Malaysia Embraces a Holistic Approach to Rehabilitating Violent Extremist Offenders

Interview

Nordin Muhamad

Commissioner General of Prisons, Malaysia

In this interview, the Malaysian Commissioner General of Prisons discusses the Prison Department’s recent challenges and achievements. A prominent topic in our conversation was the comprehensive approach to the rehabilitation of violent extremist prisoners, particularly foreign terrorist fighters.

Could you provide insight into the current state of the Malaysian prison system and outline its most pressing challenges?

NM: In alignment with global standards, the effectiveness of our Department is assessed through the measurement of recidivism rates. In Malaysia, recidivism pertains to the re-incarceration of individuals who commit repeat offenses within three years of their release.

The recidivism rate has been a concern, having reached 18.6% in 2022.

This issue is associated with challenges such as overcrowding, security risks, increased administrative costs for inmate management, and potential inefficiencies in rehabilitation programmes. To address this challenge, the Department has set ambitious targets for the coming decade, aiming to reduce recidivism to 10%. This reduction will be achieved through a focus on the implementation of the Civilised Humane Culture Development Centre (CHCDC) and the empowerment of community corrections, along with strengthening community-based rehabilitation efforts.

What is your vision and strategy towards achieving a more rehabilitative prison environment in the country?

NM: We are driven by a broader vision of creating a better Malaysia and addressing the challenges faced by its people. This commitment is rooted in the concept of Malaysia Madani, which aligns with the government’s efforts to improve the nation.

The Madani concept, represented by the acronym SCRIPT (Sustainability, Care and Compassion, Respect, Innovation, Prosperity, and Trust), aims to instill a new culture, mindset, and common sense based on values. This approach is intended to provide fresh momentum for Malaysia’s reform agenda. To achieve these objectives, two main strategies have been put into place.

The Civilised Humane Culture Development Centre (CHCDC) is an initiative focused on enhancing inmates’ self-management, eliminating criminal mindsets, and encouraging staff, inmates, and the community to commit to a comprehensive rehabilitation process. The core values of CHCDC, abbreviated as HUMANE (Humane, United, Merciful, Altruistic, Nurturing, Equitable), form the foundation of its strategy plan.

The development of CHCDC has been carried out in accordance with the Prison Act of 1995, the Prison Regulations of 2000, and the Nelson Mandela Rules, ensuring that inmates’ fundamental rights, welfare, competence development, education, relationships with the outside world, and the involvement of relevant stakeholders are addressed. 

CHCDC ultimately seeks to create a new culture within prisons, aligning with the third objective of our Department, which is to ensure community safety by preventing inmates from becoming ‘future victims’. This perspective emphasizes that the entire community may suffer if criminal activities are not controlled and offenders’ mindsets are not changed. It also aims to create a healthy prison environment that fosters good citizenship practices, preparing inmates to become productive and responsible citizens upon their release.

In addition, CHCDC supports prison staff in upholding a high level of professionalism, necessary to carry out their work with humanity and respect for others.

Our other strategy consists of empowering Community Corrections. The goal here is to have two-thirds of eligible inmates transferred to supervision in the community by 2030.

This is part of our Community Rehabilitation Programme, which seeks to promote restorative justice over punitive justice in our system. This initiative places a strong emphasis on providing inmates with second chances and facilitating their reintegration into society.

We have been rapidly implementing and expanding community rehabilitation programmes, which included the introduction of parole in 2008, followed by various alternatives to incarceration such as halfway houses (2009), Compulsory Attendance Order (2010), Community Reintegration Programme (2011), Early Release (2012), Corporate Smart Internship Programme (2016), Industrial Community Rehabilitation Programme (2019), Release on Licence (2020), and Placement, Employment, and Income Programme (2022).

Notably, our Community Correctional Centre, a component of the Industrial Community Rehabilitation Programme, offers specialised and pleasant accommodations for inmates who are there to acquire industry skills. Inmates in this centre perform their duties in an open setting where they have freedom of movement, receive a minimum wage (RM 1,500), have insurance, and can see their registered family members and friends in person.

We are also collaborating with the Judiciary and the Attorney General’s Chambers for Non-Custodial Measures to explore options like Probation, Day Parole, Suspended Sentence, Deferred Sentence, and Home Detention toward our 2030 goal. Most importantly, our strategies are centred around valuing each inmate’s life within the broader community beyond the prison walls.

What strategies has your Department implemented to address the rehabilitation and reintegration of radical/violent extremist inmates?

NM: Malaysia faces complex challenges related to the return of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), particularly those associated with the Islamic State (IS). Drawing from our experience in managing militant and radical detainees under the enforcement of the Internal Security Acts (ISA) of 1960, our Department has developed a comprehensive rehabilitation programme that places a strong emphasis on Islamic religious knowledge (theological interventions) as a fundamental requirement for disengaging from radical ideologies.

Additionally, we have collaborated closely with the Royal Malaysia Police to gather vital information on inmates’ involvement in radical/violent extremist activities. Preliminary interviews upon admission have revealed that many of these individuals  possess a limited understanding of religious knowledge, despite advocating Islam as the basis for their violent extremist and terrorist activities.

To support our rehabilitation programmes, the Malaysian Prison Department employs various approaches. First, we use psychometric instrument tests, including our in-house tool ‘Know Yourself, Know Others’ (KYKO), to assess inmates’ behaviours such as violence, pretense, lying, self-harm, and others. KYKO helps us tailor their placement, security measures, restoration, treatment plans, and parole decisions.

Furthermore, we utilise biofeedback tools, like heart rate variability (HRV) biofeedback, in prison settings as part of therapeutic interventions. These tools measure heart rate variability and provide feedback to help inmates regulate their physiological stress responses, fostering relaxation and emotional self-control. Biofeedback tools are integrated into individual or group therapy sessions, stress and anger management programmes, or substance abuse treatment programmes.

In addition, a monthly meeting involving a special assessment committee from prison headquarters, prison institutions, the Royal Malaysia Police, and the Ministry of Home Affairs is convened to oversee the rehabilitation progress. This progress is later presented to the Prevention of Terrorism Board for further evaluation.

Ultimately, the reintegration of radical/violent extremist inmates is a process aimed at successfully reintroducing them to the broader community upon the completion of their sentences. Success in this context means that offenders remain crime-free and assimilate into society with positive, pro-social attitudes and behaviours.

Many of these individuals possess a limited understanding of religious knowledge, despite advocating Islam as the basis for their violent extremist and terrorist activities.

In his message at the Malaysian Prisons Institution Leaders' Meeting held on 10 October 2023, Nordin Muhamad reinforced the Department's commitment to strengthening rehabilitation and reintegration efforts. © Malaysia Prisons Department

What measures and initiatives are in place to address the challenge of radicalisation and violent extremism within prisons?

NM: Our core initiative is the Human Development Programme (HDP), a crucial and comprehensive rehabilitation programme that focuses on the development of attitudes, skills, knowledge, and spirituality, and is implemented in phases.

Specifically targeting radical inmates, we have the Integrated Rehabilitation Programme for Terrorists inspired in our Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015. This programme is implemented over a period of 24 months in close collaboration with relevant agencies, including the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Royal Malaysia Police, and the Department of Islamic Development.

From the outset, every inmate must go through an induction period lasting up to 14 days to ensure a controlled transition into the prison environment. Then, we have Phase 1, which spans six months and focuses on adapting to prison life. During this phase, inmates receive counseling and religious classes conducted by professional counselors and religious clerics. This is the first step in disengaging them from extremist ideologies.

Phase 2 follows, lasting another six months, and involves ‘Personality Reinforcement’ with the assistance of deradicalisation experts who work to extricate and undo deep-rooted extremist beliefs. Phase 3 continues the work of Phase 2 for another six months, emphasizing the process of promoting religious moderation. The involvement of deradicalisation experts from diverse backgrounds (lecturers, psychologists, law enforcement officers, and NGOs) persists during this phase.

Finally, Phase 4 is dedicated to pre-release and reintegration, where inmates are prepared to return to mainstream society. They receive training in real-life skills, and there is active engagement between rehabilitation officers, detainees, and their families.

Furthermore, we’ve partnered with local universities to provide vocational skills training in various areas, including urban agriculture, soil treatment, durian cultivation, oil palm farming, freshwater fish farming, livestock management, stingless honey production, and business planning. These partnerships aim to equip radical inmates with vocational skills to facilitate their successful reintegration.

We remain steadfast in our commitment to offender rehabilitation. This dedication is underscored by compelling statistics, with not a single individual among radical inmates detained under the Prevention of Terrorist Act (POTA) 2015, who have undergone the integrated rehabilitation programme and subsequently been released, found to be involved in extremist activities or having returned to prison.

What more can you tell us about the rehabilitation of radical/extremist offenders in custody of the Malaysian Prison Department?

NM: Our Department is dedicated to improving the management and effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes within prison facilities. However, in our pursuit of this goal, we encounter a range of challenges that reflect the complexity of our mission.

One such challenge is the initial reluctance of some inmates to participate in rehabilitation programmes.

Nonetheless, over time, many of these individuals come to recognise the potential benefits, particularly in terms of deepening their understanding of Islamic teachings and values.

Another significant obstacle is the lack of support from certain family members, who can actively discourage the rehabilitation process.

Furthermore, ensuring that our prison staff possesses the necessary competence to effectively conduct counter-narrative and religious classes remains a key concern. The success of our rehabilitation efforts hinges on the skills and abilities of our officers in providing guidance and instruction to the inmates.

Despite these challenges, we remain steadfast in our commitment to offender rehabilitation. This dedication is underscored by compelling statistics, with not a single individual among radical inmates detained under the Prevention of Terrorist Act (POTA) 2015, who have undergone the integrated rehabilitation programme and subsequently been released, found to be involved in extremist activities or having returned to prison. These individuals span diverse backgrounds, with some driven to extremist ideologies due to internal factors, such as a lack of social support or educational opportunities, while others had established careers prior to their detainment.

In addition to placing a strong emphasis on theological intervention, we recognise the importance of addressing psychological and social factors, which are seamlessly integrated into our holistic approach to rehabilitation.

 

Nordin Muhamad

Commissioner General of Prisons, Malaysia

Datuk Haji Nordin Bin Haji Muhamad began his career in 1990 as a Deputy Superintendent and steadily climbed the ranks, serving in various pivotal roles, including Deputy Director of the Rehabilitation Treatment Division in 2007, Director of the Professional Development Division in 2011, Director of the Inmate Management Division in 2016, Director of the Policy Division in 2018, and Deputy Commissioner General of Prisons in 2020. Since March 2021, he has served as the Commissioner General of Prisons. He has been an active member and speaker at events organised by the International Corrections and Prisons Association and the Asian and Pacific Conference of Correctional Administrators.

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