SUHAKAM's Jerald Joseph: Peek Into Our Prisons, Pry Open A Window Into Our Souls


SUHAKAM's Jerald Joseph: Peek Into Our Prisons, Pry Open A Window Into Our Souls

Celebrated Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky and SUHAKAM Commissioner Jerald Joseph share a common bond – they both believe that humanity is best judged by looking at how they treat society’s misfits in their prisons. He (Joseph – not Dostoevsky) – speaks to AWANI Review’s Ibrahim Sani on what applied in tempestuous Russia of the mid-19th century is still applicable in Malaysia two centuries on.

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s greatest work was on his commentary on evaluating society using very unconventional means as a benchmark. He once said that; “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

The author of works such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky is widely considered one of the greatest literary figures of the past 200 years.

As punishment for being part of secret society of literary figures, Dostoevsky was sentenced to four years' hard labour in Siberia during the 1850s. He died after a series of haemorrhages at the age of 59. It is reported that over 40,000 people attended his funeral.

His work however lives on in how countries around the world should be evaluated through the lens of how it treats its prison population. Malaysia’s Human Rights organisation SUHAKAM takes on the challenge head on. Its commissioner Jerald Joseph speaks to AWANI Review on how we can revamp our prisons system by seriously apportioning the necessary budgetary requirements to the institution.

The need to re-evaluate the prisons system is the subject being investigated and evaluated by Dr Mastura Mat Rosly, MBBS; who is working towards a Masters Degree in Mental Health and Psychological Medicine.

Below is Dr Mastura’s account.


November 8th 2016

Received an order from a High Court to detain a patient under section 342 of the Criminal Procedure Code for a psychiatric evaluation. He was charged under Section 302 of the Penal Code for causing the death of a fellow convict in the Seremban Prison in November last year.

He arrived in a police convoy. It's a case of a prisoner killing another prisoner. He was received with a valid court order for detention of not more than one month. But unfortunately, no accompanying charge sheet or investigative sheet. Following due diligence, we traced the court officials for the relevant documents.

To my great consternation, the charge sheet was a mere five lines long. Those few words merely describing that he was accused of murdering another prisoner (name withheld for confidentiality) on the date and time of incident at the afore-mentioned location.  It's appalling (the summary way in which the official paperwork was prepared for case in which a life was lost ). It makes a mockery of lost life. 

This is one man's life lost to us and the powers that be deigned only to dedicate as much time and effort as to write five miserable lines for a capital crime. 

Isn't the world a better place without another addict? One less scum… I wonder if this is how they justify themselves.

Delving further into the offender's life and childhood, one cannot help but wonder why he has turned out the way he is. With the amount of neglect, abandonment, poverty and lack of sense of belonging, is it much of a surprise he found safety in the circle of an organized criminal gang?

Living in destitution where food and shelter had to be fought for -  even as child and not finding a much needed warmth and protection in the arms of a parent, is it such a wonder their first instincts is to fight when faced hostility in situations of altercation?

A child growing up knowing little joy or happiness or anything to look forward to, unsurprisingly would be tempted to turn to chemical forms of release, euphoria; an escape from bleakness however temporary. Hence, enter the world of drugs and alcohol.

This is a boy who had slipped through the cracks of the system. Not of one system, but a network of systems. We have failed this child in so many ways. He had missed the opportunity for education, never having been sent for formal schooling until he was picked up the social welfare services for delinquent behaviour. Again, he was somehow missed when it came to correctional therapy for his conduct disorder. At such a tender age, he had learnt that even in school, the big fish lords it over the the small fry by wielding brute force. 

This child who never felt he was loved or cherished by anyone was subjected to bullying and beatings when in the system.

Here is a man who grew up from that lonely, abandoned child who is incapable of expressing himself any differently when confronted by a similarly disadvantaged adversary. Here is a man who lacks the know-how to control his temper, beating to death the perpetrator who had taunted him in prison because he could not read, write, count and; who ill-advisedly; cursed his mother.

We have failed this person. The system failed in bringing him up as a boy. It failed him growing up as a man.  While I am not saying that he should be absolved of any responsibility or accountability for his actions, I am however, questioning whether or not we owe him justice; ; we deprived him a chance to make a go of life.

Is the state by taking his life as punishment for the loss of another, in the end helping this man? Is it really helping deter other potential murderers?

I for one think we; as part of the system, owe him one last MERCY if not DUTY… FORGIVENESS.


Dr Mastura adds a post-script:

I have never seen myself as an anti-death penalty activist, however, even in my short experience in forensic psychiatry is opening up windows of insight into humanity. Here's my vote for correctional rehabilitation rather than the option of capital punishment.