). Malaysia: detention conditions of people sentenced to death. Link 
  10. G.Gan. (2022). “I Worked in a Malaysian Prison For 10+ Years. Here’s What’s Inside.” Inreallife. Link
  11. S.Hamizi., N.F.S.Suhaimi & S.Razali. (2018). The Poignant Story Of Vulnerable Women : Narrative Of Becoming A Mother In Prison. International Journal for Studies on Children, Women, Elderly And Disabled, Vol. 5, (Oct.). Link
  12. S.Noor. (2019). We Went To Penjara Kajang And What We Found Will Make You Rethink Prisons. CiliSos. Link 
  13. J.L.New. (2017).Malaysian Students Who Commit Crimes Are Jailed. But They Continue Their Education And Graduate.  CiliSos. Link 
  14.  A.Ariffin. (2022). While Thousands Of Varsity Students Drop Out, More Prisoners Are Earning Degrees. The Sun Daily. Link 
  15. Jabatan Penjara Malaysia. (2021). Jumlah Banduan Yang Mengikuti Program Pengajian Tinggi Di Jabatan Penjara Malaysia 2015-2017 Berasaskan Tahap Pengajian Tahun 2014 Hingga 2017. Link 
  16. Bernama. (2020). Prison changes inmates to women with vision. The Sun Daily. Link 
  17. Bernama. (2023). Need for halfway houses for paroled female prisoners. New Straits Times. Link 

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