By RICHARD LIM
Intrepid teachers and students prove that hope springs eternal, even behind bars.
AN outsider who steps into Kajang Prison would feel hemmed in by its high walls, barbed wire fences and ominous watchtowers.
Under the watchful eyes of wardens, inmates sit with heads bowed, seemingly intent on the floor design. Like another brick on a bleak wall, they look crestfallen, and uncertain about the future.
On the morning of our visit, the only person who stands out is a young inmate striding down a corridor with book in hand. Garbed from head to toe in purple, he walks eagerly into class – putting paid to the notion that in prison, education is the least of an adolescent’s worries.
As the number of juvenile offenders increase, prison authorities see the need to provide education behind bars. Thus, Integrity Schools – schools within prisons for juvenile offenders – were set up and volunteer teachers and graduate inmates have been roped in to conduct lessons.
On June 16, 38 government schoolteachers reported for duty at Integrity Schools in Kajang, Kluang, Marang, Sungai Petani, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching, marking a collaboration between the Education Ministry and the Prisons Department.
Following the closure of Sungai Buloh’s juvenile detention centre, Kajang Prison has seen an influx of young inmates. The challenge of educating them is one those teachers sent there take up readily.
“I volunteered to be a part of this as I wanted to teach students who are really in need,” says Juma’yah Salleh. “I have taught at technical schools and set question papers at the Malaysian Examinations Syndicate and I feel my experience will benefit them.
“Also, I want a new experience and teaching at this Integrity School is an opportunity for me to contribute,” she adds, pointing out that the Kajang school, which officially opened on April 10, has only 11 teachers mentoring 274 juvenile students aged between 14 and 20.
Mohd Arifuddin Ishaudin, a retired teacher rehired on contract, hopes to transform lives. “If I can help 10% of them turn over a new leaf, I will consider that a success.”
While most of the teachers are excited about plunging into the “unknown”, their friends and family worry about their decision to swap the comforts of government schools and ministry departments for the more demanding routine behind bars.
“Many of my friends, colleagues and family members can’t understand my decision to come here,” adds Juma’yah. “The thought of my teaching in prison frightens them and many tried to dissuade me.
“They said the students here are problematic and my personal safety could be compromised. However, I insisted on coming. In the end, my head of department relented and signed my transfer papers.”
“We cannot deprive the juveniles of education as they are going to serve the country in the future,” says deputy superintendent of prison Ranjit Singh Gurdev Singh.
“Teachers should not shy away because of hearsay. Education in prison is being expanded because the efforts of volunteer teachers and graduate prisoners have achieved positive results.
“In fact, one student has registered for the Bachelor of Jurisprudence at Universiti Malaya and another is applying for a course at the Open University Malaysia. This shows that students are interested in studying.”
Ranjit Singh adds that teachers are provided adequate protection as they carry out their duties. A guard escorts them to and from class, and no unruly behaviour from students is tolerated. For effective control, classes are limited to 20 students each.
Sharing his sentiments, retired teacher Saraswathy Mariappan – who has been teaching SPM Science and English at the Integrity School in Kajang Prison since mid-March – vouches that she has not encountered any problems whatsoever.
“In fact, many of the students are interested and cooperative and there is rarely any need to be harsh with them,” she says, while accompanying the new teachers on a tour of the prison last Monday.:
Led by Ranjit Singh, the teachers navigate their way through a maze of prison halls and rooms which have been converted into classrooms. As lessons are about to start, students can be seen heading for class.
Stopping at the doorway, a boy calls out, “Selamat pagi, Tuan”, to his teacher, who is about to start the Economics class. After taking his place alongside fellow students clad in green, blue and purple, he immerses himself in the lesson, his face a picture of concentration and determination.
“Some of the students here have a colourful past,” Ranjit Singh says. “Purple uniforms are for those under remand; red, for those serving sentences under six months, and green, those over six months.
“Light blue signifies a sentence that is longer than a year, and dark blue denotes long sentences.”
The colour code also indicates how often they can get visitors. Those in purple and dark blue are allowed visitors weekly; those in light blue, once a fortnight; those in green, once in three weeks, and those in red, monthly.
Ranjit Singh points out that the 274 students in the prison are being held for various offences: murder, armed robbery, rape, substance abuse, break-ins, illegal trespassing, fighting and even masquerading as law enforcers.
A few have been in remand for years, awaiting trial. Some are being detained at the pleasure of the Sultan or the King, after being found guilty of a crime, and they have no idea when they will be released. One such student is Ahmad*, who has been in Kajang Prison since 2004 for causing the death of another student, when he was in Form Five.
“I sat for the SPM in 2006 and have been attending STPM classes for two years. I intend to sit for four subjects this year,” the 21-year-old lad said.
Carrot and stick
In adopting a flexible approach with the students, all males, Ranjit Singah personally checks on their progress.
“If I’m happy with their efforts or progress, I’ll write words of encouragement, like ‘Well done’ or ‘Very good’ on the pages of their exercise books,” he says. “Sometimes, I even call them up and give them little rewards, like a packet of sweets or food, to motivate them.
“We are like an ordinary school in many ways,” he adds.
Like their counterparts outside, students in Kajang prison enjoy co-curricular activities and inter-class sports. However, the co-curricular activities are more regimented, in keeping with the need to instil discipline in the young offenders.
To create a conducive environment for study, a fully-equipped staff room has been set up. It has carpets and air-conditioning and every teacher has a personal cubicle.
Prisons Department rehabilitation and special treatment director Darussalam Budin lauds the collaboration between his department and the Education ministry.
“We want juveniles in prison to receive formal education as they are young and have potential. We started conducting informal classes since 2006. Now the ministry is supplying us trained teachers and textbooks.”
Darussalam, a former director of the Henry Gurney School in Malacca, says the government wants juveniles in prison to be given a chance to improve themselves.
“We are using the Henry Gurney system, but of course, not everything there can be replicated. The six integrity schools have evolved to suit prison conditions and the needs of the ministry.
“School hours are 8.30am to 3.30pm and some activities have been adapted to suit the prison environment.”
Plans are afoot to expand the curriculum in Integrity Schools to include vocational and technical training. At present, baking classes are being conducted for adults, and the prison authorities are considering implementing similar programmes for the juveniles.
Seven more regular classes are being planned for Kajang Prison and more teachers are needed. However, to attract more of them to enter the prison grounds, certain negative perceptions must change.
The juvenile students can definitely play a role here, and there are positive signs that they’re doing their part.
“I learn so much here,” says Leong*, 19. “I’ll be sitting for eight subjects in this year’s SPM exam and I’m confident of doing well in my favourite subject, Mathematics.
“I’m happy that my parents can visit me every month and this motivates me to study harder. I’ve also developed good friendships with some of the other inmates and we encourage one another.”
Form Six student Wong*, 20, shares Leong’s view.
“I believe that education can change our destiny and I’m happy that government schoolteachers are coming in now,” says Wong, who has been under remand for about a year.
“I understand that some teachers worry about coming to teach us,” he adds. “Many feel intimidated.
“But we will feel just as fearful about stepping out of prison without a good education. So I hope more teachers will come here.”
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed.
The Star Online: 23 Jun 2008