Since the Sixties, Malaysian prisoners are no longer put through hard labour during their incarceration. Instead, they are taught a number of living skills that would enable them to earn a decent income when they are released into society.
The Prison Department of Malaysia, which has a 225-year history, established the Vocational and Industrial Section under the Inmate Management Division to give prisoners a second chance. According to the Deputy Commissioner of Prisons Dato’ Mohd. Sakeri Bin Hj. Dollah who heads the section, Malaysia currently has 52,000 convicts nationwide, whereby less than 10% of them are recidivists. This underlines the success of the vocational training programme through an alternative livelihood, allowing inmates to easily assimilate into society upon completing their prison term.
All prisoners have the chance to better themselves, except those sentenced to death. Even so, prisoners first have to undergo a rehabilitation programme that comprises physical, mental and moral development before they are taught such skills or are allowed to pursue their education, perhaps as basic as reading and writing for the illiterate.
There are three phases in the Vocational and Industrial Section: Training / Research and Development (R&D), Industrial Workshop and Marketing. Products and services produced by prison inmates under the Prison Department of Malaysia are marketed under the brand My Pride, which is a clever acronym for Malaysian Prison Department.
With trainers provided by the Ministry of Human Resources, depending on individual inclination and interest, prisoners are taught different skill sets, from livelihood skills such as baking and hair-styling to more artistic work, e.g., batik painting and printing or songket weaving. Some learn carpentry, rattan craft or other handiwork.
Inmates undergoing these courses are given a daily allowance which increases in tandem with their skill level. Two-thirds of their allowance may go towards expenses, either on themselves or on their family, while one-third is compulsory savings.
From 2006 onwards, those who have achieved the highest level in their respective courses are presented with a certificate through the Malaysian Skills Certification (MSC) programme via a collaboration with the Department of Skills Development. To date, 7000 prisoners have already been certified. The Prison Department of Malaysia targets to certify 1500 inmates a year.
Dato’ Sakeri said that the department hopes that with a certificate to endorse their skills, there would be more employers who would hire them in spite of their history. He continued, “Our rehabilitation programme strives to give inmates a second chance. By equipping them with skills, we give them hope for a better life outside of these 40-feet high walls. As such, we are working towards erasing the negative perceptions and stereotypes that society has about ex-offenders.”
Under the Textile Unit itself, three batik workshops have been set up: in Kajang Women’s Prison, Pengkalan Chepa Prison and Machang Correctional Centre. As for songket, the workshop is in Marang Prison while for weaving, the two workshops are in Penor and Bentong Prisons.
The annual sales target for these three major textile products is RM1.12 million.
While selected retail stores carry My Pride products, most of them are showcased and sold at the purpose-built gallery at the Prison Headquarters in Kajang, Selangor. For sale are foodstuff, textile goods, rattan furniture and woodwork, among others.
In high demand are experimental batik and reversible songket. It is because despite being handmade, they are still priced at only a fraction of similar machine-made products being retailed at conventional stores.
The gallery, which is open from 8am to 5pm from Monday to Friday, is like a little undiscovered gem as not many know that it is open to the public. Those who do know, return regularly to shop, particularly for the above two items which are not available elsewhere.
Therefore, it is no surprise that overall sales of My Pride products and services jumped a massive 25 percent from RM21 million in 2013 to RM28 million in 2014.
Note: An edited version of this article [Handmade from Behind Bars] was published on 23rd Nov, 2015, in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.
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