Prison Break: Syllabus for Critical Reading Group

The dominant narrative about policing and prisons in our society is that they keep us safe. Prisons are often considered a necessary evil at worst, or believed to be rehabilitative at best. The Singapore Prison Services motto is “Rehab, Renew, Restart” (it is noteworthy that they are positioned as a service). The Singapore Police Force’s stated vision is “to make Singapore the safest place in the world”.

But do the police and prisons really keep us safe? Do they protect victims, support healing, rehabilitate offenders, and deter harm? What are the effects of the prison system on our minds, families, communities and economy? Surveillance, coercion, punishment, segregation and isolation are tools of policing and prison that don’t only affect prisoners, but all of us in society. Join us for this reading group where we will critically examine criminalisation and the modern-day prison system; and consider the possibilities of transformative justice and a world without prisons.

Objectives: To encourage (a) collective, critical reflection on the prison system, and (b) reimagination of a world without prison / alternatives to prison

Session 1 — Arrested Minds: Unlearning Prisons

Do prisons effectively address harm in society, or do they merely create the illusion that harm has been addressed by locking people away? Why are some actions more heavily punished by the law even if they may not necessarily cause greater harm? Who does criminalisation benefit, and who does it render more vulnerable to violence and disenfranchisement? If prisons claim to rehabilitate incarcerated people, then why do so many of them re-offend after they are released?

Transformative justice takes these questions as starting points, to shift the focus away from individual actions. Instead, it considers a broader structural framework that takes into account the social conditions and lived realities that cause people to make the choices they do. Encouraging collective, critical reflection on the prison as an institution, transformative justice asks: what alternatives are possible, to address harm and to encourage people to take responsibility for their actions?


  1. Victoria Law (2021), Prisons Make Us Safer: And 20 Other Myths about Mass Incarceration, Chapter 2: “We need prisons to make us safer.”
  2. Transformative Justice Collective (2021), “Nothing Rehabilitative About Prison”, part II
  3. Stephanie Chok (2017), “Singapore’s War on Drugs: A Historical Overview”
  4. Thirumaran (2019), “The Evolution of the Singapore Criminal Justice Process”, para 1 -25.
  5. AG Lucien Wong (2017), Singapore Law Annual Review Speech, “Prosecuting in Public Interest”, para 16-43.

Session 2 — Arrested Liberty: Prisons, Capitalism, & Authoritarianism

This week, we examine connections between economic policy and carceral politics. Looking first at a case study of the United States, we explore how neoliberal reforms (e.g. welfare cuts, privatisation, deregulation) of the 1980s had led to the emergence of a carceral state and mass incarceration that disproportionately targeted poor, racial minorities. What parallels can we then draw from our case study in reference to Singapore’s carceral landscape? How might Wacquant’s analysis of the ‘penalisation of poverty’ lend itself to the surveillance experienced among residents of rental homes? In addition, how might the disproportionate economic disenfranchisement of racial minorities converge with their similarly disproportionate representation in our local prisons, as well as the additional challenges faced among ex-offenders from minority-race groups seeking reintegration in Singapore society? In this view, how do we make sense of the failings of our current systems in serving neither victims nor perpetrators of harm?


  1. Tunick (1992), Chapter 2: Radical Criticisms of the Practice of Legal Punishment , see Part 4: Marxist as Radical Critic)
  2. Foucault: Crime, Police & Power
  3. Loïc Wacquant (2001), The Penalisation of Poverty and the Rise of Neoliberalism.
  4. Tan (2012), Strikes strike Singapore: The undertone of industrial relations
  5. Tatlow (2013), Back in China, Bus Driver Doesn’t Regret Singapore Strike
  6. (optional) Teo You Yenn (2019) This is What Inequality Looks Like, Everyday Lives; 65-79
  7. (optional) Kokila Annamalai (2021), “On racism, police harassment and the carceral system”

Session 3 — Arresting Each Other: Prison rules … all of us

“Yes, the carceral state encompasses the formal institutions and operations and economies of the criminal justice system proper, but it also encompasses logics, ideologies, practices, and structures, that invest in tangible and sometimes intangible ways in punitive orientations to difference, to poverty, to struggles to social justice and to the crossers of constructed borders of all kinds.” – Ruby Tapia

Previously, we looked at the prison as the specific site of surveillance, punishment, and control over those who have been incarcerated. But do carceral ideas stop at the walls of prison compounds? This week, we will examine the ‘carceral state’ and how modern forms of governance rely increasingly on a ‘carceral logic’. That is, the maintenance of order through surveillance, coercion, and punishment, often removing specific groups of people from public spaces through practice or discourse, operating in spaces far from the prison itself.

How might the concepts ‘carceral state’ and ‘carceral logic’ map onto Singapore’s own penal landscape, if they map onto our local spaces at all? In what instances do we see a ‘carceral’ logic applied in spaces beyond the prison compounds – in our schools, work places, public transport, malls, etc.? What kinds of people often suffer the brunt of these techniques of governance in Singapore? Might a carceral logic and discourse lend to stigmatisation for the formerly incarcerated who seek reentry into society? These are the questions we will explore in this week’s segment of the reading group.


  1. Kayla Marie Martensen (2020). Review of Carceral State Studies and Application. Sociology Compass, 14(7). doi:10.1111/soc4.1280’
  2. Narayanan Ganapathy, Criminal Justice Policy: Social Order, Risk And The ‘Governmental Project’
  3. Foucault: Government Surveillance & Prison –
  4. Corporal punishment archaic, does more harm than good
  5. Explainer: Can students be caned in schools and can parents take action against educators

Session 4 — Prison Break: Imagining Alternatives to Prison

Can we imagine a world without prisons? What do we need to change about our present reality, in order to get there? How do we construct a society that meets everyone’s needs and enables everyone to flourish, so that harm and crime become obsolete? In the meantime, transformative justice provides us with a language to prevent, respond to, and attempt to transform the harms that we see happening around us, while seeking healing and justice for survivors.

Individually and collectively, we all have the capacity to reflect on the world we want, and to align our behaviours and choices with that vision. What might this vision look like in Singapore, where the death penalty continues to exist, and the police continue to be seen by many people as the primary, and sometimes exclusive, way of seeking justice? Where do we go from here?


  1. Angela Davis (2003), Are Prisons Obsolete?, Chapter 6: Abolitionist Alternatives
  2. Victoria Law (2021), Prisons Make Us Safer: And 20 Other Myths about Mass Incarceration,
    Chapter 20: “Prisons are the only logical and evident way to address violent crime and meet the needs of victims.”
    Chapter 21
  3. Mariame Kaba (2021), We Do This ‘Till We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, “So You’re Thinking About Becoming an Abolitionist”,
    “From ‘Me Too’ to ‘All of Us’: Organizing to End Sexual Violence without Prisons”,
    “Transforming Punishment: What is Accountability without Punishment?”
  4. (optional) Judith Armatta (2018), “Ending Sexual Violence through Transformative Justice”,
    12-17; 19-28

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