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Urban Farming Behind Bars
Planting the seeds for a fresh start in life – a pilot programme lets inmates nurture their urban farming skills as part of their drug rehabilitation.

For inmates and ex-offenders, the impetus to change can come from  various ways – through psychological-based correctional programmes, skills training, family and religious programmes and, most recently, urban farming. 

Since May 2018, various batches of inmates at the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) housed within Institution B5 have become urban farmers learning about sustainable gardening and teamwork too. 

The programme is the brainchild of Sergeant (SGT) 3 Aaron Koh and his team, which spent almost one-and-a-half years researching and conceptualising the initiative. He shares how his team planted the seeds for the programme. 

Home Team News SPS Urban Garden Collage
Nurturing the minds and attitudes of inmates: The urban farming programme complements other rehabilitation initiatives at the DRC. PHOTOS: SPS

How did your team turn the idea into reality? 
We researched the subject of urban farming to learn about the requirements and resources needed. We also looked at prison farm programmes in the region and around the world. We noticed that a lot of these farms had one thing in common – they were generally located outdoors to allow the plants to have direct exposure to sunlight. To design a farm that was 100% indoors, much less within a Prison setting, was a tremendous challenge. 

Home Team News SPS Urban Garden Aaron Koh
SGT (3) Aaron Koh, 30, is a Personal Supervisor at the Institution B5. PHOTO: Desmond Ang

Sounds tough. How did you overcome this challenge?
We started with a vacant workshop that was deemed suitable as it had access to ventilation, water and light. Due to the limited space, we began exploring how we could use vertical racks to stack the plants accordingly. Because we didn’t have access to direct sunlight, we installed ultraviolet light fixtures for the plants.

We started off with pumpkin seeds, mustard seeds, spinach and lady’s fingers. Now, we also propagate herbs like dogfennel, Indian borage, laksa leaves and mint. 

Home Team News SPS Urban Garden 3
Nurturing plants at the DRC, and planting the seeds of change. PHOTO: SPS

When the plants don’t grow well, the inmates become concerned. They’ll ask around to find out what they can do. But it’s not only about making the plants grow; we also encourage the inmates to learn from their failures, and to understand how everything comes in a cycle. 

Sounds like there’s more to farming than just learning about planting seeds. 
The inmates attend weekly workshops to learn urban farming skills and techniques. They start by learning about soil mixtures and how to sow seeds, then move on to subjects that are more technical such as transplanting. Through these lessons, inmates pick up not only farming skills, but also values that will help them in their rehabilitation. 

Through this programme, they’ve learnt that when plants reach a certain height, they can be transplanted to grow further. It’s the same for people – our environment determines how we develop, so if we’re in a place that isn’t suitable for our positive growth, then it’s time for us to reflect and determine what environment is better for us. 

And the programme has gotten a warm response from inmates. They shared how urban farming has allowed them to spend their time meaningfully – to touch something that has life, and to nurture this life from nothing, gave them a sense of pride. 

As Prison officers, we also share this feeling because we can see the inmates tending to the plants with love and care. It’s very heartening!



The Minister’s Awards Presentation Ceremony 2018
For their work on the urban farming programme, SGT (3) Aaron and his team received the Home Team Innovation Award at the Minister’s Awards Presentation Ceremony 2018. 

The Minister’s Awards recognise Home Team officers for their professionalism, dedication and achievements in safeguarding Singapore. Last year, 132 awards were presented to outstanding Home Team officers, teams and agencies. To read the opening address at the ceremony by Minister for Home Affairs and Minster for Law Mr K Shanmugam, click here.

  1. by Desmond Ang
  2. 10 January 2019
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