Sunday Times (Used by permission)
by Aniza Damis
After years of study and preparation, the parole system was passed in parliament last week. For the Prisons Department, this is another step in its move away from being just a punishment factory. ANIZA DAMIS speaks to Deputy Internal Security Minister Datuk Fu Ah Kiow about the parole system and the department's efforts to take on a more rehabilitative approach
Q: When will the first parolee be out?
A: After the first quarter next year.
Q: How many parole officers will there be?
A: About 760. Some will be prison officers and counsellors.
Some prison officers will have to be re–trained, because the role of a parole officer is different from that of a prison officer.
The main component in parole will be guidance and counselling.
We will be sending our officers for training with the Australian parole board and correctional institutes.
They are training our officers here and in Australia.
Fifteen of our officers have been sent to Australia to train as trainers. The next few months will be intensive.
Q: What is parole?
A: Convicts who are of good behaviour and fulfil certain conditions will be allowed to serve the last phase of their sentence outside the prison walls. They will be living in society, where they can work and prepare for their re–admission into society.
To be eligible for parole, a prisoner's sentence must be at least one year, and he must have served half of his prescribed sentence, not including the one–third remission period he is entitled to.
So, actually, once remission is deducted from the remaining time, parole is just one–sixth of the sentence.
Q: How do you assess risk?
A: Based on their performance during the rehabilitation period, whether they have repented their crime, eagerness to return to society and be a good citizen.
They will be further interviewed and evaluated by the Parole Board.
Q: Will this system disadvantage less socially–adaptable people?
A: This is where the rehabilitation programme is important.
In the past, the system tended to focus more on punishment. In recent years, we have introduced more rehabilitation programmes, and are moving towards correctional programmes.
In fact, we would like to rename prisons correctional institutes, rather than penal institutes.
The programme has four phases.
Phase One is for discipline, where we have lots of drills and teach basic discipline and personal hygiene.
Phase Two is more on spiritual and moral building, to rebuild their confidence, motivate and teach them civic–mindedness.
We also have specific modules. For instance, if they are drug addicts, we have drug modules.
Phase Three is skills training where we introduce vocational courses conducted by the Human Resources Ministry and also the building industry.
Phase Four is pre–release. Prisoners are allowed to work outside on a daytime basis to prepare them for release.
Parole can be seen as a continuation of the rehabilitation programme. It is just like a Phase Five.
Instead of keeping the prisoner within the prison walls, they can go outside into society.
We will be setting up 50 parole offices, with parole officers providing guidance and counselling, and helping the parolee in job placement.
Q: Can a parolee get out first without a job?
A: Yes. Some of them would like to work with their families, so they can stay with them. Or they can stay with their family and look for a job elsewhere.
Q: Do they have to stay with family?
A: Not necessarily. The main consideration is what is best for them, in terms of job opportunity. If they can stay with the family and get a job, all the better.
The important thing is, during the parole period, they must find a place where the opportunity to be employed is high.
Q: What happens if a parolee cannot get a job?
A: If he cannot get a job, he is still entitled to parole. We will assist as much as possible.
However, he will have to pay his own rent. If he can't get a job, his family may need to support him while he looks for a job.
But if he doesn't have any job or support, then we will allow him to cancel his parole, and return to prison.
Q: What if he doesn't want to go back?
A: If he cannot afford rental, then he cannot stay out.
At a later stage, we may consider building a halfway house for parolees, especially for those who cannot get a job or don't have proper accommodation.
Q: How are you going to assure the public they don't have to be afraid?
A: Parole is only for light crimes. They have been evaluated, shown good performance, and pose minimum risk to society. And they will still be monitored by the parole officer.
There have been some calls for electronic tagging, but we don't want to do that.
Q: What is the role of society?
A: The success of the parole system depends on the support of society.
Society must have an open mind, and where possible, give parolees job opportunities so they can be absorbed back into society. And this will cut down on recidivism.
These are people who have a good chance of turning over a new leaf.
Q: Who is going to run the parole system?
A: The Parole Board. It's independent. There are seven board members.
The chairman is a senior person from the judicial service. There will be a prison officer, a police officer, a welfare officer, and three members of the public. The Prisons Department will be in charge of the parole officers.
Q: What constitutes a breach of parole?
A: If they breach rules set down by the parole officer, for instance, if they do not report to the officer when they should.
Q: How often do they have to report?
A: That depends on individual cases. Initially, they may have to report often.
If they perform well, then the frequency of the reporting could be less.
For instance, if they do not report according to the time schedule, or if they go on drugs, end up fighting, commit any criminal offence, or go against any rule set by the officer, then it can be recommended to the Parole Board for their parole to be revoked.
Q: If a parolee is supposed to report once every three days but absconds, the parole officer won't find out until three days later.
A: The parole officer has to keep a close eye on the parolee. If the officer detects something not right, he has to track him down and bring him back. We will also get the police to help.
But the parolee would know the consequences of breaching parole.
If he leaves the assigned area, he can be brought to court and sentenced to another two years' jail.
Q: On top of his current jail term?
A: Yes. So, that becomes the deterring factor for them not to leave the place without permission from the parole officer.
Q: What do you hope to achieve with the parole system?
A: The main objective is to cut down recidivism. Currently, recidivism is at 30 per cent. Previously, before we introduced the correctional programme, it was more, but it has come down to 30 per cent.
So, we hope by introducing this parole system, it can cut down recidivism. And, by cutting recidivism, we will ease the crime rate.
We also hope to reduce congestion in prison.
Q: By how much?
A: For a start, 2,300 prisoners will be eligible for parole, going up slowly to 3,000–4,000.
This 2,300 is from 10,300 prisoners whose sentence is more than a year, and do not fall within the Fourth Schedule (those who are not eligible).
Q: Even so, won't prisons still be overcrowded?
A: It would cut down the prison population by 2,300, or 7–8 per cent.
Q: How much is parole going to cost?
A: Next year's budget is RM34 million, in terms of setting up offices, emoluments of the officers, everything. And it will be more or less the same every year.
If the prisoners are in the prison, we have to spend about RM33 on each prisoner a day.
So, for 3,000 parolees, it will come to about RM36 million a year.
In terms of cost, we will be just about breaking even.
But in terms of non–quantifiable cost, we will have reduced congestion in prisons. Also, we will be reducing the chances of re–offending.
Q: Why are we building more prisons?
A: With the population increase, and trends in the past, the projected population of prisoners will increase.
Q: But if you have more new prisons, you have more places to put people in; then maybe you won't look for creative ways to keep people out?
A: That is a bigger question to be answered not just by the Prisons Department. Whatever we are building now (16 new prisons), and even after having parole, that is the capacity we need for the projection of the last few years.
But if we don't have parole, then, even with the newly–built prisons, there will still be congestion.
Q: How much time will the newly–built prisons buy us?
A: It should be enough for 10–15 years. But we have to monitor the occupancy with regards to the crime rate. If this can be brought down, then occupancy will be less. It's not a straightforward projection.
Q: How different is parole from when prisoners are freed after serving a sentence completely in prison?
A: If they are freed, they just go out. This is one of the reasons they find difficulties in getting jobs; there's no continuous counselling, there's no hand–held process.
Under prison rules, you are not supposed to contact them after prison. But with this parole period, there's an adjustment period prior to their release.
Q: People are still unwilling to give ex–convicts jobs. So, what are the chances of a parolee getting a job?
A: We have to educate the public and convince people these parolees have been evaluated, rehabilitated, repented and are committed to turning over a new leaf.
This is where the change of mindset and attitude of society towards this group of people will be very important.
Many people may not understand what we have done to rehabilitate the prisoners.
You have to accept the fact that some prisoners committed crimes under certain circumstances. Most prisoners are not "natural criminals".
At a point in their life, they made a mistake. And I think they deserve a second chance.
A: Whether we will review the list (of who will be allowed parole) will depend on the success of this system.
We will do a review later, when necessary.
But we have to ensure the system is well implemented and people have confidence in it. Only then will we consider whether we include other groups or not.
Q: How will this system apply to foreigners in our prisons?
A: At the moment, we are not considering activating this option. But if the home country of the prisoners also has the parole system, and the country is willing to accept them back to serve the parole term, then we will consider repatriating them to their home country to serve their parole.
Most of our foreigners are from Indonesia, Myanmar and Bangladesh, and these countries don't have parole.
Q: How is the element of parole going to affect how judges give out sentences? Will it be heavier?
A: I really cannot speak for the judges. But, the trend is more towards the correctional, rehabilitational approach, rather than just punishment. That's the trend all over the world now.
Those involved in the parole system will have to be more behavioural–based in their approach.
We have to figure out why the prisoner committed the offence to begin with, and then think of the appropriate correctional programme. This then would help correct his basic behaviour.
We should steer away from a stereotyped correctional programme for all.
For instance, some prisoners are in jail because of an inability to control anger. That person could be a professional. So, there's no point in sending him to learn how to make batik shirts or rattan chairs. He doesn't need that skill to survive.
He committed that crime by hurting people because he cannot control his anger. So, it would be more useful if we introduced a module for anger management.
Q: And you have that?
A: We are introducing it. We are restructuring our correctional programme. We need to look at what other countries are doing for anger management.
We are taking a behavioural approach, rather than a blanket approach for everybody.
The quality of our prison staff also needs to change. Because we need more people who are skilled in psycho–analysis, psychiatrists, counsellors. So, this is a face–change for the Prisons Department.
We need a lot of counsellors, not only for parole, but also in the prison. We are short of counsellors.
We hope to train current officers, and recruit fresh counsellors.
Moving towards a correctional approach is a different picture from the penal approach we have taken in the past. It can be very challenging on how you turn around a person, to become a useful citizen again.
So, the role of prison officers also has to change.
Q: Can you ensure a parolee won't be exploited by his employer and treated as slave labour? He can't complain because he needs the job.
A: There's no law now that can demand for minimum pay. But we will have to make sure they are reasonably paid. This is where the parole officer comes in. But as to what is reasonable depends on what job it is.
Q: Are you getting the assistance of non–governmental organisations?
A: NGOs have been helping in the prisons. We would also appreciate the support of NGOs once the parolee is out.
For instance, if an ex–drug addict parolee is hand–held by ex–addicts support groups, then, the chances of him falling off the wagon are lessened.
The success of the system depends on the family, NGOs, everyone.