On Assignment
Home Team at Midnight: Behind the walls of a Singapore Prison
Ever wondered what a typical night operation in prison is like? Every day, round-the-clock, dedicated officers from the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) work tirelessly, staying vigilant at all times

It was a night like any other.

While traffic on the main roads thickened at the end of yet another work day for the bulk of Singaporeans, a group of officers streamed into Changi Prison Complex for their night shift.

Home Team News arrived at the entrance of the Complex against a backdrop of the setting sun.

It is around this time when officers of the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) swap shifts and hand over their duties to the incoming night shift after a long day of work.

We stepped in to find out what a usual night shift inside the sombre and quiet, highly secure compound is like.

As we walked along the pavements towards the security processing building of Cluster B, one of the Prisons Clusters which houses about 5500 inmates, we readied ourselves for even tighter security clearance points ahead. 

 Singapre Prisons Service (SPS) officers line up for a briefing at the beginning of the night shift. PHOTO:Matthew Wong

Cluster B comprises 5 institutions and is part of the Changi Prison Complex (CPC) which has 12 institutions in total.

Cluster B serves a unique role in SPS.

It is the beginning and end point of an inmate’s incarceration journey: Institution B2 is the admissions centre for all remanded and convicted prisoners while B4 is the pre-release centre.

We soon arrived at the Cluster B registry, a place for processing the entry of those who enter the CPC.

Being the main admission centre, Cluster B’s Registry receives daily new admissions comprising those who have either been sentenced or awaiting trial. 

On an average, more than 4000 inmates are processed through Cluster B Registry each month.

It was here where we met our two guides, SPS officers, Rehabilitation Officer Ngo Chi Leong (Registry officer on duty) and Chief Warder (CW) Muhamad Asfadly, who informed us that a batch of 30 inmates were just about to be brought in from the subordinate courts for processing and admission to the Prisons cluster.

We were told that on average, there were 3 batches of admissions per night.

When the doors to the concealed SPS bus holding inmates were opened, they walked out in a single file, handcuffed.

 Inmates exit the bus and into the registry where they will be processed and admited into the prison complex. PHOTO: Matthew Wong

Most of the inmates had just been sentenced, shuffling their feet dejectedly as they walked into the reception room.

Some wore grins on their faces while others looked disgruntled and angry.

There were those who stared emotionless into the air, and those who were seemingly relieved.

At a bare reception area, SPS officers conducted a series of stringent checks on these new entrants and their possessions.

Soon, row by row, the inmates lined up behind an iron fence for the first phase of inspection—a K-9 search.

The Singapore Police Force (SPF) collaborates with the SPS by sending their K-9 units to assist with searches for contraband items such as drugs and cigarettes.

 Inmates first line up for the K-9 search. PHOTO: Matthew Wong

After the search, the inmates proceeded to have their personal possessions verified.

“Here, we take away food, perishable items and sharp objects,” explained CW Asfadly.

Once this part of the inspection was done, the items were then stored in transparent plastic cases.

The expressions on the inmates’ faces were grim as they placed their possessions into each case, conscious that they would see them only upon their release.

The inmates then headed to the next room for a medical and particulars check where a body x-ray is used to detect any hidden items. 

 An Inmate reviewing the contents in his personal possessions case. PHOTO: Matthew Wong

Here, medical checks to ensure that inmates with contagious diseases and pre-existing medical conditions are flagged out and managed appropriately.

Before they were officially admitted into the prison complex, their fingerprints and photographs were taken and digitised electronically for records and identification.

Background checks were also done to ensure that inmates requiring special attention are categorised accordingly for appropriate management. 

The entire admission process was methodical and took place smoothly. The SPS officers were clearly familiar with the process but ensured that nothing was left to chance.

Preparing inmates for reintegration

Quickly, our team moved to our next location – the call centre.

 Inmates working at the call center. This batch’s shift ends at 2230 hours. PHOTO: Matthew Wong

The call centre employs about 40 inmates who handle two shifts – day and night shifts - for six days a week, providing them with real work experience in preparation for their eventual release and reintegration back into society. 

Here, inmates are trained to handle calls for various companies ranging from services to delivery orders. Inmates who work at the at the call centre are selected through a series of literacy tests and recommendations from their supervisors.

Supervising them was Staff Sergeant (SSgt) Muhammad Naseer, the officer on duty and the call centre’s team manager Mr Alan Francis Tores.

“Personally, I feel it is good for them and I have heard good feedback as well,” said SSgt Naseer.

While he explained the concept, he credited the call centre as a good way for inmates to learn a diverse range of skills, from customer service, organisational skills, mathematics, communications and critical thinking.

The work environment at the call centre is similar to what one would encounter outside of prison.

Inmates are assessed and graded in their work reviews, which determine if they are eligible for promotions, thus giving them real work experience that SSgt Naseer believes will benefit them after they are released.

Securing stable employment after release is one of the important factors to prevent re-offending.

The benefits of the call centre are also recognised by the inmates, some of whom have been working at the call centre for nearly three years. The more experienced ones get to coach new entrants too.

SSgt Naseer also shared with us the success story of a former inmate who had set up his own successful call centre upon his release, after working at the call centre.

His sentiments were also shared by Mr Tores who believed that by training the inmates now, their experience would greatly help the call centre when they are re-employed after they are released.

“It’s good to help inmates,” shared Mr Tores who reflects on his three-year involvement at the call centre.

“As their team leader, I hope to give them the right mind-set and influence for their future endeavours outside.”

Breaking the offending cycle with rehabilitation programmes

Our team proceeded to the final location—the Pre-Release Centre (PRC) for inmates.

The PRC which is housed in institution B4, runs three types of pre-release programmes – low intensity (2 months), moderate intensity (4 months), and high-intensity (10 months).

The intensity of the programming is varied according to the criminogenic risks of the inmate for more effective rehabilitation. Inmates in the PRC undergo the different types of pre-release programmes.

Our team observed the high-intensity pre-release programme for inmates with a higher risk of re-offending.

The PRC inducts inmates with re-offending risks into a specially designed programme 10 months before their due release date, in an effort to rehabilitate them and prepare them for life after prison.

At the start of each cohort’s journey through the pre-release programme, they go through a process of declaring their commitment to completing the programme.

There are currently 10 cohorts in session.

Officers and specialists in the PRC work hand in hand with one another to facilitate rehabilitation programmes for inmates. 

 Inmates going through the mirror module, where they reflect and discuss about the core values or lessons they have learned in the morning modules. PHOTO: Matthew Wong

While specialists run the intensive criminogenic programmes in the morning, prison officers conduct classes to reinforce the inmates’ learning. It is through this multi-disciplinary approach that cases are resolved and problems are dealt with.

When Home Team News arrived at the Pre-Release Centre, the inmates were already midway through their classes for the night. The walls were brightly painted and embellished with motivational quotes. We were introduced to Assistant Superintendent (ASP) Tessa Mae, the Housing Unit Officer (HUO) in charge.

ASP Tessa shared that on weeknights, a series of counselling sessions, motivational talks and cohort meetings are held concurrently for different batches of inmates at varying points of their rehabilitation programme.

When we dropped by the centre, three different classes were in session.

The first was a cohort meeting. The Cohort Meeting serves to reinforce the core values of PRC and helps cohorts to process through their thoughts from what they have learnt during their criminogenic classes in the morning.

It enables inmates to practice what they have learnt, and convert it not only into action, but instead creating new ways for it to be applicable to their lives.

This is done through the screening of motivational clips which show either “reel” or real life instances where positive behaviours were exhibited and thereafter, discussing the lessons and values learned.

During the process of discussion, inmates are broken up into smaller groups, and discuss amongst themselves independently a representative would come forward to share their ideas. “This process causes iron to sharpen iron and helps inmates internalize what they have learnt in the morning,” shared ASP Tessa.

“We also ask the guys to keep their own journals and write their thoughts and key takeaways from each session,” said SPS Correctional Rehabilitation Specialist Ms Sophia Tan.

At a second classroom, a motivational talk was underway. This was conducted by volunteers who shared experiences with the inmates to motivate them to change their lives. Inmates were also challenged to take charge of their own rehabilitation.

The room’s atmosphere was especially vivid during the talk, as inmates responded to the key points and jokes told by their engaging speaker.

 SPS officers patrol cells in hourly patrols. PHOTO: Matthew Wong

The third and final programme for the night was a session conducted by one of the CARE Network Agencies, the Industrial & Services Co-operative Society Ltd (ISCOS), which helps support and guide inmates in their aftercare journey upon their release.

ISCOS is the only co-operative catered to ex-offenders in Singapore. It was a talk that was held to open inmates up to the various positive aftercare activities that they could involve themselves in with ISCOS upon release and also to build positive pro-social networks.

The night’s classes gradually drew to a close and we moved on to the unique on-site call centre nearby.

Nights out and the CCC

Lock-up time was close and the day’s activity began to slow down as officers started leading the inmates back to their cells.

In a single file, we observed as inmates went back to their cells for a good night’s rest.

SPS officer proceed to lock up. Inmates wait crouched as the doors to their cells are unlocked. PHOTO: Matthew Wong

In other cell blocks, prison officers also began their regular rounds and checks on inmates who had already been escorted back to their cells, making sure that everything was in order.

It was during one of those rounds when we received word of a situation at the sick bay. An inmate had been detected exhibiting abnormal behaviour and required the urgent attention and assessment of Night Duty Officer ASP Betrand Goh, who  immediately proceeded to investigate the matter and check on the condition of the inmate.

At the cluster command centre later, after the inmate was assessed to be well, the calm and composed officer explained to us that emergency cases are not uncommon during night duty.

The command centre acts as the nerve centre, detecting and controlling everything from the approximate 3000 cameras installed in Cluster B to the doors that grant both officers and inmates access.

Their larger perspective and overview of the prison gives invaluable insight for officers on the ground, complementing their daily operations.

The Cluster Command Centre (CCC) commands all access and communications in cluster B. PHOTO: Matthew Wong

ASP Goh has been a SPS officer for nearly 15 years. What has kept him at the job for so long?

“Each day is unique and meaningful. As Captains of Lives, we are in the position to make a direct impact on the lives of inmates. We ensure their well-being and safety while they are in our custody, and we also help with their rehabilitation. I feel alive when I work and that’s why I have stayed on,” shared ASP Goh.

As our tour drew to a close, we headed back to the security centre to clear ourselves for exit.

An SPS officer conducting a check on a prison cell. Officers look out for signs of suspicious behaviour and safeguard inmate welfare. PHOTO: Matthew Wong

Once again, our eyes were drawn to the lit torchlights of SPS officers who were patrolling the prison premises; keeping watch over the inmates and ensuring the safety and security of Singaporeans —the epitome of vigilance and commitment.

© 2019 Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore. All Rights Reserved.

  1. by Win Kwang Siang Soon
  2. 07 November 2013
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