Nightmare for prisoners of poor healthcare system


IT was a strange dream.

I was in a dark room, a broken dental chair by my side. There was hardly any other equipment except for tools usually used for a normal extraction.
Suddenly, the door swung open and two people walked in, one with cuffs on his hands.

“Dr Haresh,” calls out a man in his 40s dressed in a prison’s department uniform as he escorts another barefooted man in his 50s and in prison clothes.

“His tooth is aching,” the man continued.

The prisoner sat on the broken chair and opened his mouth wide. His gums were bleeding, some of his teeth rotten. His breath was bad. He had to get it fixed.

Then I realised I was a dentist in what looked like a prison’s sick bay. Without much thought I inspected his teeth and looked at the limited number of tools I had. They weren’t good enough to fix the problem.

The warden kept a close eye. I looked at him and sighed. He was expressionless, toughened by the years spent with hardcore criminals.

And suddenly I heard, “Papa, wake up”.

I woke up. My three-year-old boy was in front of me.

That dream reminded me of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) survey in 2017 where it was then revealed that the right to healthcare in prison was lacking.

The survey respondents in that report were selected by the Prisons Department and involved 6,420 individuals – 5,482 prisoners, 886 prison staff, and 52 prison medical staff – from 18 prisons in the country.

The report highlighted several issues, including there weren’t sufficient qualified doctors to attend to inmates.

Suhakam was quoted as saying: “If the prison doctor serves dual roles, functioning as both medical specialist and at the same time is directly subordinated to the prison director rather than being part of a civil healthcare structure, he or she will have a very difficult and sensitive role to fulfill.”

In 2014, Suhakam noted that the prison health services were yet to be fully integrated into the national public health service, meaning that the responsibility for prison health and medical services had not yet been transferred from the Home Ministry to the Health Ministry.

What steps have been taken to improve the conditions of sick bays and to beef up medical personnel in prisons?

Why should doctors be transferred to the Home Ministry instead of continue serving the Health Ministry? Wouldn’t this cause a conflict in the doctor-patient (prisoner) relationship as the doctor is part of the system?

Also, given the limited number of manpower in the Health Ministry, wouldn’t this be seen as further depleting the number of staff within the said ministry?

I wonder if requests have been made by personnel within the Health Ministry to look at such bureaucracy and ensure that the staff do not work in a tense environment while ensuring prisoners have the right to healthcare.

Yes, there will be those who will condemn these prisoners by saying they do not deserve to be treated. Some may even say for severe cases, the prisoners should be escorted to a nearby clinic or hospital so there is no need for a full range of equipment in our prisons.

However, there’s the risk of prisoners escaping and public security. Wardens too will be exposed to different threats, unlike those confined within the four walls of a prison.

But it’s not only about the prisoners.

Think about the medical staff and prison officials who are obliged to take care of those confined in their cells.

They will not be able to perform their duties if they don’t have the right equipment and enough manpower.

With strict access and no phones or cameras allowed within, it will remain unclear of what happens within the perimeters of the tall fortified walls of the prison compound.

‘Dr Haresh’ was just a dream. But sometimes, dreams can be eerily real.