Prisoner Rights and Prison Wrongs: A Workshop

What are prison conditions in Singapore like? How are incarcerated persons treated? How effective are prisons when it comes to rehabilitation and reintegration? Is there such a thing as a humane prison? 

Last month, the Transformative Justice Collective organised a workshop to discuss these issues, to raise awareness of prisoners’ rights, and to re-imagine a world which doesn’t rely on the carceral system to achieve justice. We invited two formerly incarcerated individuals to share their story.

L’s experience in DRC

L talked about his addiction to meth and his arrest and imprisonment at the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC). The experience traumatised him and he was only able to recover from it because of strong family and social support, unlike many of the inmates he shared a cell with, who did not have the same level of support. As a result, he spent three months in incarceration, whereas many others spent up to six months. Prison conditions were dismal as he had to share a cramped and spartan cell with seven others, and they could only spend one hour outside the cell each day. They weren’t allowed out on weekends at all. 

L shared that prison guards weren’t adequately trained to work on rehabilitation with inmates. They also told inmates that if they did not have adequate family support—which was judged via indicators such as the number of letters one receives from relatives—they would be considered “high risk” or more difficult to rehabilitate, and kept in DRC for longer. L felt that such an approach was “deeply flawed”, as not all inmates or their family members have the privilege, education, or ability to do things like writing copious letters or arranging visits. 

What also struck him was that inmates who did not use “acceptable language”—something very much influenced by one’s class and education status—when talking to the guards or others in the prison were deemed “difficult to rehabilitate”. He added that it was not fair that they were penalised simply for not being “schooled in the right words”, and prison guards should use more meaningful indicators in their evaluation.

“If we let you out early, will you punk the system?

L said that while the counsellors and prison officials were “well-intentioned”, many had little knowledge about addiction and rehabilitation tools, and the attitude of some counsellors were “condescending”. 

In one of the sessions he attended, an inmate shared that the reason he took drugs was because he was working two jobs and needed strength to stay awake at work. However, the counsellor’s responses were limited and the inmate was just told that drugs were bad for him. L believes that each inmate has their own story and difficulties, and the exploration of these issues needs to be deeper for rehabilitation to be effective. 

Instead, the prison’s attitude seems to be: “If we let you out early, will you punk the system or let the system down?” A rehabilitation approach that is predicated on fear is “almost a lost cause,” L said.

L acknowledged that his experience taught him more about humanity, and exposed him to a segment of society which required a lot of attention. He ended by saying that even if people get in trouble with the law, it’s important to honour their individual lives and stories.

Ashley’s experience in solitary confinement and in the prison psych ward

Ashley was incarcerated earlier this year, and was put in solitary confinement for 15 days as part of Covid-19 isolation measures. She said that throughout her time there, she didn’t interact with anyone except for the prison helpers, known as “cookies”, who delivered food to her. She was not allowed to leave the cell at all during that period. She shared that it affected her way more than she’d expected. The lack of human contact made her realise how important it was to be able to physically touch someone.

The prolonged period of confinement led to significant mental distress for Ashley, and she disclosed to the prison officers that she felt suicidal, even though she also stressed that she was able to cope by doing physical exercises. They asked her if she wanted to see a psychiatrist and she agreed, thinking it might help her as she was also not able to sleep properly on the hard floor. However, as it was the weekend, the psychiatrist was not around and she saw a medical doctor instead. Unfortunately, the doctor was not proficient in English and the conversation ended up being “lost in translation”. In the end, they decided to admit her into the psychological ward.

“I was hysterical, screaming and crying,” she said, as they restrained her by her wrists and ankles on the bed. The psychiatrist would only come in two days later and discharge her from the ward.

“They were the worst days of my life” 

Ashley shared that a psych ward inmate was not allowed to shower, nor were they allowed to go to the toilet. They had to defecate and urinate in a container next to the bed and could not wash their hands after doing so. The ward was hot and stuffy as there were only two wall fans in operation in a room which had at least 10 beds. Her wrist and ankle restraints were checked every hour, which meant that she could not get any proper rest, even at night. The lights were on for 24 hours: “I felt like I was going to lose my mind.” 

There was only one other person in the ward with her and she had been in those restraints for two months already. This person was naked from the waist down as she had defecated on herself too often. The only good thing about the psych ward, Ashley said, was that it “made the remainder of my sentence more bearable.”

Cell conditions, arbitrary punishments and the limits of rehabilitation

After the presentation, workshop participants were divided into groups to discuss the points raised by the speakers and issues related to the prison system in general. 

Participants felt that the prison system was too punitive, and a healing and compassionate approach was necessary in order for rehabilitation to be effective. Improvements to living conditions were crucial to help in the recovery process. For example, inmates should not have to sleep on the hard floor with little exposure to sunlight, and should not be confined to their cells 23 hours a day. 

During this workshop session, more information about prison conditions was shared. Prison cells are cramped and ventilation is poor. It was disclosed that a 3m-by-3m cell, which includes the toilet, can be inhabited by up to 4 people. It is not uncommon for inmates to develop mental health problems while inside and this makes recovery and rehabilitation even more difficult. Regular strip-searches affect the dignity of the inmates and are especially awkward and uncomfortable for women who are menstruating.

Inmates can also be punished for minor infractions in prison. A participant shared how accidentally flushing a bar of soap down the toilet resulted in an inmate receiving a demerit point. An accumulation of three demerit points may result in solitary confinement in a punishment cell. 

Punishments are usually in the form of solitary confinement, in what is known as a punishment cell. In this cell, the water supply is limited and the lights are left on round the clock. Depending on the severity of the offence, inmates can be confined for days, or up to several months, without leaving the cell. 

Punishments can also lead to an extension of prison terms. What constitutes an offence in prison is unclear and can be arbitrarily decided. The prison board of visitors and justices of the peace, who are supposed to be independent checks and balances, are not given free rein, and only end up speaking to inmates who have been screened by the prison authorities.

Participants felt that the rehabilitation system/structure is not tailored to individual needs, and takes a one size fits all approach. Existing programmes run the risk of forcing people into doing things which are not in their best interests or what they are best able to do. The programmes also focus disproportionately on personal responsibility without enough emphasis on how structural problems create obstacles to effective rehabilitation and recovery. 

Participants agreed that post-incarceration support is essential, and that it’s important to rope in the community, friends and family to help in rehabilitation. Some participants shared that most crimes should not be punished with incarceration, and that perhaps only those who have committed violent crimes, or cases where the individual poses a physical threat, should be isolated from society.

A participant also shared the limitations of faith-based approaches to rehabilitation. For example, those who are Christian or had converted to Christianity while in prison have more access to resources because of existing racial stratification among the different religious groups. Those who are not religious face additional difficulties accessing rehabilitation services.

The stigma and dehumanisation of ex-offenders, especially drug offenders, are deeply entrenched due to mainstream narratives which perpetuate narratives of harm which are disproportionate to the actual harms caused. One participant argued that “traffickers” are demonised without nuance and understanding. For instance, people who use drugs, share a joint, or sell some to friends to sustain their use, are criminalised to extreme extents, and viewed in the same way as drug lords. 

Participants agreed that there are aspects of imprisonment that need to be thought through more carefully, in particular concepts such as punishment, justice for victims, rehabilitation, and protection of society. Building a community that can critically discuss these issues, through a restorative and transformative justice framework is important.

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