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Shackles and Crowds : How bad are the jails in Malaysia?



Out of the two photos above, which is in Malaysia and which is in Thailand? If you guessed the bottom one was Thailand, you would be wrong. If you chose the above photo to be in Thailand you would be wrong as well. Both are photos of Kajang prison, in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia.

According to the Home Ministry of Malaysia, 74,000 inmates are currently imprisoned in prisons around the country. However, the 52 prisons in the country were only built to house 52,000 max.

If we look deeper into the statistics, the ministry of home affairs reports that as of mid-2021, 18.3% of the prison population is foreign, 2.2% are minors, 5.9% are female and 41.7% are pre-trial detainments.

If we compare the prison population to countries outside of Malaysia such as Thailand (a country notorious for bad prisons) and Singapore (a country renowned for efficient prison systems).

In comparison of the prison populations per 100,000 alone, Malaysia ranks between these two countries, with a score of 229 for every 100,000 people. Thailand being the highest with 377 per 100,000, and Singapore the lowest with 156 per 100,000 people.

The conditions


Once accused in a court hearing, prisoners board a PDRM truck packed with other OKTs (orang kena tuduh/accused) to a prison. Where they are remanded until their case runs in court.


The conditions of the cells vary drastically and information on them is difficult to find. First hand accounts from Sungai Buloh Prison describe a small cell (Tawakal, used for punishment) without a bed or mattress where prisoners sleep on the floor with only a squat toilet present in the room. The cell measures 12 by 6 feet, half the size of a parking space and is equipped with a basinless tap for showering.

ref/A sketch of the Tawakal cell (punishment cell) , made by Alvin Tan (yes, THAT Alvin Tan). Image from

These cells can vary in size but a common issue is that they are frequently overcrowded and filthy. In between 2015-2016, there were 521 deaths in Malaysian prisons from 2015-2016 alone. The main culprit for these deaths are the transmission of disease, because the prisons are overpopulated, diseases such as tuberculosis frequently spreads among the premises. In addition to that, the lack of appropriate hygiene from a lack of soap and towels makes prisons a hotspot for disease. There are also constant water shortages which lead to endemic clogged toilets, and mouldy food trays. The toilets are so clogged that prisoners resort to defecating on the floor in order to relieve themselves - and on top of that have no water to cleanse themselves afterwards.

This leads to a knock on issue of the infestation of rodents and roaches in jails, rat urine poisoning is so common that former prisoners like Alvin Tan told Cilisos that few people have actually died from it. This makes it no wonder that many prisoners feel pressured to plead guilty and take the sentence rather than spend more time in remand.


Another misconception about jail is that amenities are provided for free, inside jails rests a prison confectionery or (‘Koperasi Penjara’). In order to buy, slippers, soap, detergent, medication, finger toothbrushes or even instant noodles - inmates are required to pay for goods. This is done using money given to inmates from the outside, and tends to be limited in how much visitors are able to send to inmates.

Interestingly, these goods are repackaged from mainstream private corporations, which changes the label to ‘Kopen’ - a combination of the words ‘Koperasi Penjara’. This is done to prevent inmates from abusing the packages into weapons. In fact, the confectionary is so concerned about weapons that it only sells clear PVC slippers to prevent weapons from being smuggled


What can I not bring into prison?

Most people would expect that contraband such as drugs or tobacco are forbidden in prison (although they tend to find their way in). However, the item that carries that most severe penalty is in fact a handphone. Jabatan Penjara actually dedicates an entire unit to preventing the entry of illegal items, including handphones. They’re called UKP (Unit Kawalan dan Pencegahan/Prevention and Control Unit), and their duties range from conducting spot-checks, to zone patrols, and also, as their name suggests, breaking up fights or subduing unruly prisoners.

In a Cilisos article a former inmate writes:

“One of the worst things to be caught with is a phone. We had a tip-off from some gang members that an ambush was about to take place that night. At 3 am in the morning, about 15 massive UKP guys in Counter-Strike style uniforms thrashed our already dark and unsanitary cell, literally turning everything upside down; what was dry became wet and clean became dirty. They found some weed and tobacco in our cell but just took it and left. However, they found a number of handphones belonging to that gang and beat the living crap out of our friends who were keeping them.” – Tan

The rationale behind this is that handphones are essential for drug businesses in prison as they allow the possibility of bank transfers to occur for drug deals within the prison. Equally, the possibility of cameras may threaten the reputation of the prison if leaked.

‘Penyus’ | TW: Graphic Descriptions

ref/Malaysian Prison Department

If the prison complex is indeed so strict, how do any goods get smuggled in the first place?

The answer is through either swallowing or rocketing. Swallowing refers to literally swallowing something down one’s throat, whilst rocketing refers to the practice to hiding items into one’s anal cavity. As a result of prisons instituting multiple stages of checks including a pat search, a strip search and an X-RAY, prisoners have to find ways of smuggling products without physically bringing them on their person.

If one is found to have used either methods during the scan, they will be forced to defecate the item out, and upon failure to do so - are labelled PENYU, meaning ‘turtle’ because they haven’t laid their eggs.

These inmates are then beaten severely before being isolated into Tawakals to pass the illegal goods through their system. Many prisoners hold in the large amount of drugs in their system as long as possible until the authorities give up and release them. This is because they may be so addicted to the substances that they dare not relinquish them. Conversely, they risk being charged for drug trafficking.


The conditions of the Malaysian prison complex are severely inhumane and this article only covers the living conditions. This does not even mention the levels of inter-gang violence, warden brutality, and forced labour that occurs. The new administration must tackle this issue and heed the words of organisations like SUHAKAM who have been adamant about the injustice.

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