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Some Ex-Convicts Find It Easier In Prison Than In The Real World: A Closer Look Into Recidivism In Malaysia

Malaysia recorded a recidivism rate of 8% in 2017. This means that only 8% of offenders after being released from prison return behind bars due to another criminal offence[1]. A low recidivism rate is Malaysia’s Prison Department’s yearly target and this is achieved through various programmes run in the institution to prepare convicts for a steady life after prison[2]

The Malaysian prison environment is notoriously bad; thin mattresses to sleep on and questionable sanitation at older establishments[2]. Yet, some ex-convicts return to the walls of the prison. 

Reportedly, there has been an issue of overcrowding in prison facilities in Malaysia. The prison facilities nationwide can only accommodate 53,830 individuals[3]. But, in 2021, the facilities are accommodating up to 74,000 prisoners, a situation possibly aggravated during the pandemic[4]

The Prison Facility In Malaysia 

There are three different types of prison in Malaysia, facilities with minimum security, medium security and maximum security[2]

Among the estimated 74,000 prisoners in the facility, 63% (48,000 people) are behind bars due to minor non-violent drug offences such as possession of drugs for personal use[5]

Others are due to petty crimes such as theft and some 26% are remand/pre-trial prisoners bidding time for their trials[6]

Source: inreallife

The Rampant Initiatives To Combat Recidivism 

The recorded low recidivism in Malaysia is contributed by the Malaysia Prison Department’s continuous efforts in preparing and providing opportunities for convicts before the end of their sentence. 

One of the long-established initiatives is the out-of-prison rehabilitation programme implemented in 2008, including the Community Rehabilitation Programme (CRP), where prisoners nearing the end of their sentence would be placed under rehabilitation programmes outside of the prison walls[7]

85% of ex-convicts under the CRP initiatives are now self-employed based on the skills gained at the centres while 15% of them have been employed in various sectors in 2016. Throughout the programme, the inmates were given skills training in agriculture, aquaculture, basic mechanics and computer skills etc. – General Tan Sri Zulkifeli, Armed Forces Chief General[8]

Source: Penjara Wanita Kajang, retrieved from inreallife

Few more different programmes are catered to convicts to assimilate easier in society. Those with minor offences such as stealing or illegal racing are placed on Compulsory Attendance Order (Perintah Kehadiran Wajib – PKW) rather than serving prison time[7]

The PKW involves community work such as working at an orphanage or cleaning and cooking at old folks’ homes. In 2021, 40,091 convicts from 74,000 prisoners were released under parole[4]. 

The initiatives will also be expanded and would necessitate two-thirds of drug abuse cases to partake in rehabilitation programs in the community by 2030[7]

In 2022, the Home Ministry is looking to offset the shortages of foreign workers by placing 7,000 convicts under the parole programme in employment [9].

Our findings up until 2021 showed that 99.63% of the programme participants have grabbed the opportunity to return to the community without repeating the same wrongdoings or going back to prison. – Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin, Malaysia’s Home Minister [9]

The Outside World Is A Whole Different Ball Game 

Despite the steady efforts, there are outliers to the success stories of prisoners reintegrating into society. In 2018, the Malaysian Prison Department recorded 13,896 former prisoners being sentenced again[10]

The prison environment is imbued with a rigid system and strict discipline prisoners are ruled with. The controlled environment with no-nonsense rules and a clockwork routine gives the illusion that prisoners are on track and leading a normal life.

However, once they return to society, their independence and freedom are tested. In prison, their hands are held by wardens and religious teachers. They are supported through rehabilitation programmes, but in the real world, they have to make decisions on their own and choose the right path.

Sometimes prisoners no longer have family waiting for their return, cast aside due to their criminal acts. Ex-convicts make up a large part of the homeless community in Malaysia as a result of the unwelcoming return[11]

An exclusive report by a local newspaper found that every month at least 300 prisoners were released from Penjara Kajang. But, at least 90% out of the 300 prisoners would flock and live in Chow Kit and Puduraya[12]. One major reason was the reluctance of their parents to accept the ex-convicts after multiple transgressions [12].

Even if they return to their families, it is not without scepticism and mistrust.

I can hear all the insults from my family members behind my back, “He has nothing else to do, and he will keep on taking drugs repeatedly”. I can’t accept that. – Lutfi, a recidivist[10]

The lack of familial support and warmth is a precursor to turning back to crimes and life in prison. Coupled with the cold treatment from the community would only break the spirits of ex-convicts. 

Sometimes when I go back to my hometown, they say what I know, like I used to be a bad guy, often stealing shoes and bicycles. These kinds of assumptions often come about because of what I used to do. I want to quit. But this kind of thing makes me sad. – Siva, a recidivist[10]

Source: Malay Mail

Disheartened, ex-convicts who returned to their kampung would leave their homes and find solace in the alleyways of major cities e.g. in Johor Bahru, Penang and Kuala Lumpur.

Every time I return to my family, there’s a poor welcome from my family. So I went back in. Once I’m out of prison, I got involved with drugs again. I went back to drugs because I stayed with my friends. I no longer return to my home, I became homeless and slept on the streets. – Rahim, an ex-convict[11]

Some ex-convicts who suffer from Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) have chosen to remain single for years to come. 

We know and realise that we have HIV disease. Hence, who would ever want to be married to us? Even our partner will be scared if they know that we have such a disease. – Siva, a recidivist[10]

Doors Are Shut Against Ex-Convicts

Initiatives are in place to ensure that convicts have a secure job placement before they leave prison. More and more social enterprises and F&B establishments such as BeliGas have opened their doors to hire ex-convicts. According to the Prison Department, under various parole and reintegration programmes since 2008, 41,179 ex-convicts have been employed up to 2021[13]

Those who are in our integration programme, 98% of them were employed, either by the employers we arranged for or jobs that are found by themselves. We found them being able to sustain themselves in the community because they have already been assisted in our reintegration programme. –  Datuk Ibrisam Abdul Rahman, Prison Department director-general [13]

However, not all prisoners share the same luck. Some have been rejected from work once the employer does a background check. 

When we apply for work, for example; jobs involving shops, the owner of the shop will ask for our identity card (IC) and will check our record, whether we have a record of being imprisoned or not. – Syafiq, an ex-convict[10]

Some have not applied to jobs due to their low educational background and involvement with drugs would only taint the perception of future employers.

I once had the thought to seek for a job, but then I realised; what kind of job could I get? Even if I worked in a shop, the employer would surely check my education level and when he knew that I had been involved with drugs, then who would ever believe me again?’ – Suhaila, a recidivist[10]

There have been occurrences whereby ex-convicts were given a second chance to work and build a steady life for themselves and family. But, the ghost of the past continues to haunt them. This happened to Malik, who went to Sekolah Henry Gurney, a corrective school as a youth after committing an armed robbery[14].

Source: Astro Awani

Malik was laid off by his employers when they had a whiff of his past. Since then, Malik has been living on the streets with his wife and two children. 

There were no injuries or deaths as a result of the crime but I was sentenced to eight years in prison for armed robbery. I have already paid for all those offences with eight years in prison. – Malik, an ex-convict[14]

Malik now relied on a daily wage of RM30 – RM45 from lifting and delivering loads at an office in Jalan Chow Kit. The amount is just enough to cover his RM25 room rental and his family’s needs but for food, they are at the mercy of local NGOs feeding the homeless[11]

My wife and children live in alleyways and expect food aid from non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Sometimes our family has to sleep on the roads, in Jalan Chow Kit because we failed to pay the rent. – Malik, an ex-convict[14]

Return To The Rabbit Hole

Rejected by their families and with no roof over their heads, ex-convicts who committed drug abuse in the past return to their downtrodden steps to the arms of other drug addicts. The cycle of drug abuse and being caught by authorities only repeat itself.

With friends, they welcome us very well. They drove us to the old world. I mix with my friends here (Chow Kit). When I return, friends will offer me to do work, without the need to spend money and without any upfront model, which is to sell ‘goods’ (referring to drugs), so we sell drugs. – Suhaila, a recidivist[10]

It is easier for recovering drug addicts to spiral into a life of destitution with no social support from loved ones. Sometimes, taking drugs is their coping mechanism in a tough life. 

I would take drugs again every time I met such friends. I feel comfortable talking and being with them as they can accept me for who I am. – Amir, a recidivist[10]

With the ongoing stigma against them and a lack of support and opportunity to make right, ex-convicts who find comfort with bad company are more likely to return to prison. Even for Malik who hadn’t committed another crime since his release, reality hasn’t been so kind to him. 

I haven’t committed any crime and won’t do it again. In fact, I don’t even touch any more illicit goods (drugs). – Malik, ex-convict[14]

Malik’s biggest concern is that his daughter will grow up living on the streets as a homeless person with no permanent shelter or education because of his inability to provide for his family financially.

This is what bothers me the most. I don’t want her (Malik’s daughter) to not attend school and end up living as a homeless person until she grows up. I want her to have an education. – Malik, ex-convict[14]

Should We Be Proud Of Our Low Rate Of Recidivism?

There is a sense of hopelessness among many recidivists trying to stay afoot in the community. Their spirits are dampened by the berating from family members and the lack of opportunities available to some ex-convicts. Some find it challenging to fight back their drug addiction. 

BeliGas, a social enterprise that provides cheap oil for the B40 community, has hired ex-convicts in the past. However, some ex-convicts were laid off as they encountered relapses and returned to their original circumstances[15].

We try to support them, but if we can’t do anything – we have no choice but to let them go because the safety of our consumers is also very important. – Suthan Mookaiah, founder of BeliGas[15]

The assurance of stable jobs is a factor that could improve the lives of ex-convicts. Noticeably, there are other barriers to their full transformation such as their mindset, self-esteem and thinking pattern.  

The private sector is focused on hiring employees. But, we have to remember that these ex-prisoners have issues in terms of thinking, self-confidence. So, to change it, it requires the involvement of ex-prisoners, family and the company. – Datuk Abdul Aziz Abdul Razak, Deputy Director of Malaysia Prison Department[16]

The Malaysian Prison Department has recognised that these factors could make or break the success of ex-convicts in the real world. The department has run an initiative, i-Kembali, to alter ex-convicts and convicts’ self-deprecating perception and mindset. 

i-Kembali is being run for inmates with less than one-year of serving time and ex-prisoners under supervision as well as ex-prisoners under surveillance to correct thoughts and direction of life. They are given exposure to different methods such as hypnosis to help with their self-perception – Datuk Abdul Aziz Abdul Razak, Deputy Director of Malaysia Prison Department[16]

There have also been calls to increase more halfway homes for prisoners in Malaysia. The homes function as transit accommodations for ex-convicts and create a safe environment for them to assimilate into the local community. Currently, there are 13 halfway homes in Malaysia[17].

However, there are limited places and the short duration of stay did not allow the prisoners to recover before being part of the community. The existing halfway homes are required to be more effective in their implementation as it has immense potential to smooth the reintegration of ex-prisoners into the larger community[17]

90% of the participants in halfway homes led a good life, succeeded in securing jobs and posed no problems to their employers. Therefore the objective of stopping their criminal habit is achieved and our monitoring shows all of them are clean.  – Datuk Wira Abu Seman Yusop, Former Deputy Home Minister[18]

Organisations such as Malaysia Care, SUHAKAM and Pilih Peluang Malaysia are also on a mission to reform the existing prison system in Malaysia. The overcrowding had given rise to COVID-19 cases earlier in the pandemic[19], highlighting the dire need for things to change starting from the sentences given to the majority of drug abuse cases imprisoned. There has also been a proposal to keep workers’ prison records confidential in 2021. 

Source: Malay Mail

But, it isn’t just the responsibility of authorities to provide second chances for ex-convicts to thrive. Ex-convicts face discrimination and stigma from neighbours and employers only pushing them back to the familiar path of social ills. It is also a call for all of us to treat them with compassion, no man is an island. As Malik, solemnly shared;

I am an ex-convict but I’m also a human. Malik, ex-convict[14]

Explore our sources:

  1. ​​A.F.Othman. (2017). M’sia’s criminal recidivism rate below 9 per cent: DPM. New Straits Times. Link 
  2. G.Gan. (2021) “I Worked in a Malaysian Prison For 10+ Years. Here’s What’s Inside.” Link
  3. Bernama. (2020). Prisons Dept D-G: Malaysia’s parole system effective in reducing recidivism. Malay Mail. Link
  4. Bernama. (2021). 40,091 convicts under community-based programmes released on parole. The Sun Daily. Link
  5. Pilih Peluang. (n.d.). It’s time for alternatives. Link 
  6. Anonymous. (2018). 6 Things I Learnt From Spending 2 Years In A Malaysian Prison. CiliSos. Link
  7. Badd. (2019).To Solve Prison Overcrowding, Malaysia Is Putting Convicts… Outside Of Prisons. CiliSos. Link
  8. F.Mohd Shahar & H.K.Kannan. (2016). More than RM1.3 billion saved via Community Rehabilitation Programme. New Straits Times. Link 
  9. M.Y.Muzamir. (2022). Govt looking at using paroled prisoners to offset foreign worker shortage. New Straits Times. Link 
  10. M.A.Jasni. & S.H. Abu Bakar. (2021). Tough Life after Prison: An Analysis of 19 Former Prisoners in Malaysia. Journal of Community Development Research (Humanities and Social Sciences) 2021; 14(1). Link
  11. M.A.Jasni. & S.H. Abu Bakar. (2021).Faktor Mempengaruhi Bekas Banduan menjadi Gelandangan: Kajian Kes di Kuala Lumpur Factors Influencing Ex-Prisoners to Become Homeless: A Case Study in Kuala Lumpur.Jurnal Perspektif (2021 Jil. 13 Bil. 1 (102-116). Link
  12. F.A.Rosli. (2019). Peluang kedua elak bekas banduan tersisih. Berita Harian. Link 
  13. T.Tan. (2021). Nearly 42,000 parolees gainfully employed since 2008, Prisons DG cites 98% success rate. The Star. Link 
  14. S.H. Kamalul Arifin. (2017).‘Aku bekas penjenayah, tetapi aku juga manusia’ Astro Awani.Link 
  15. Wiki Impact. (2021). Suthan Mookaiah : Lighting The Way For B40s Via BeliGas, A Social Enterprise. Link 
  16. N.Zain. (2021).Perlu NGO bantu cegah jenayah berulang bekas banduan. Malaysia Gazette. Link
  17. M.A.Jasni., S.H. Abu Bakar, J.Z. Zabdi Mohd Yusoff., K. Md. Shahid.,N., Omar., & Z. Azman. (2019).The Need of More Halfway Houses as Transit to Reduce Homelessness amongst Former Prisoners in Malaysia. Geografi Vol. 7(1), 33-54. Link
  18. S. Sokial. (2013). First halfway home for prisoners. Borneo Post. Link
  19. N.I.Anwar. (2020). Solving the Prison Dilemma of COVID-19. Project Syndicate. Link
  20. The Sun Daily. (2021). Proposal to keep workers’ prison records confidential welcomed. Link 

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