James’ Story: “It’s a one size fits all approach which does not work.”

This is the story of James, a former civil servant.
Names have been changed for privacy.

First of all, the idea that DRC is supposed to be rehabilitative? In my view – and I do not know if they have changed it since 2016 – it’s very much tokenism. As you step back and look at it, you look at these people who are trying to do certain things, and you’re like “Bless their hearts that they are doing it.” But at the level of intent, , it doesn’t conceive of being truly rehabilitative.

Because, it is essentially prison, right?

But I think that this is typical of our system. There is so much pride and arrogance in what we do, see how successful we are, we know better, so don’t bother or question us.

Getting Caught

I was successful professionally and amidst all that success, I spiralled quite quickly into meth addiction.

It was multiple years of, “See? I can get away with it.”

That was how crazy I was: I was high every day and in my mind, I was convinced I was functioning but I wasn’t.

I got caught in a raid. There were these other guys with me who were gay. They did ask me: are you gay? Someone had whispered to me not to admit you are gay. You are told not to admit because they will test you more, and you’ll be under more surveillance. I don’t know what would have happened if I said I was.

“It was multiple years of, ‘See? I can get away with it.'”

I was detained for a day when I was arrested.

In some ways I am thankful that I was arrested, if not there could have been a tragic car accident, an overdose or something similarly bad.

Rehabilitation vs. Prison

I think that the dehumanising part of prison too is that they are not just holding you in [physically] but also putting bars on you mentally – that’s the philosophy. I think that is a terrible thing, but it is very much what they subscribe to.

They will argue that this is prison, and the idea is to contain you physically and mentally. But any addiction specialist will tell you that this is counterintuitive to trying to rehabilitate someone, right?

Many people take drugs because they are trying to escape whatever issues they have with life, whether you are privileged or not so privileged, we are all the same, addicts are the same, we do things because we can’t deal with our realities.

It’s not conceptualised based on an intent to rehabilitate. It is based on an intent to basically scare you into going back in again, which to a privileged Chinese male who ticks all the right boxes, it is scary la, for the initial first year right, so it does work. For a scaredy cat like me, it will have a certain mileage.

“They will argue that this is prison, and the idea is to contain you physically and mentally. But any addiction specialist will tell you that this is counterintuitive to trying to rehabilitate someone, right?”

Thankfully, I have people who were able to guide me to say, “How do you want to recover and deal with your life?” But for me I don’t profess to say I won’t touch drugs again. But I think I am lucky enough to say that I have the tools to do it – but none of the tools came from the DRC Changi prison.

For many of the guys in there, there’s a psychological toll on their families, and their families do not have the privilege of the social currency to ask the right questions, pull the right strings or write to the right people. When is my next visit? How do I get things to them?

If you talk to the other guys there, they will say my family doesn’t know, and that when they were arrested they only got one phone call, so for their families, if they don’t have the right information, there’s also a high level of trauma.

I don’t think it will be huge cost to the system if it was done differently in terms of what can be delivered to them, I honestly feel that there are so many civic groups out there who are willing to do way more, with a more enlightened view and with a more meaningful and purposeful set of strategies to help these people without compromising anybody’s security.

The whole idea is that ultimately you are going to be in the space of rehabilitating people, you have to be approaching these people with the understanding of why do they act out, why they scream and shout inside and why some of these male inmates are happier inside sometimes? And are we feeding into that?

If you really feel that it is rehabilitation as opposed to just Changi Prison, then have you even bothered to find out whether the person went in because of heroin, which is a lot more powerful than someone on marijuana? You don’t get a sense that there is a real commitment. It’s a one size fits all approach which does not work.

These people are in prison, you have 24 hours of their time, why not dedicate the resources to working with them individually? I see it as a chicken and egg situation. They’ll say we don’t have the resources, but the point is that why don’t you have all that? Because there isn’t an intent in the first place.

When Inside

My original sentence was six months in Changi and then six months at home with the prison tagging system. Then they upgraded it for people who are less likely to be a problem, so they are kept two months to four months in prison, and then another two or four months in this single story set of dorms, and you wear a location tag. All of us will sleep in this big long dorm, and every morning we’re released to our place of work. I was lucky that my place of work was my relative’s home. Again I was fortunate because I had a support system.  

Every morning you go to work and then you go back there to the low level security prison. You can only travel to your work place and come back and maybe only move within a 500m or 1km radius to eat your lunch.

Here is a very clear sign of the haves and have nots: For me, I was fortunate enough to find work with a family member and enjoy the convenience of seeing friends and family members often. Work was not as exhausting and I have loved ones who worked closely on my recovery.  This was not a privilege many others enjoyed.  

Counselling & Conversations 

During my time in DRC I was assigned a counsellor, and I don’t want to come across as condescending, but I’m like, is this counselling? The quality of the counselling wasn’t good. I feel that these [counsellors] have good intentions but poor training. Very rudimentary training. There is no real intent to understand why people commit these kinds of crimes and get into addiction troubles.

With the arrest and going into prison, I was one of the very lucky few and that’s because I didn’t create trouble, or at least I wasn’t perceived to be troublemaking, and I think that this is the problem with the system. Many of the officers are not trained to help people who act out or behave that is socially different.

“The quality of the counselling wasn’t good. There is no real intent to understand why people commit these kinds of crimes and get into addiction troubles.”

If you act out or commit an offence, you risk extending your time. Because, we are not sentenced, there is no trial, so you are just given a rough idea that out of the six months: if you are lucky you come out in four months, or two months, and if you are not lucky you stay six months. So this was often used against us: we will extend your programme. They make it clear that they have a constitutional right to put you in there without trial..

The system and its factory pipeline is very problematic: It just wants to be very efficient. They just want to place you inside there, pack you in, and you just wait your time. There isn’t a meaningful commitment to treat you as a human being. And I think that’s why I think people relapse.

For me, it was only three months of my life. But I see all these other guys, I hear stories that many of them have gone back in. They went back in because they were caught and they continued taking drugs, because there was no real commitment on anyone’s part for recovery.

I remember there was one guy who accidentally flushed his plastic spoon down the toilet because you have to wash it there, right? So, he had to eat with his hands for a while. They don’t replace your straw mats if it’s dirty or spoilt, and it is all very discretionary.

As I reflect on it, it’s not the big things like physical or verbal abuse, but all these other things: the quiet indignities.

For me and my friends, we can laugh about it because our lives have gone back to normal and we have pleasures of life now, and we look at the microcosm of that existence for two, three months. But for others who are in there for the longer haul, and if they don’t have anything else, it is really quite horrible. I think that we look at it with a sense of irony now, we joke and laugh about it, but for them it is a very real existence.

Recovery & Addiction

For me I was fortunate to have people around me who were committed to helping me with my recovery. I found resources ranging from Narcotics Anonymous to therapy. And everyday, I count myself extremely lucky to have these resources that were not part of the DRC experience.  

Even the idea of addiction in Singapore is only becoming more openly discussed today. It’s a slow process and our current prison policies do not help. With the prison system there is a very high level of shame, which again comes from a tradition of solving problems from being punitive as opposed to being committed to recovery and rehabilitation.  

My experience inside was definitely very eye-opening in the sense that there is a reason where these people don’t stand a high chance of doing better. What is your intent, really? There isn’t a real commitment for them to be in a better place at a sustained level.  

I talked to a number of guys inside, and many are involved in gangs, which again also begs the question: Why did they join the gangs? Clearly they felt disenfranchised ,and the gangs gave them a sense of self worth. 

The experience definitely taught me a lot more about humanity. Sadly, I don’t see very much of this humanity in the DRC experience especially in terms of how it is set up and what DRC intends to achieve.  

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