The study by MSF, as well as the report by the Straits Times, talk about the “transmission of criminality” in dehumanising and essentialist ways. “Criminality” is neither inherited like genes, nor “passed on” like a disease. Absent a nuanced examination of structural and systemic factors that place certain communities in conflict with the law, talking about intergenerational instances of offending can mislead the public into coming to troubling conclusions. The story that MSF and ST are telling around this report suggests that being a child of someone who has been incarcerated predisposes one to lawbreaking. Such a narrative smarts of eugenicist beliefs, which have done incredible harm to Singapore society.
The Pervasive Stigma of Incarceration
While the MSF study’s recommendation for community-based support for children of incarcerated parents is welcome, the MSF report contains multiple dog-whistles. The framing suggests that the public should see certain communities as intrinsically criminal, and as deviant actors to be fixed, rather than as vulnerable groups impacted adversely by incarceration, who are deserving of care and protection. People affected by incarceration are regular people, often marginalised by class and ethnicity. This is evident if we look at the demographics of the prison population in Singapore.
People who have been incarcerated face incredible stigma in our society, and by association, their families do too. The trauma of losing a caregiver, and the social exclusion that children of incarcerated parents might face, can put them in positions that make them vulnerable to being in conflict with the law. Rather than dispel the stigma around incarcerated people and their families, the MSF report intensifies it.
The Perpetuation of Sexism
The report also frames its findings in sexist ways – by suggesting that women who are incarcerated are to blame even more than men for their children’s “criminality”, because they are primary caregivers; and offering regressive explanations for the findings, such as “daughters may be more sensitive and affected by the parents’ criminal behaviour than sons”. These explanations are feeble and fall back on gender stereotypes to make sense of the data, rather than attempting to understand, within the lived experiences of these children, the reasons for their conflicts with the law. Perhaps, for example, gendered expectations lead to girls having to take on larger caregiving roles within the family when parents are incarcerated, thereby creating additional stressors that contribute to offending.
A Reexamination of Criminal Policy
It is disheartening to note that the study calls for a tougher stance on drugs, and a warning against the global trend of liberalising attitudes towards drugs. That a study which acknowledges the intergenerational harm and knock-on effects on children of people convicted of drug-related offences recommends even greater criminalisation of drug users is paradoxical. If anything, keeping more people, including parents, out of prison should be the goal, as the study shows how horribly disruptive to life and caregiving incarceration is. It is not “criminality” that is “transmitted” but criminalisation and marginalisation that is intergenerational, and we should be examining ways to break this cycle of harm caused by such a punitive approach to drugs.
In line with international standards, we believe that Singapore should re-examine its policy around a “tough stance on drugs” and instead work towards decriminalising non-violent drug offences. We should pilot voluntary community-based programmes for drug users, which would go a long way in keeping many of these parents out of prison, thereby reducing the impact on their children too. One way to achieve this is through a public health lens in understanding and tackling drug issues, rather than the non-evidence-based carceral approach to “rehabilitation” we currently adopt.
We also note that the interventions, for formerly incarcerated persons highlighted by the report, are geared towards getting them to participate in the economy and equipping them with parenting skills. Without stronger labour rights however, many will continue to face demoralising and even dehumanising experiences at the workplace. No matter how many parenting skills workshops might have been conducted within the prison setting, an unsupportive social environment, compounded with issues such as low pay or poor working conditions, would produce immense stress and make it highly challenging to put these skills into practice. Caring for the well-being of formerly incarcerated persons needs to include tackling factors such as societal prejudice, for example in the form of anti-discrimination legislation against people with criminal records.