Why should we care about the rights of Prisoners?

This article was first published on Wake Up Singapore.

by Jolovan Wham

Prisoners’ rights and the prison system rarely receive critical attention in our society. It can be hard to get public sympathy for prisoners, especially if they have been convicted of crimes many of us find unconscionable or abhorrent, such as sexual assault, cheating and murder. Incarceration is meant to serve as a deterrence, and people tend to expect that harsh conditions are part and parcel of what offenders are expected to endure.

Imprisonment is punishment. Just desserts if you like. As such, our prisons must, first and foremost, remain spartan, and the regime of incarceration, strict. Imprisonment is also incapacitation, designed to deny the incarcerated the opportunity for further offending.

Ex- Commissioner of Prisons, Ng Joo Hee

In the past two weeks, rarely-asked questions about the dignity and rights of prisoners were raised in Parliament.

Leon Perera of the Worker’s Party asked if those subjected to judicial caning are required to say “thank you” to their caners after the punishment is administered.

He also asked questions about the living environment in prisons, in particular, why prisoners are not allowed to exercise in their cells, and why they can be paid as little as 30 cents an hour for work performed while incarcerated.

The questions posed by Mr Perera are a welcome start to the many questions we need to ask in order to critically examine the conditions that prisoners are subject to, and the extent to which prison plays a necessary function within our society.

In the past year, the Transformative Justice Collective (TJC) has been documenting the experiences of ex-prisoners, and has organised workshops and events to offer a counter-narrative to the “success stories” propagated by the Singapore Prison Service and its Yellow Ribbon project.

Why is the treatment of prisoners important and why should we care? How we treat those who come into conflict with the law affects the effectiveness of our rehabilitation strategies, and also determines the kind of justice we want to see in our society.

While the Singapore Prison Service says its Yellow Ribbon Project promotes prisoner reintegration to society, independent longitudinal studies measuring its effectiveness are either non-existent or not publicly available.

What we do know is that last year, it was revealed that a whopping 80 percent of the prison population have been incarcerated before with the majority for drug offences, and more than 40 percent of prisoners who are released are incarcerated again within a five-year period.

In a 2019 study of women prisoners conducted by the Singapore Prison Service themselves – of 31 interviewed, 90 percent faced job difficulties when released, including stigma and poor job fit; 60 percent reported financial difficulties; 30 percent reported facing mental health issues, with depression and anxiety being the most common symptoms. They also reported difficulties seeking treatment for fear of stigma from employers.

There is growing evidence (see for example, herehere and here) which calls into question the effectiveness of prison in facilitating re-integration, reducing crime rates or keeping our communities safe. The millions of dollars spent each year to run our correctional facilities could be used to uplift and empower marginalised communities, who form the overwhelming majority of our prison population.

Singapore’s prisons are harsh and fall short of international minimum standards. Prisoners sleep on hard floors in poorly ventilated, cramped spaces (a three to four person cell is about 2.3m by 2.3 m in size, excluding the toilet), and are only allowed out of their cells for an hour each day on weekdays only. They are subjected to intrusive and humiliating searches on regular basis, and all their movements within their cells are recorded by surveillance cameras.

Extended periods of solitary confinement is a widespread practice: current regulations prescribe a maximum punishment of up to 3 months in solitary confinement for those who commit offences while in prison. This is also true for individuals convicted of serious crimes, or who are on death row, except that they may serve the entire period of their sentence in solitary cells with extremely limited social interaction.

Research has shown that dehumanising conditions in prison worsen mental health problems, and make prisoners more prone to aggression. A culture of fear and mistrust often takes root within the prison. In order to adapt to and survive in such an environment, male prisoners put on an overly masculine front to hide their vulnerabilities and deter aggression. Such conditions make it difficult for healing, restoration and the changing of toxic masculine norms to take place. Prisons also isolate prisoners from friends and family who are instrumental in the wellbeing and rehabilitation of the individual. Such isolation is made worse by the prison’s existing practice of only allowing early release and community sentencing options for incarcerated individuals who have strong family support. Families who are reliant on the incarcerated individual for an income become even more disenfranchised.

The prison system and its correctional approach to crime fails to address many of the structural forces which lead many individuals to incarceration in the first place. Minorities and persons from and economically disenfranchised backgrounds are disproportionally represented: even though Malays are only 13.5% of our population, in 2017, they constituted 55% of the prison population.

Re-integration is often said to be the goal of prison rehabilitation programmes, but this assumes that prisoners from marginalised and vulnerable communities were already integrated into society to begin with. Inter-generational poverty, inequality, and patriarchy are some of the major reasons people come into conflict with the law. Unemployment, substance abuse and drug trafficking are issues which will not be resolved by imprisoning, caning or executing someone.

A transformative approach to justice would mean that we take steps to create the conditions which prevent such harm from happening in the first place, invest in resources which uplift marginalised communities, and, for when harm occurs, develop systems of redress which emphasise community accountability, healing and reparation without resorting to state violence and punitive retribution.


If you are an ex-prisoner and would like to share your experiences anonymously, get in touch with Transformative Justice Collective at transformjustice.sg@gmail.com or on Facebook and Instagram.

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