Nothing Rehabilitative About Prison: Part 1

Mike’s Story

This is the first instalment in a series of two. Watch this space for the next!

“The weed supplier got arrested, and from the sound of it, they probably went through his phone and tracked all those whom he had supplied to,” recounts Mike (not his real name)

One day in 2016, the authorities showed up at Mike’s workplace, arresting him for his drug use and remanding him in Police Cantonment Complex for two nights.

He describes the experience as “harrowing”, but what followed was worse. Without any official legal conviction, he was handcuffed, shackled, and sent to the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) in Changi Prison. Perhaps most unbearably, he was “kept in the dark” and cut off from all his loved ones, who had no idea what was happening to him.

“People who are in your life have no idea where you are,” he says.

At DRC, Mike was placed for 7 days in an observation cell that he had to share with 20 other people. This was torture: it was overcrowded, and people came and went endlessly.

“You don’t know day from night,” he remembers. “You can’t sleep cos the lights are forever on, and you only know the time of the day through the meals they serve you. It screws up your whole body system. It damages you and your sleep cycle cos you don’t experience darkness. I was completely shaken by it.”

And yet Mike’s arrest, leading to his incarceration in DRC, was only the tip of the iceberg. 

Dehumanisation

From the moment Mike arrived in DRC, he was treated with brutality. The officers stripped him naked, searched him with dogs, and subjected him to an intrusive interrogation.

A mandatory medical check after the 7 days in the observation cell brought him face to face with an “extremely rude” doctor, who ascribed Mike’s trembling hands to his drug addiction. When Mike explained that it was the result of a messed-up sleep cycle in the constantly-lit observation cell, the doctor ordered him to “shut up”. And when Mike tried to seek help from the doctor regarding his chronic knee injury, which prevented him from squatting, he dismissively told Mike that it was his “problem”.

“Right from the start they have destroyed you already,” Mike says. “It’s more destructive than rehabilitative.”

“Right from the start they have destroyed you already.”

He was then transferred to the B Block in DRC. Several rituals attended this move: Mike’s head was shaved, his photo was taken, and he was handed a white T-shirt. The prison superintendent gave a “welcome speech”. Foremost on Mike’s mind, however, was his credit card debt. 

“I said, ‘this is pretty important. I can pay it now. I don’t want to be declared bankrupt.’ And he said, ‘Too bad!’” Mike remembers. 

Only when he stood up for himself, telling the superintendent that he was putting Mike “on the path of even greater destruction”, did the latter relent and let him write a letter.

According to Mike, the older guards are the “real assholes”. One warden would randomly burst in, command everyone to stand up, and sing the praises of the PAP government. His speeches rapidly became a “comic moment” for Mike, because of how eccentric and deluded they were. “They really thought this was a good pep talk, but this is really dystopia,” says Mike.

The inmates were also obligated to perform elaborate deference each time they encountered a prison warden. “If there’s 8 of you, 4 must be seated and 4 must be behind you, and do that stupid shit, ‘good morning sir’, ‘good afternoon sir’, to make them feel like little emperors,” quips Mike. Every minor deviation could be noted down and used to penalise them.

Sanitation was a major issue, with the soap being replenished only once every 3 to 4 weeks. Mike contracted a skin infection from shaving with the unsanitary blades and bar soaps that he was supplied with. “The blades are really low-quality, you can see the rust forming by the second time you start to shave. And you get cuts, naturally,” Mike says.

The food was inedible and unsafe for consumption, often containing grains of sand and small rocks. Letters written by inmates to their loved ones outside were sent extremely late, sometimes only two months after they intended the letters to be received. Transphobia was pervasive, with transgender inmates being catcalled by other inmates and the wardens doing nothing to “protect their dignity”.

DRC also neglected the inmates’ psychological and mental well-being. Mike felt traumatised and repeatedly requested for a counsellor. He was never given one while at DRC.

Friendships and Class Differences

While still inside the observation cell, Mike kept his spirits up by making friends with his co-inmates. Most of them came from lower-income families, being poorly educated and “trapped in that cycle of poverty”. They could tell that Mike was financially better off than them, and – perhaps ironically – responded differently to him with that knowledge.

“They told me to my face that I don’t belong here,” recounts Mike. “‘This place is more for people like us,’ they said, ‘Cos whatever they do to us, we’re used to it. But whatever they do to you, you may be broken.’”

In tandem with this, he began to notice that inmates with lower education levels were subject to stricter regimes and schedules. These people, for instance, were sent for compulsory 50- or 60-day courses. In stark contrast, Mike was only made to attend a 5-day programme that ran for 2 to 3 weeks.

Mike also felt “struck” by the sheer number of underage kids in DRC. Contrary to its rehabilitative purpose, their incarceration in DRC actually serves as a “festering ground” in these kids and adolescents get recruited by gangs. It’s a “mega drug convention centre”, in Mike’s words: there were a grand total of 3 gangs in his cell alone. Being in prison, in reality, allows for the expansion of underground gang and drug trafficking networks, and pushes many young people far more deeply into the vicious cycle of poverty and drug addiction.

But there were saving graces for Mike, throughout his time in prison, one being that his fellow inmates consistently demonstrated care for him. At B Block, the ones in the same holding cell as him looked out for him, because they perceived that someone of Mike’s class and background should not be in prison. 

Of course, it also helped that Mike was an entertaining storyteller, and quickly garnered his cellmates’ respect and attention with his anecdotes.

“[My cellmates] told me, ‘we just want you to be safe and get out as soon as possible.’”

“They told me, ‘we just want you to be safe and get out as soon as possible. Cos this place is not for you.’ They will tell other people, ‘don’t touch him’,” Mike says.

Sexuality

The other inmates offered him tips, pointing out to him the “homosexual cell” that was visible through the little sliver on their cell door. According to them, those who declare themselves to be homosexual are incarcerated in DRC for 12 months with no chance of release, while others have the chance to access programmes after 4 to 6 months.

“In Malay they call it ‘duduk dalam sampai game’. You sit inside until game over,” Mike tells us.

It is a fate that could very well have befallen Mike. Seeing no reason to lie about his sexuality during his preliminary interrogation in DRC, Mike told the officer that he identifies as homosexual. Yet, he didn’t end up in the “homosexual cell”. Mike suspects that the officer, who was filling in the form in an extremely “automated” way, misheard him and just put down “no” in response to that question.

After hearing about the differential treatment that those in the “homosexual cell” are subjected to, Mike made the conscious choice to not reveal his sexuality to his fellow inmates. “I didn’t want unnecessary trouble,” he explains. “I did my own thing, lived life day by day.”

This is the first instalment in a series of two. Stay tuned for the next instalment, in which we will explore why the prison denied Mike access to his family, and more instances in which his fellow inmates’ solidarity helped him resist the prison’s arbitrary cruelties.

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