Contributor(s)Think Centre / Prison Insider

Daily life

Prisoners serving ‘short’ prison sentences (under 2 years) share a cell.

An average cell measures 11m2 and can accommodate 3 to 4 inmates. Multiple-occupancy cells can house 4 to 18 people.

Single-occupancy cells are provided only to long-term prisoners with good behaviour and extenuating circumstances.

There are no proper beds; inmates must sleep on the floor. The Singapore Prison Service (SPS) provides only a straw mat and a blanket, no pillows. Lights and security cameras are always on.

Every cell has an open toilet and a shower tap. Inmates must satisfy their needs in front of their cellmates.

Cells are poorly ventilated and humid. There are no fans or air conditioning system, despite the country’s year-round tropical heat (30 to 40 degrees Celsius). Small holes in the wall let the air go in and allow inmates to distinguish day from night.

Prisoners receive three meals a day.

The prison authorities state that the diet provided is balanced and based on local recipes.

There are no communal canteens; prisoners eat their meals inside their cells. Staff serves them through a small rectagular hole at the bottom of the metallic cell door. Inmates must eat on the floor, in the same space where they sleep. The floor is cleaned with soap and a towel after every meal.

Breakfast consists of four pieces of bread with butter, jam and coffee or tea. For lunch and dinner, inmates choose between rice and bread and receive a ration of protein and vegetables. A common menu would be a boiled egg with cabbage and rice, or a piece of chicken with mixed vegetables, rice and gravy.

There is no prison canteen to buy extra food.

Menus do not respect religious practices. Medical diets are taken into consideration but no substitute is proposed. For example, inmates with diabetes will eat only bread with butter for breakfast, without any substitute for the jam.

Different menus are distinguished by a color-coded plate system: green = normal; blue = sugar-free; yellow = no beans; red = vegetables.

Inmates must satisfy their physical needs in squatting toilets placed inside the cells. Toilet paper is not always available.

Showers are small concrete tubs placed inside cells. Inmates must clean in front of cellmates. Shower time is at 5 pm.

No drinking water is available outside of meal times.

Male inmates wear a white t-shirt, blue shorts and “flip-flop” rubber sandals. For women, the uniform is a cotton pull-on top and trousers. Women’s hair is cut ear-length upon arrival.

Upon arrival, inmates receive:

  • one large plastic box,
  • one plastic drinking mug with cover
  • one round plastic basin with cover
  • one toothbrush
  • one tube of toothpaste
  • one roll of toilet paper
  • one light plastic spoon
  • one small towel
  • one straw mat
  • one gray blanket

The Raffles Medical Group, an Asian private healthcare provider, is in charge of medical attention inside prisons.

Inmates requiring more specialized health care may be transferred to Changi General Hospital.

A member of the staff checks daily to see if any inmates report sick. If so, a medical consultation is scheduled for the next day.

Detainees who report sick have to stay inside their cells 24 hours a day for the next three days. Those who have high fever are isolated in an individual cell.

Beds at the sick bay have no mattresses, just a metal plate with holes. Inmates are chained to the bed by the ankle. In some cases, one wrist is also cuffed to the bed frame.

Since inmates are attached to the hospital “bed”, they must fulfill physical needs in a small pail. They have to manœuvre to bring the bucket onto the bed and kneel over it to satisfy their needs.

There is a high rate of mental disorders in Singapore prisons, caused mainly by the hard living conditions. The medical staff injects high doses of anti-psychotics, which sometimes causes dyskinesia.

Inmates suffering mental disorders are placed in cells where lights are on 24 hours a day, causing sleep deprivation and worsening their condition The Singapore Prison Service justifies this by saying the light enables staff to record every move throughout the night. However, less invasive methods exist, such as infra-red night cameras.

Inmates spend 23 hours a day locked in a small cell. There is one hour of exercise every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. It generally consists of one hour of indoor basketball. There are no recreation facilities, gyms or football fields.

Every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, there is one hour of ‘dayroom activities’ such as watching TV, playing chess and reading newspapers.

All activities are performed indoors. Prisoners can spend years without seeing sunlight or going outdoors.

The prison service organizes games as recreational activities. However, testimonies describe a vast number of rules and constraints, such as having to keep their hands behind their back, squatting when ordered to or not being able to choose the members of their team.

Inmates cannot apply for work during the first six months of their sentences.

Employment opportunities are scarce while in prison. Certain inmates may be assigned to the laundry services or other maintenance chores, but no real skills-based activities are available. Those employed receive a small wage each week.

Most efforts to occupy inmates and rehabilitate them are deployed during the “treatment” and “pre-release” stages of the sentence.

The “aftercare” stage, which provides work training and job-seeking assistance to certain inmates, is under management of the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (SCORE).

As of 2015, SCORE had concluded agreements with a total 4,745 employers, who engage in hiring ex-offenders in order to reintegrate them into the national workforce. The main sectors are food and beverage, hospitality, logistics and manufacturing.
16% of the total prison population (2,042 inmates) secured a job prior to release in 2015, which represented a 9.5% increase compared to the previous year.

These achivements may seem rather modest if compared to the considerable emphasis that the Singapore Prison Service’s communication strategy has been putting on “rehabilitation“ and “reintegration” for the past fifteen years.

Detainees working

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Kaki Bukit Centre, housed inside Tanah Merah Prison, is the only school for inmate education and skills learning. Inmates can take the General Certificate of Education (GCE) ‘N’, ‘O’ or ‘A’ levels. In 2015, 1.9% of prisoners (239) passed one of these examinations. However, inmates must complete a four-year program in only one year. In 2015, 75.6% of students who took the ‘N’ levels passed them. The Singapore Prison Service (SPS) has outlined a rehabilitation process for offenders, divided into three main stages: in-care, halfway care and after-care.

A “Personal Route Map” (PRM) is charted for each inmate upon arrival, according to his or her needs and risks.

Through the so-called “deterrence” stage - most of the prison sentence - no educational programs are provided to inmates. The SPS justifies this measure by saying it allows prisoners to “experience the rigours of incarceration for a deterrence effect, and […] [gives] them time to adapt to their incarceration or detention, reflect on their past actions and prepare for their treatment phase.

Once the prison sentence has reached its last stage, named “treatment”, inmates attend educational programs based on the need identified in their PRM. However, SPS specifies that attendance at these programs depends on availability and priority without providing information on the percentage of prisoners who actually participate in them.

While in the “pre-release” and “after-care” stages, inmates are supposed to benefit from programmes that prepare them for reentry into the community after they are released.

The Community Action for the Rehabilitation of Ex-offenders (CARE) Network is a consortium of nine agencies providing rehabilitation for ex-offenders. Among them are the:

  • Singapore After-Care Association (SACA)
  • Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association (SANA)
  • Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitation Enterprise (SCORE)
  • Industrial & Services Co-Operative Ltd (ISCOS)
  • Yellow Ribbon Project

In reality, data on the percentage of inmates who are actually assisted by these programs is opaque. More efforts seem to be put into publicity than the actual beneficiaries. For example, the Yellow Ribbon Fund Skills Training Assistance to Restart (YRF START Bursary), created in 2010, has provided student grants to only 73 ex-offenders, and out of those, only 23 have obtained a diploma.

Prisoners are not allowed to have television or radio. Pens, paper and hardcover books are also banned.

Three softcover books per month are authorized. Remand prisoners may receive three softcover books or magazines per week.

The Singapore Prison Service censors daily newspapers handed to inmates by cutting out the articles they do not wish prisoners to read. Inmates must therefore read newspapers with a number of holes in them.

Upon arrival, new inmates are escorted with handcuffs and legcuffs to a processing location.

Officers, assisted by trained dogs, conduct strip searches to verify no forbidden items are introduced. For example, it is prohibited to posses any personal photographs, unless special permission is given.

A prison record is created with height and weight measurements, photo ID, fingerprints and the “Personal Route Map” (PRM) (cf. Education and Vocational Training).

After that, newcomers have their heads shaved. They must wear a waistband with their ID number printed on it. A final strip search is conducted before they collect their prison items: the uniform (a white t-shirt, blue shorts and a pair of slippers), a straw mat and a hygiene kit.

Roll is taken five times a day, even though most inmates stay inside their cells 23 hours a day. The first roll call takes place around 6.30 am, after five bell-rings inform inmates they must get ready for it. Three other roll calls are conducted at 9 am, 12 pm and 3 pm. The last one is scheduled at 7 pm. Inmates’ bedtime is set at 9 pm, even though lights and cameras never go off.

The command center is in charge of verifying all activities in the facility. Staff rely on electronic doors and video surveillance (at Cluster B only, approximately 3,000 cameras are installed).

Singapore prisons are notorious for the harsh discipline imposed upon inmates. The Prisons Act outlines minor and aggravated prison offences, as well as punishments prescribed in such cases.

Some minor offences include:

  • talking during working hours, or talking loudly, laughing or singing at any time after having been ordered by an officer of the prison to desist
  • quarrelling with any other prisoner
  • showing disrespect to any officer or official visitor
  • neglecting to or refusing to march in file when moving around the prison
  • visiting the toilets without permission of an officer or remaining there longer than necessary
  • refusing to eat the food provided
  • disobeying any lawful order of an officer
  • any other conduct that causes prejudice to the good order of the facility.

Among other sanctions, solitary confinement of up to seven days may be imposed on those found guilty of a minor prison offence. Sanctions are imposed by the Superintendent after due inquiry.

If a prisoner repeats a minor offence after having been punished for it twice, it is considered an aggravated prison offence.

Sanctions may include, among others:

  • corporal punishment not exceeding 12 strokes with a rattan cane
  • confinement in a punishment cell for a term not exceeding 7 days.

Isolation chambers have little light and ventilation. There is a small squatting toilet. Walls are padded to avoid self-harm.

In the Detention Barracks1, solitary confinement can be imposed for up to 14 days.

Through the Criminal Law Temporary Provisions Act, individuals may be placed in isolation chambers throughout their entire prison time, without trial.

  1. Military prisons.