INTERVIEW P Uthayakumar showed what is an end of a much worn toothbrush on his index finger and demonstrated how to brush his teeth. It was brown, soiled, and the bristles were almost gone.
“This is shared by almost five of the prisoners in a cell - usually there are more. When I asked the wardens, they said it is because there is no budget for toothbrushes,” said Uthayakumar, who is bent on telling all about his imprisonment in Kajang prison.
Uthayakumar was sentenced to prison for sedition, but little was he prepared for what was to come.
He had served time under the now defunct Internal Security Act and thought it might be similar.
Now, after surviving his term in Kajang prison, he said it is something he would not even wish upon his worst enemy.
While in prison itself, Uthayakumar had written many complaints of his prison conditions in smuggled letters through his wife and lawyers.
The Hindraf leader was sentenced to 30 months’ jail by the Kuala Lumpur High Court on June 5, 2013, after accusing Putrajaya of genocide against ethnic Indians.
The Court of Appeal on Sept 17 upheld Uthayakumar’s sentence but commuted the punishment from 30 months to 24 months. He was released last Oct 3.
Uthayakumar, a lawyer famed for having galvanised the Hindraf movement which brought tens of thousands of Indian Malaysians to a rally in 2007 demanding for their rights, said it was all he could do to keep his sanity while in prison.
He said the one thing that he did not leave behind when he entered prison was his activism - the only difference being that he spoke up for all races in prison, not only for Indian Malaysians, as he was wont to do outside.
“In prison, all are treated equally - equally badly. There’s really 1Malaysia in prison. There is equality for all.
“In prison, it doesn’t matter, you get equal treatment and you get the same food,” said the activist in an interview with Malaysiakini.
He admitted that this is contrary to deaths in police custody as well as deaths by police shooting, in which he had all the while claimed victims were mostly Indian Malaysians.
He explained that even during roll calls, which was several times a day and called ‘muster’, everybody got punished equally.
“There are no special privileges for anybody. And the natural reaction is that we are all in it together.”
‘Doctor checks from six feet away’
Uthayakumar said much is needed to better the conditions of the Kajang prison for men, especially when it came to medical care.
“What I feared most while in prison was that I would fall ill.”
His eyes glistened with tears when he spoke about the predicament of a fellow inmate.
‘The inmate had hepatitis C but the prison wardens said there was nothing wrong with him. One night, I saw him sitting on his bed, with a helpless look on his face.
“The next morning, he died, and I saw a prison officer erasing his name from the white board.
“I told the prisoner next to me, with that erasing, all the records of him having died in prison, are gone,’ he said.
Uthayakumar said for every ailment, the medication is the ‘KK’ pills - plain paracetamol.
“And the doctor checks you from six feet away, without touching you,” said Uthayakumar, who said he was usually appointed the spokesperson by his fellow inmates to speak to the wardens.
He said he had to be very careful and be at his utmost politeness while choosing the least strict of the wardens to ask for sickly fellow inmates to be given medical care.
He said his fellow inmates, before he left, lamented that in his absence, no one would speak up for them now.
Uthayakumar, however, said that he survived being sardine-packed in cells by keeping a journal, which at times was checked upon. They even took away his pencils and then he was moved on from one block to another.
Despite the ordeal, he said other prisoners had it worse.
He claimed that prisoners were persecuted on a daily basis and no one could answer the wardens, who struck fear with their violence and shouts.
He said inmates were treated like “mere slaves”; being beaten up, shouted at and ill-treated.
Despite that, the inmates stuck together for fear of the wardens.
He related how he witnessed inmates of different races helping each other - a Malay helping out a Chinese, or even of a Malay inmate cleaning up a paralysed Indian inmate every time the latter answered the call of nature, to the extent of using his fingers to ease the bowels of the latter.
The interview was jointly conducted by Zakiah Koya, Alyaa Azhar, Ahmad Fadli KC and Prasadh Michael