PRISON CONDITIONS AND REHABILITATION (Statement by Minister for Home Affairs)

Our prison operations and conditions were subject of discussion in Parliament during the July sitting. This was initiated by interest generated through CNA’s screening of a documentary entitled “Inside Maximum Security”.

I filed a parliamentary asking the Minister for Home Affairs about our prison conditions. In his ministerial statement, the Minister gave a frank assessment of the situation. He accepted that the prison conditions are austere but targeted to ensure that: 1) prisoners are kept safe; and 2) prisoners are motivated not re-offend. He also pointed to statistics showing that the outcomes in terms of lower recidivism, suicide and assault rates are encouraging when compared to corresponding rates in prisons overseas. Please see below my question and the Minister’s statement

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Mr Murali Pillai: To ask the Minister for Home Affairs whether our prison conditions are reflective of the Singapore Prison Service’s transformation over the years and current standing as a leading correctional agency.

The Minister for Home Affairs (Mr K Shanmugam): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Earlier this year, CNA screened a documentary titled “Inside Maximum Security”. That documentary featured what inmates go through during their incarceration.

The documentary generated substantial interest in prisons’ operations and conditions. Since then, several Members have filed questions on prison conditions and rehabilitation.

From time to time, you will also hear questions on prison conditions in Singapore and whether the conditions ought to be changed.

So, Mr Deputy Speaker and Members, I have decided that I will deal with many of those issues by way of a Statement that deals with how our conditions are.

I have, both in this House and outside, spoken about the purposes of imprisonment, the outcomes that we aim to achieve, the different types of sentences and the factors taken into account during sentencing. For example, this year, in March, during the Committee of Supply (COS) debates and on various other locations. So, I do not intend to repeat those points, but I ask Members to keep those points in mind because they are relevant in understanding our prison regime.

Our prison regime and prison environment are austere and intentionally so. We place a lot of emphasis on security and monitoring so that our officers know what is going on. That is because you get situations where inmates might try to do a lot of harm to themselves, get contraband, create security situations and other similar issues.

Our approach is probably one reason, for example, for lower suicide rates in the Singapore Prisons. Between 2017 and 2021, there was one case of suicide in Singapore Prisons, compared with 10 cases in Hong Kong over the same period, 12 cases in Norway between 2017 and 2020 and 22 cases in Denmark between 2017 and 2020.

We also focus on rehabilitation of our inmates. I have spoken extensively about this issue as well, previously, including in March of this year during the COS debates, and in earlier years, and so I will not repeat those points. But as with the other points, the points I made need to be kept in mind as we talk about prison conditions.

My focus today is on the actual conditions. And with your permission, Sir, may I ask that some slides be shown on the LED screens.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Please do. [Slides were shown to hon Members.]

Mr K Shanmugam: Let me start by showing some photos of our prison conditions. All prison cells have toilet facilities within. This is a cell that houses one inmate. Cell space is around seven square metres.

Members are welcome to visit the Prisons for a shorter or longer duration. We can arrange.

This cell houses up to four inmates. The cell space is around 10 square metres. And now, Members will see the picture of cells that house up to eight inmates, around 20 square metres.

There are no fans inside the cells for inmates. Mounted fans could pose a security risk because they can be a potential anchor points for suicide. They could also be dismantled and the parts potentially used as weapons. Instead, there is a combination of natural and mechanical ventilation inside the cells.

On bedding for inmates. We provide straw mat with two blankets. Due to our hot and humid climate, mattresses for inmates are not ideal because of hygiene issues, generally. The current bedding also minimises the security risks of inmates hiding contraband items in the cells. Generally, there is no direct staff supervision inside the cells. However, beds are provided for inmates who require additional care, such as due to old age or mobility issues.

So, Members can see the photographs of correctional units for assisted living. These beds are in medical wards as well as the correctional units catered for assisted living that you see in the photos. These correctional units for assisted living also have other features like seated toilets, handrails, grab bars and anti-slip flooring.

Next on food and meals, inmates are given three meals daily, planned based on dieticians’ recommendations to meet nutritional requirements. As some would have seen from the CNA documentary, breakfast is bread with spreads like butter, jam and chocolate, and a hot beverage like coffee or tea. For lunch and dinner, it is a staple such as rice or noodles, with some dishes. Fruits are provided daily. Special dietary requirements are considered. For example, inmates, who are diabetic are given a low sugar diet. Inmates who have gout are given a low purine diet and vegetarians can request a non-meat diet.

Each inmate is also given basic necessities for daily living: toothbrush, toothpaste, clothing, slippers and towel. Members can see in the photograph.

For recreation, inmates have access to electronic tablets in their cells daily. They have access to e-learning material. They read e-books. They write and receive letters.

Tablets are also used to broadcast essential news, information to keep inmates up to date on the latest COVID-19 measures, for example, both within the prison and in the community.

On recreation, inmates typically have at least one hour of out-of-cell recreation on weekdays. They engage in sports and exercise or read newspapers, play board games or watch TV programmes. There are photographs of the common areas and recreational areas that Members can see on the screen. These are conducted either in the recreational yard or day rooms. Staff strength is a consideration as these activities are higher risk and require closer supervision by staff.

Inmates who work or attend programmes such as psychology-based correctional programmes, family programmes, religious programmes, may spend two to 10 hours a day outside of their cells, depending on the programme intensity.

Some questions have been raised about prison conditions and I will now address them.

Some Members might remember the case of David James Roach, the perpetrator of the Standard Chartered Bank robbery in 2016. It was claimed then that Singapore’s prison conditions would violate his human rights. He argued this in the UK when arguing against extradition.

An expert witness for him said that the modesty wall in our prison walls divides the living space from the sanitary facilities. Eating in a cell with a modesty wall does not fully partition the living and sanitation spaces, and it is effectively eating in the toilet. On the mirrored dome on the ceiling of the toilet, which allows prison officers to check on inmates, he said the lack of privacy is not acceptable when inmates use the toilets.

The UK Courts found that while the conditions of our prisons were, in their words, not ideal, the defence counsel representing Roach failed to show that Roach was at real risk of a breach of his rights. Other points have been made elsewhere about long periods of time inmates spend inside the cell, inmates sleeping on a straw mat and overcrowding.

Let me explain our rationale based on a few aspects of prison conditions and prison life.

First, the prisons are not overcrowded based on the specifications they were designed for.

For background, I should say overcrowding in prisons is an issue in several countries. A 2021 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) report states that prison overcrowding, and I quote, “Prison overcrowding is widespread around the world and of the 100 countries and territories for which UNODC had data on, nearly half, 47%, were operating at more than 100% of the intended capacity.” We are at about 70% based on our own standards and assessments. I would be careful with this caveat of comparing the percentages between countries because whether there is overcrowding can be a matter of definition. It depends on what your baseline is, what your intended capacity of the prison is and how it is designed.

If the intended capacity of the prison is lower than another, then, of course, occupancy rates would be higher for the first prison, compared with the second, for the same number of inmates. But based on media reports, I think we can say conditions in many of these jails, for example, the US jails, are much worse than ours. And from what we have seen from photos and media reports, Scandinavian jails are generally much more luxurious.

If you look at a 2021 CBS News report, it describes how overcrowding has led to a deterioration of conditions at Rikers Island prison in New York state. One New York state lawmaker is quoted as saying that one of the inmate facilities was so overcrowded that prisoners were reported to be staying in rooms without bathrooms for a few hours and some for days.

Another article describes the crowded conditions in New York City’s jails as a ticking time bomb. The head of the Prison Governors Association of the UK, in a report in 2020, said prisoners should be released to reduce overcrowding to prevent disorder and slow the spread, for example, of the COVID-19 virus.

We are not in that situation. In Singapore, the Changi Prison Complex was built in the early 2000s. We know land is scarce. We are a country of about 733 square kilometres. Land area taken up by your prisons and drug rehabilitation centres (DRCs) is about 4.26 square kilometres. This is a footprint that we have and we have to maximise the usage of the land. If we want to change it, a huge amount of money will have to be spent, probably running into billions of dollars and with more land taken. Whether that should be done depends on our assessment of the current conditions.

Our assessment is that conditions are acceptable and fits in with our philosophy of how prisons ought to be. Essential needs of our inmates are also met.

Our medical services: all inmates admitted to the prison are assessed on the state of physical and mental health. Inmates are able to report sick at any time should they feel unwell. They are accorded the necessary medical care by prison medical officers (MOs), prison psychiatrists and supporting medical personnel. Those who require specialist attention and medical care may be referred to Government restructured hospitals. Preventive health measures, including vaccinations, are provided to eligible and willing inmates. For example, vaccinations against flu, Hepatitis B and, of course, COVID-19. Ninety-four percent of medically eligible inmates have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim has asked about statistics of inmates diagnosed with mental health issues upon admission and the measures to address the needs of inmates who suffer from mental conditions and the support given to such inmates inside prison.

Data on inmates diagnosed with mental health conditions upon admission are not actively tracked. But I can say, as of March 2022, about 5% of inmates are on medication for the management of their mental health conditions. The most common conditions were adjustment disorders and mood disorders.

Inmates with mild mental health issues are housed with the general inmate population, seen regularly by the prison psychiatrist and go through rehabilitation programmes. Those with severe mental health issues may be housed in a specialised facility, managed with the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), that allows for more intensive intervention and therapy. Inmates who need active IMH follow-ups are referred to a psychiatrist. Inmates with mental health needs may also have other rehabilitation issues, for example, violent behaviour, that is an increased safety risk for staff and other inmates, and the prisons deals with those.

On feedback, the Singapore Prisons Services (SPS) provides various avenues to make inquiries and provide feedback and raise concerns. They can speak to their officers. They can raise their feedback through their family and friends. There are also independent bodies, like the Board of Visiting Judges comprising prominent members of society. They inspect the prisons; they ensure that the basic well-being of inmates is taken care of, and they hear complaints from inmates.

Mr Murali Pillai asked whether our prison conditions are reflective of SPS’ standing as a leading correctional agency. There are countries where prison conditions are less austere than ours. There are also countries where prison conditions are more austere, going to downright extreme overcrowding, as you would have seen from the articles I referred to earlier.

I will show Members some photos of prisons in other countries: Denmark, Norway, Thailand, Hong Kong and the Philippines. I think it shows a broad variety. If you look at Norway and Denmark, if I did not tell you that was a prison, you might be mistaken for thinking that is a condominium. We do not take that approach. Our philosophy is to keep the regime strict.

In addition to looking at the physical conditions — and of course, I think many Singaporeans will say we cannot compare with Thailand and the Philippines — but I think Hong Kong is often seen as a fair comparison. In addition to the actual physical conditions, I would say not enough attention is paid to what I would call the software — the recidivism rate, the effort put into the inmates when they are in prison, the assault rates and whether discipline and inmate safety are maintained. These are all very relevant. As I said, I would call this the software. What do you do to help the inmates? How do you make sure they are safe?

We do many things. I have referred to my earlier speeches. Our two-year recidivism rates have remained low and stable. The recidivism rate for the 2019 release cohort is now at 20%, which is the lowest in the last 30 years. We can do even better because our five-year recidivism rate for the 2015 release cohort is at 41.7%. Prisons is working with the community to improve the five-year recidivism rates.

By comparison, many other countries that you would think of, the two-year recidivism rates are usually in the 40% range, even in places like New Zealand, and the five-year recidivism rates can be in the 60% to 70% range.

So, we make a real difference to the lives of our inmates.

If you look at the assault rate per 10,000 inmates, the assault rate is low. It is around 47 since year 2019. Forty-seven per 10,000 is very low. In comparison, 520 for Hong Kong, 270 for England and Wales, 214 for Australia and 105 for South Korea.

These things do matter. You look at the big picture and you look at the effort put in.

This is another aspect of our prison management that I will like to point out. In some countries, there is a hierarchy among the inmates. Some inmates are allowed to exercise control over other inmates. Gangs of inmates are also often allowed to exert their power inside the prisons. We often see media reports. You would have seen enough films about this. Prison gangs informally set the order. That includes controlling the underground trade in drugs and other contrabands like cells phones inside the prison.

What happens is that in such prisons, those who are weaker will often be at the mercy of the stronger prisoners. Assault rates between inmates can be quite high. Inmates who go in, first time, could come out as even more hardened criminals brutalised by the experience. Their lives are often set on a very sad trajectory from which it is very difficult to change.

In Singapore, the position is quite different. Our Prisons officers run our prisons — not inmates, not gangs. Prisons are run in a fair and disciplined manner. We have a zero-tolerance stance towards gang-related activities. Assault rates between inmates are much lower. And the gang situation in our prisons is closely monitored. Prisons takes disciplinary actions against those found to be involved in such activities, including corporal punishments — Prisons can mete out.

Do not take me to be saying that some bad things do not happen sometimes in our prisons. The point is we maintain more control and on the whole, less of these bad things happen compared with most other places.

We try and maintain safety, order and discipline in our prisons. We want inmates to be focused on rehabilitation and turning their lives around without having to live in constant fear for their personal safety.

Let me now move on to our rehabilitation and reintegration approach. Members will know how extensive our rehabilitation efforts are. Again, I have made several speeches on this, so I will not go into detail. Instead, I will distribute a document setting out the points in a brief form. Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission, may I ask the Clerks to distribute an annex on the rehabilitation approach on Prisons? Members may also access this annex through the SG PARL MP mobile app.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Please do. [A handout was distributed to hon Members.]

Mr K Shanmugam: The rehabilitation approach by Prisons is based on the concept of throughcare — address rehabilitative needs of inmates in prison and facilitate reintegration upon release.

Dr Tan Wu Meng and Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim had asked about the challenges faced and support for inmates with mental health and medical issues. These inmates may face challenges in accessing continual treatment after release, as said. Prior to release, inmates with mental and medical conditions may be referred to IMH or restructured hospitals for follow-up care.

Dr Tan Wu Meng had asked about the handover of medical care for ex-offenders during this year’s Committee of Supply debates. Ex-offenders who need further follow-up after release are referred to Changi General Hospital’s specialist clinics for continuity of care. Prisons is working with SingHealth to facilitate follow-up appointments for ex-offenders at other public healthcare institutions which are nearer to their home.

Mr Deputy Speaker, in conclusion, I have set out in some detail the approach we take in our prison regime and the reasons for our approach. I have also set out our approach towards rehabilitation.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr Murali Pillai.

Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok): Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, I welcome the hon Minister’s statement on the conditions of prisons, and, as I hear him, it appears that there is a balance being struck between the austere conditions of prison and, at the end of the day, getting prisoners to be rehabilitated and we have heard about the commendable efforts put in by SPS to reduce recidivism.

I have two questions. The first is in relation to the Minister’s decision to allow cameras into the prisons. Issues of prison conditions have been raised from time to time. May I just please ask what was the rationale in allowing cameras into prisons for members of the public to see what the prison conditions are?

Secondly, it is in relation to safety. The hon Minister mentioned that one reason for the austere condition is for the safety of prisoners. The hon Minister spoke about the suicide rates as compared to other countries. How about assault rates, compared to other countries? How does the austere condition allow SPS to reduce opportunities for assaults?

Mr K Shanmugam: Let me deal with the second question first, assault rates. I do not have the data on this. Data is not easy to get because it is not as if prisons, generally, publish the assault rates. But my own understanding is that the assault rates in Singapore prisons are, generally, much lower. In some ways, it is due to a variety of reasons which, for example, were raised in the David Roach case, that there is no privacy when one uses the toilet facilities. But a lot of assaults take place there, too, when you give them the privacy.

Many prisons put prisoners together in a cell; just depend on the number of persons in a cell. But that is not the only reason. There is a whole set of infrastructure of factors. I spoke earlier about gangs in prisons. I spoke earlier about a hierarchy amongst prisoners. That is a very relevant factor for high assault rates. In Singapore, we do not allow any of that.

Secondly, in Singapore, there is pretty continuous monitoring — whether you are in the cell, outside the cell, with technology, there is a lot of monitoring going on. And as a result, prisons’ officers can intervene fairly quickly. It does not mean no assaults take place. Sometimes, there are even grievous injuries because people can inflict injuries on one another very, very quickly. So, you need the right intelligence, you need to know what is going on, who is manoeuvring against whom. You need all of that. And with the best will in the world and best intelligence, you cannot prevent every incident. But we keep it very low.

And prisoners committing suicide, it is a big risk. We want to save them. So, monitoring; no gangs; continuous engagement; rehabilitation efforts. I can mention many other factors. But our whole approach is very different and I would say much more focused on trying to make sure that the prisoners are safe and that, when they come out, they are, hopefully, in a better position than when they went in. That is the aim. We do not always succeed, but that is the aim.

Now, why did we allow the cameras in prison? For all these years, it was a taboo. No one can go in, which is why I invited Members to turn up as well. The approach we decided on was this, that people needed to understand how our prisons operate, what the conditions were. So, let us be open about it. Let the cameras go in, let them speak with the prison inmates themselves, let them speak with the prisons’ officers so that they understand our approach.

And this Ministerial Statement, this debate, as it were, is part of that process. For us as a society, we want to set out our approach. This is how we do it and this is why we do it. These are the reasons why we are doing what we are doing. And then, if anyone has a different view, we can hear them in Parliament.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Murali Pillai

Member of Parliament, Bukit Batok SMC, Advisor to Bukit Batok SMC GROs.