“You Don’t See The Sky”: Life Behind Bars in Singapore

The Transformative Justice Collective (TJC) has launched a report on Singapore’s prison system, based on an analysis of existing laws and regulations, as well as interviews with 35 people with first-hand experience of incarceration.

Currently, most of what is known about prisons in Singapore comes from, or is at least mediated by, the state. People in prison are not allowed to be interviewed or surveyed without permission from the prison authorities; such permission is unlikely to be granted to independent activists or journalists. With their dominance over access and information, the government has long controlled the narrative about imprisonment, punishment, and the people who end up behind bars. TJC’s report is a rare independent overview of what goes on within Singapore’s prison complexes — which include state-run Drug Rehabilitation Centres (DRC) — that centres the voices of those who have previously been incarcerated.

Although the Singapore Prison Service now prefers to emphasise a more rehabilitative approach — going as far as to brand its officers “Captains of Lives” and rehabilitation officers — TJC’s findings indicate that people who have been detained or incarcerated in prison or DRC continue to experience imprisonment as a dehumanising and degrading ordeal. Cells are cramped and poorly ventilated, with some prisoners (such as those on death row) kept in solitary confinement for years. Mental health care is abysmal, and strip-searches are carried out far more than is strictly necessary, stripping prisoners of their dignity. Corporal punishment can be meted out for offences committed while incarcerated; this gets decided via processes in which the prisoner is not represented by legal counsel. Rehabilitation programmes, offered only to those the prison deem worthy, were described to TJC as ineffective, “tokenistic”, and even “condescending” and “discriminatory”. 

Instead of meeting the stated aim to “Rehab, Renew, Restart” the lives of those sent into the prison system, our findings strongly suggest that incarceration in Singapore tramples on human dignity and leaves already marginalised individuals with more challenges and barriers to overcome upon release. In short, the Singapore prison system causes suffering, perpetuates inequalities, and fails to realise even its self-proclaimed aspirations of rehabilitation and care.

As a collective founded on transformative justice principles, TJC does not accept incarceration as part of a “justice” system that purports to protect social safety, or as a legitimate response to harmful actions. We conclude our report by laying out the research on the harmful impact of incarceration on individuals, their families, and the wider community, arguing that there is an urgent need for decarceration in Singapore.

Download the full report here:

Media Contact
transformjustice.media [at] gmail [dot] com

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