A community volunteer recounts her encounter with a teenager incarcerated for drug-related offences, and shares her thoughts on how to better support youths through the rehabilitative process.
I first met Terence while volunteering at a community rehabilitation centre in Yishun set up for teenage boys, most of whom are first-time drug offenders. Terence, like the others, wasn’t brought to court or charged, but he was in remand for a year.
The centre has a programme to help these teenagers reintegrate into life outside: they get to go to school or work, but have to report back to the centre at the end of the day. If they behave well, the boys are allowed to go out on weekends.
After ‘graduating’ from the Yishun centre, Terence was put on a tagging system and had to follow a prescribed schedule where he had to be at home at certain hours. He also had to report to Changi Prison once a week, an appointment he repeatedly missed due to his drug use.
For his multiple absences, he was placed high on a watchlist. Anticipating that the authorities might raid his house, Terence passed the marijuana he possessed to a friend.
Terence was caught dealing marijuana with his friend. They were both with an older, more experienced dealer in a vehicle, which carried up to 15kg of drugs. It may have included some cocaine and LSD too. He was 20 years old at the time of arrest.
They didn’t realise that seven other vehicles were following them. While standing outside the car to smoke a cigarette, a big guy from the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) appeared and punched Terence to the ground. Not being sober, he didn’t know how to react.
Escorted to CNB, Terence and his friend were repeatedly threatened by the police officers, “Admit already. You confirm hang. Confirm hang.”
During the police interrogation, the friend broke down. Terence denied everything. Nothing was obvious because the voice notes exchanged with the big drug dealer were mostly in code. Since Terence hadn’t been paid, he stuck to the narrative that he didn’t know the dealer was talking about weed, since he was running a business that sold other products.
The authorities also didn’t find any marijuana in his house since he’d given it all to his friend.
Terence ended up in solitary confinement for about 4-5 weeks, and was chained up for that duration. At one point, he resorted to drinking his own urine. He also unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide. Like the other inmates waiting to be tried for the death penalty, he had to wear a neon bib above his uniform so that he would be more visible to the prison wardens. These inmates were all deemed high-risk and likely to commit suicide.
Nobody gave Terence any updates on his case. After 10 to 11 months, he had still heard nothing and was waiting for trial. A lawyer was helping him from outside.
He wanted to contact me, but he wasn’t allowed to because I’m not his family member. A friend of his happened to be leaving prison at the time, so Terence gave him his remandee number, requesting that the friend help him contact me.
When he was released from solitary confinement, Terence was allotted a cell full of inmates who had been arrested for drug-related offences. All of them were below 21 years old. One of them was waiting to be tried for the death penalty, for which anyone above the age of 18 in Singapore is eligible.
Though Terence was arrested around September or October, his trial was scheduled for April the following year, on his birthday. I was worried that there was a sinister reasoning behind this. His trial kept getting postponed, and nobody provided him with any information.
He studied and read books to pass the time.
Terence was allowed visits once a week, for 20 minutes. Visitors didn’t have to be family members, but they had to carry the requisite “name card” which the family possessed. This meant that all visitors effectively needed Terence’s family’s approval to visit him.
Though he was acquitted in the end, I know that he was caned while inside prison, and it’s possibly because he was being punished for an offence committed within prison. He was involved in gangs, for instance.
You get stripped naked, pinned to a frame and caned. And at the end of it you must say ‘thank you’ to the person who canes you. If not, you get laughed at by the other inmates. Or if you pass out, you also get mocked.
Several days before Terence’s release, the prison guards repeatedly told him that nobody would pick him up, and that he wouldn’t be able to leave prison. It was common practice, apparently, for them to intimidate the inmates by saying that no one would be there for them on the day of their release. It continued happening for Terence until the day itself. Because his mum didn’t arrive at the scheduled time, the guards took advantage of that to scare him into thinking that he would be stuck there.
Terence didn’t have the money to do anything when he came out, because the process of legislation unfolded in such a way that his bank accounts were frozen. His savings remained inaccessible until at least one month after his release from prison. He really wanted to find work and get by without worrying his mother, with whom he had a good relationship.
Whereas people checked on him after his ‘graduation’ from the Yishun centre, this time no case manager was assigned to him.
Though Terence was motivated to make a better life for himself after he was released from prison, the conditions of his environment made it really difficult for him to do so. He had little incentive to abide by the law, when abiding by the law often did not provide him with a means of survival. Struggling to readjust to life outside, he went back to dealing marijuana.
In light of this, it makes sense to me that about 50% of the boys from the community rehabilitation centre re-offend after they’re released. This is what happened to Terence too. We must rethink what rehabilitation can look like.
What needs to change?
How can the system be improved? For one, I think that the rehabilitation centre could afford to channel more resources into educating the parents and families of the youth on how to better be present with their children through the process of rehabilitation.
After these youths ‘graduate’ from the centre and no longer have case managers or counsellors, the people in their immediate proximity play crucial roles in supporting them emotionally, which goes a long way towards helping them to discontinue drug use.
I’ve personally seen residents of the rehabilitation centre who went on to lead drug-free lives after ‘graduating’. This was mainly due to supportive, loving families or partners.
While they were still in the centre, they reflected on how they’d hurt the people close to them, and looked forward to reuniting with them. They shared with me that they felt motivated to stop doing illegal things because they no longer wanted to disappoint their loved ones.
But even if their families care for these youths, not all of them are well-informed on how to be supportive to a child struggling with drug addiction. This is also why, beyond educating family members, the residents’ situations post-‘graduation’ must also be considered in their specificity. If parents or families are unable to offer the support that the youth needs, counsellors could step in and continue keeping in touch with them – especially as many youths would have developed close bonds with their counsellors while in the rehabilitation centre.
Another idea is to arrange to meet residents of the rehabilitation centre in groups, even after they ‘graduate’. It’s tricky because some residents are reluctant to stay in contact with their peers, fearing that they might be pressured into drug use again. But I think the friendships could be positively leveraged to motivate and support youths. They’re also more likely to open up about their struggles and lives post-‘graduation’ if friends who’ve had similar experiences are present.
As we saw in Terence’s case, rebounds are a frequent part of rehabilitation. We try to educate and prepare parents for this likelihood, too. They should expect that falling back into drug use is likely to happen – and perhaps even normal – during the very process of trying to quit.
It is extremely difficult for someone to simply quit using drugs. One big reason for this is that drug use is often done in company with others, and can be the activity that binds them to their community.
During rehabilitation, it doesn’t help to simply imprison a teenager who’s trying to quit their drug use. Sometimes it even makes things worse. I’ve seen youths whose rebounds are tied more to their frustration with state laws and societal expectations. Locking them up would only vindicate them, and intensify their desire to consume drugs.
As a society, I think we need to move towards having more realistic expectations of the rehabilitative process. We should invest resources into strengthening the networks and communities that will support youths through their efforts to quit drug use, rather than seeing incarceration as the default solution.