I was not born an activist but this government is giving me the training to become an activist – S Indra Devi

COMMENT I had no idea what shape P Uthayakumar would be in when I visited him with his wife and her family recently. I consider Uthayakumar a friend and we had spent many hours arguing his position and mine, that we had reached an equilibrium in our relationship as far as our politics was concerned.

My former profession allowed me interaction with the so-called demi monde of society and visiting prisons to confer with clients was not something I was unused to. I often remind people that it is a completely different world and prisoner and guard are both friend and tormentor depending on the situation. There are many who do not understand this.

Negotiations to visit Uthyakumar were an ordeal in itself. Why this should be is beyond me. Surely, there are regulations in place that are not subject to the whims and agendas of the authorities but like I said in my previous piece about Uthayakumar, his loved ones are as much prisoners as himself and therefore not spared the indignities that a dysfunctional prison system confers on its unlucky inhabitants.

uthayakumar wife indraAfter agreeing to allow five people to visit him at a time at the entrance to the prison facility, the prisons officials reneged on the deal and said that Uthayakumar’s stepdaughters would not be allowed to visit their father.
At this point Indra (right) broke down after having been stoically negotiating for some time and questioned them on their change of attitude. She questioned them on their behaviour in this holy month and demanded to see the prison’s regulations on visiting inmates and whether stepchildren were not allowed to visit their incarcerated parent.
They had no logical response to her request beyond claiming that there were merely following orders. Her constant haranguing must have had some effect because most times these hardened prison officials were looking at the ground sheepishly and avoiding eye contact at all cost. All was in vain because these poor children were not allowed to visit the father who had sacrificed so much to build a better tomorrow for them.

We did eventually get to meet Uthayakumar. I stood back allowing his family to confer with him and looked around the prison remembering the times I had visited clients and wondered how an activist like Uthayakumar would fare in a desolate place like this. I consider Uthayakumar a political prisoner and to think of him languishing in a place like this saddened me.
'They cannot break me'
When I finally sat down to talk with him, a glass panel separating us and a phone the only means of communication, I was relieved to see my friend in good spirits. We joked about his bald head and my unruly hair and he said: “They cannot break, me, commander."

Anyone who knows Uthayakumar knows that he talks quickly and excitedly, and taking notes was an exercise in manual agility not to mention that I too had to carry out a conversation. We talked of his interment and what he was going through.

“The guards are generally okay with me but some of them are rude,” he said. “This is not a problem because I always maintain my dignity and think that all this is vitamins as far as fighting for civil rights is concerned.”

I asked him if there were threats or intimidation coming from the prison officials. “The intimidation is done to other prisoners in front of me,”  he said. He went on to describe two situations were prisoners were punished for violations in front of him when there did not seem any legitimate grounds for the sanctioning.

“This does not bother me but I feel bad for those prisoners,” he continued, “I was comfortable in the hospital wing of the prison, doing my writing and reading but they shifted me back to general population.” Uthayakumar wonders why other “political prisoners” were allowed the comfort of the hospital wing but special attention is paid to him.
Interested in prison reform
They are giving him his medication but his back poses a problem. “I am not asking for special treatment. If they have the doctors here, who could see to my health then so be it. But if not, why not let me see my specialist or make provisions for him to come here. My wife is not even asking for my release but just that my health is taken care of."

If “they” think that imprisoning someone like Uthayakumar would mean that he learns some sort of lesson, “they” have a lot to learn. Although he worries about his health, he is far more interested in his surroundings and what he observes. “You know, brother, what I am getting interested in is prison reform”.

NONE“I look around and see so many people who go back to crime because this atmosphere encourages them to embrace the life they left behind outside prison instead of channeling their energies to something useful.

“I give you an example, commander. The system’s idea of ‘rehabilitation’ is outsourcing the work to six former convicts. Inmates are squatting in the sun while these jurulatih (coaches) hurl abuse at them and attempt to humiliate them into submission.

“Yes, I understand using former prisoners to help in the rehabilitation process but where is the psychological counseling? Why this kind of humiliation? The inmates are not learning anything. We should be encouraging these inmates to get an education. Tough love has its place but not this kind of verbal abuse.

“NGOs and activist who work with released prisoners should be part of the system and not thought off as enemies.”

He talked for some time about how he is observing his surroundings and how prisoners act and think but more importantly how the prison system treats those who are in many ways outcast.

“I am not saying that these people do not deserve to be here. But we should treat them fairly and help make them functional members of society” he said.

The time allocated with Uthayakumar was brief and I assured him I would visit him again. It was good to see that the flame still burned in him and he was as interested in what was going on “out there” as what was going on “in here”.

I have no idea how this will eventually play out and I hope that his family and him are allowed some kind of relief in whatever from that may take.
It does make me wonder though: what is the aim of keeping someone like Uthayakumar locked up? If anything, it has merely given him another avenue to highlight the discrimination of the System.

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.