Reported by Peh Hui Kee / Pictures by Ng Ling Ling
SIN CHEW DAILY -- The field was soggy and soaked on a drizzly afternoon, but that did not kill the passion of inmates at Sungai Buloh prison to engage in their favorite game, nor the fervent support of excited spectators, especially as the ball neared the goal or when a penalty kick was rewarded to either side.
Sungai Buloh prison policy director Nordin Mohamad said it was not the first time a football match was organized, and outdoor games like this had been held regularly during special days such as Merdeka or national sports day. But, that was the first time the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had jointly organized a football match with a Malaysian prison and sponsored the trophy, soccer ball, jerseys and shoes. In addition, hampers were given away to the winning team, and better-than-usual food was served, not to mention free fruit juice for all spectators.
The game was kicked off on Dec 2 and the finals held on Dec 18 after several elimination rounds. A quick glimpse nevertheless revealed the peculiar fact that most of the players were stoutly built and dark-skinned, looking much more like Africans than locals, save a couple of them.
We later learned that Sungai Buloh Prison keeps not just Malaysians but also a substantial number of foreign convicts. The players were divided into ten groups and it happened that the last two teams with significant African representation made it to the finals, thanks partly to their more superior physical build and stamina.
Two Black Team members said after being substituted in the second half: "The Africans' stamina is unbelievable! They don't seem to get tired at all!"
One of very few locals in the team, Ali (not his real name) said he felt that all the players were demonstrating a strong resolution to achieve a common goal irrespective of their nationalities.
With such a diverse team making up of members from so many different nationalities, you may wonder how they are communicating with one another.
"Campur rojaklah! We speak English and some of them (Africans) can speak a little Malay."
He and Ahmad (not his real name), another Malaysian who has also served two years in jail, have enjoyed every match, chasing the ball in the pitch as well as the team spirit from every player. They hope such outdoor activities can be held more often in the future.
At the end of the match, the Orange Team won 2:0 and took the PSB/ ICRC Cup.
Thanks to the arrangement by the ICRC and Sungai Buloh Prison, Sin Chew Daily was given a rare access to the prison for an exclusive coverage. We had to register ourselves at the entrance, leave our personal belongings at the locker room and undergo strict checks at every door to ensure nothing was smuggled into the prison compound, in particular cash, handphones and bags.
We walked along the corridors past blocks of grayish buildings to reach the field. Although we did not enter any of the prison cells, the short walk to the field evoked an overwhelming feel of stress, only to be relieved when we actually laid our feet on the rain-drenched grass.
Rule 23 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, a.k.a. the Nelson Mandela Rules, states that every prisoner not employed in outdoor work should have at least an hour of physical exercise in the open air daily if the weather permits. This is because a prisoner needs to have appropriate channels to release their tension.
Among the outdoor activities offered at Sungai Buloh Prison are jogging, foot drill and discipline training while indoor sports include table tennis and dam, said director Nordin Mohamad. In addition to sporting activities, a karaoke contest similar to Bintang Mencari Bintang has also been organized.
There is a library inside the prison where inmates can visit at designated time slots and borrow up to three books each time for seven days, renewable. There are also religious organizations for Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism offering spiritual classes for inmates of different faiths.
There are currently almost 5,000 inmates aged between 21 and over 70 at Sungai Buloh Prison. They are put in different buildings, and for ease of management they are grouped accordingly for different activities at different time slots owing to the sheer size of residents. For instance, when one group of inmates is practicing foot drill in the field, the other groups may be playing an indoor game or reading at the library.
Some 80% of the inmates are detainees or suspects who have been charged in the court but yet to be sentenced. They are wearing purple color uniform. As for the remaining 20%, they are convicts serving their respective jail sentences. They are further divided into five categories based on their varied jail sentences and are wearing uniforms ranging in colors from white to red, green and blue. They are put in cells of eight, while death row prisoners who wear white uniform with red sleeves are kept in solitary confinement and will not join the other inmates in activities.
Nordin said there are four types of vocational work rooms in the prison taking woodworking, tailoring, laundry and handicraft job contracts from inside as well as outside the prison. The inmates can make some money from their labor, earning daily wages from 60 sen to RM1.
"The job placement is meant to give the inmates some skills. The prison authorities rule that inmates must save a third of their earnings so that they can have some savings when they leave the prison in future. They can purchase things they want at the mini shop located inside the prison with the rest of the money."
ICRC Protection Coordinator Céline Croon told Sin Chew Daily both prison staff and inmates would feel the stress in a prison environment, and as such all facilities and activities have to conform to humanitarian rights. Prisoners should have access to adequate outdoor activities as laid out in the Nelson Mandela Rules to help them cope with their stress, and in their future social reintegration, too.
Croon said while the intention of holding the football match was good, there were safety aspects to consider and would often pose a major challenge for prison management. She added that professional safety assessment was mandatory to consider the participation of high risk inmates with violent inclinations.
"Sure enough ICRC is of the view that any activity has its risks and we cannot afford to overlook the risks and do nothing. Professional safety evaluation is therefore of tremendous importance to prison authorities."
ICRC has since 2011 visited prisons in Malaysia, and Sungai Buloh Prison is one of the key establishments in its cooperation and initiatives. ICRC has sent experts to inspect the conditions in the prison, including treatment of prisoners, challenges in prison management, problems encountered by prison staff, and conditions of prison clinics, among others.
"For instance," she said, "we will arrange for engineers to inspect the prison building structure, and doctors to inspect the medical facilities ."
Croon also revealed that ICRC had stationed a former Canadian prison warden as resident systems consultant at the prison, and that the team would make proposals to prison authorities after analyzing their findings.