Parliamentary Speeches

Prison Conditions and Rehabilitation - Ministerial Statement by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law

Published: 04 July 2022


1.   Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Earlier this year, CNA screened a documentary titled “Inside Maximum Security”. The documentary featured what inmates go through during their incarceration.

2.   The documentary generated substantial interest in prison operations and conditions.

3.   Since then, several Members have filed questions on prison conditions and rehabilitation.

4.   From time to time, we also hear questions on prison conditions in Singapore and whether the conditions ought to be changed.

5.   So, Mr Deputy Speaker and Members, I have decided that I will deal with many of those issues by way of a statement that deals with how our conditions are.

Prison Regime

6.   I have, both in this House and outside, spoken about the purposes of imprisonment, the outcomes that we aim to achieve, the different types of sentences, and the factors taken into account during sentencing. For example, this year in March during the Committee of Supply (COS) debates, and on various other occasions.

7.   So, I don’t intend to repeat those points, but I ask Members to keep the points in mind, because they are relevant in understanding our prison regime.

8.   Our prison regime and prison environment are austere, and intentionally so.

9.   We place a lot of emphasis on security and monitoring, so that our officers know what is going on.

10.   That is because you get situations where inmates might try to do a lot of harm to themselves, get contraband, create security situations – other similar issues.

11.   Our approach is probably one reason for example, for lower suicide rates in the Singapore prisons. Between 2017 and 2021, there was one case of suicide in the Singapore prisons, compared with:

•   10 cases in Hong Kong over the same period;
•   12 cases in Norway between 2017 and 2020; and
•   22 cases in Denmark between 2017 and 2020.

12.   We also focus on rehabilitation of our inmates. I have spoken extensively about this issue as well previously, including in March of this year during COS, and in earlier years. So, I won’t repeat those points. But, as with the other points, the points I made need to be kept in mind as we talk about prison conditions.

Physical Conditions

13.   My focus today is on the actual conditions.

14.   And with your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker Sir, may I ask that some slides be shown on the LED screens.

15.   Let me start by showing some photos of our prison conditions.

Prison Cells

16.   All prison cells have toilet facilities within. This is a cell that houses one inmate. Cell space is around seven square metres. Members are welcome to visit the prisons for a shorter or longer duration. We can arrange.

Cells that house one inmate

17.   This cell houses up to four inmates. The cell space is around ten square metres.

Cell that houses up to 4 inmates

18.   And now you see the picture (below) of a cell that houses up to eight inmates. Around twenty square metres.

Cell that houses up to eight inmates

19.   There are no fans inside the cells for inmates. Mounted fans could pose a security risk because they can be potential anchor points for suicide. They could also be dismantled, with the parts potentially used as weapons.

20.   Instead, there is a combination of natural and mechanical ventilation inside the cells.


21.   On bedding – bedding for inmates, we provide a straw mat and two blankets.

Inmate's bedding

22.   Due to our hot and humid climate, mattresses for inmates are not ideal because of hygiene issues, generally.

23.   The current bedding also minimises the security risks of inmates hiding contraband items in the cells. Generally, there is no direct staff supervision inside cells.

24.   However, beds are provided for inmates who require additional care, such as due to old age, or mobility issues.

Cell-correctional unit for assisted living

25.   These beds are in medical wards, as well as the correctional units catered for assisted living that you see in the photographs (above).

26.   These correctional units for assisted living also have other features like seated toilets, handrails, grab-bars, and anti-slip flooring.

Food & Meals

27.   Next, on food and meals. Inmates are given three meals daily, planned based on the dietitian’s recommendations to meet nutritional requirements.

Food and Meals

28.   As some would have seen in the CNA documentary, breakfast is bread with spreads like butter, jam and chocolate, and a hot beverage like coffee or tea. For lunch and dinner – a staple, such as rice or noodles, with some dishes. Fruits are provided daily.

29.   Special dietary requirements are considered. For example, inmates who are diabetic are given a low-sugar diet, inmates who have gout are given a low-purine diet, and vegetarians can request for a non-meat diet.

Basic Necessities

30.   Each inmate is also given basic necessities for daily living – toothbrush, toothpaste, clothing, slippers, and towel, you see on the photograph (below).

Basic Necessities


31.   For recreation, inmates have access to electronic tablets in their cells daily – they have access to e-learning materials, they read e-books, and they write and receive letters.

32.   Tablets are also used to broadcast essential news – information to keep inmates up-to-date on the latest COVID-19 measures, for example, both within the prison and in the community.

33.   On recreation – inmates typically have at least one hour of out-of-cell recreation  on weekdays. They engage in sports and exercise or read newspapers, play board games, or watch TV programmes.

Common & Recreational Areas

34.   The photographs of the common areas and recreational areas you see on the screen (above), these are conducted either in the recreational yard or dayrooms. Staff strength is a consideration, as these activities are higher risk, and require closer supervision by staff.

35.   Inmates who work or attend programmes, such as psychology-based correctional programmes, family programmes, religious programmes, may spend two to ten hours a day outside of their cells, depending on the programme intensity.

Questions Raised on Prison Conditions

36.   Some questions have been raised about prison conditions, and I will now address them.

37.   Some members might remember the case of David James Roach, the perpetrator of the Standard Chartered Bank robbery in 2016. It was claimed then that Singapore’s prison conditions would violate his human rights. He argued this in the UK when arguing against extradition. 

38.   An expert witness for him said that the "modesty wall" in our prison walls divides the living space from the sanitary facilities; eating in a cell with a modesty wall does not fully partition the living and sanitation spaces, and is effectively eating in the toilet.[1]

39.   And on the mirrored dome on the ceiling of the toilet, you know, which allows prison officers to check on inmates. He said the lack of privacy is not acceptable when inmates use the toilets.

40.   The UK courts found that while the conditions of our prisons were, in their words – “not ideal” – the defence counsel representing Roach failed to show that Roach was at “real risk” of a breach of his rights.

41.   Other points have been made elsewhere – the long periods of time inmates spend inside the cell, inmates sleeping on a straw mat, and overcrowding.

42.   Let me explain our rationale based on a few aspects of prison conditions and prison life.

43.   First, the prisons are not overcrowded – based on the specifications they were designed for.

44.   For background, I should say, overcrowding in prisons is an issue in several countries. A 2021 UNODC report states that, and I quote, “prison overcrowding is widespread around the world”.[2]  And of the 100 countries and territories for which the UNODC had data on, nearly half, or 47%, were operating at more than 100% of the intended capacity.

45.   We are at about 70% based on our own standards and assessments.

46.   Now, I would be careful with this caveat of comparing the percentages between countries, because whether there was overcrowding can be a matter of definition. It depends on what your baseline is – what the intended capacity of the prison is, and how it is designed. If the intended capacity of the prison is lower than another, then of course occupancy rates would be higher for the first prison, compared with the second, for the same number of inmates.

47.   But based on media reports, I think we can say conditions in many of these jails, for example the US jails, are much worse than ours. And from what we have seen from photos and media reports, Scandinavian jails are generally more luxurious.

48.   So, if you look at a 2021 CBS news report, it describes how overcrowding has led to a deterioration of conditions at Rikers Island prison in New York State. One New York State lawmaker is quoted as saying that one of the intake facilities was so overcrowded, that prisoners were reported to be staying in rooms without bathrooms, for a few hours and some for days.

49.   Another NYT article describes the crowded conditions in New York City’s jails as a “ticking time bomb”.

50.   And the Head of the Prison Governors Association of the UK, in a Guardian report in 2020, said prisoners should be released to reduce overcrowding, to prevent disorder and slow the spread, for example, of the COVID virus.

51.   Now, we are not in that situation.

52.   In Singapore, the Changi Prison Complex was built in the early 2000s. Now, we know land is scarce. We are a country of about 733 km2. Land area taken up by our prisons and DRCs is about 0.26 km2.

53.   This is the footprint that we have, and we have to maximise the usage of the land. If we want to change it, a huge amount of money will have to be spent, probably running into billions of dollars. And with more land taken.

54.   Whether that should be done depends on our assessment of the current conditions.

55.   Our assessment is that conditions are acceptable, and fits in with our philosophy of how prisons ought to be.

56.   Essential needs of our inmates are also met.

57.   On medical services – all inmates admitted to the prison are assessed on their state of physical and mental health. Inmates are able to report sick at any time should they feel unwell.

58.   They are accorded the necessary medical care by prison medical officers, prison psychiatrists, and supporting medical personnel.

59.   Those who require specialist attention and medical care may be referred to Government Restructured Hospitals.

60.   Preventive health measures, including vaccinations, are provided to eligible and willing inmates. For example, vaccinations against flu and Hepatitis B, and of course COVID-19. 94% of medically eligible inmates have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

61.   Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim has asked about statistics of inmates diagnosed with mental health issues upon admission, and the measures to address the needs of inmates who suffer from mental conditions, and the support given to such inmates inside prison.

62.   Data on inmates diagnosed with mental health conditions upon admission are not actively tracked. But I can say, as of March 2022, about 5% of inmates are on medication for the management of their mental health conditions. The most common conditions were adjustment disorders and mood disorders.

63.   Inmates with mild mental health issues are housed with the general inmate population, seen regularly by prison psychiatrists, and go through rehabilitation programmes.

64.   Those with severe mental health issues may be housed in a specialised facility, managed with IMH. That allows for more intensive intervention and therapy.

65.   Inmates who need active IMH follow-ups are referred to a psychiatrist.

66.   Inmates with mental health needs may also have other rehabilitation issues, for example violent behaviour, there is an increased safety risk for staff and other inmates, and Prisons deals with those.

Avenues for Feedback

67.   On feedback, the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) provides various avenues to make enquiries and provide feedback, or raise concerns. They can speak to their officers, or raise their feedback through their family and friends.

68.   There are also independent bodies like the Board of Visiting Justices, comprising prominent members of society. They inspect the prisons, they ensure that the basic well-being of inmates is taken care of, and they hear complaints from inmates.

Comparison with Other Jurisdictions

69.   Mr Murali Pillai asked whether our prison conditions are reflective of SPS’s standing as a leading correctional agency.

70.   There are countries where prison conditions are less austere than ours, there are also countries where prison conditions are more austere, going downright to extreme overcrowding, as you would have seen from the articles I referred to earlier.

71.   I will show you some photos of prisons in other countries – Denmark, Norway, Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines, I think it shows a broad variety.

72.   If you look at Norway and Denmark, if I did not tell you that was a prison, you might be mistaken into thinking that is a condominium. We do not take that approach.

73.   Our philosophy is to keep the regime strict.

74.   In addition to looking at the physical conditions, and of course I think many Singaporeans will say we cannot compare to Thailand and the Philippines, but I think Hong Kong is often seen as a fair comparison. But in addition to the actual physical conditions, I would say not enough attention is paid to what I would call the “software” – the recidivism rate, the effort put into the inmates when they are in prison; the assault rates, whether discipline and inmate safety are maintained. These are all very relevant.

75.   As I said, I would call this the “software” – what do you do to help the inmates. How do you make sure they are safe?

76.   We do many things – I have referred to my earlier speeches.

77.   Our two-year recidivism rates have remained low and stable. The recidivism rate for the 2019 release cohort is now at 20%, which is the lowest in the last 30 years.

78.   We can do even better because our five-year recidivism rate for the 2015 release cohort is at 41.7%. And Prisons is working with the community, to improve the five-year recidivism rates. But by comparison, many of the countries that you would think of, two-year recidivism rates are usually in the 40% range, even in places like New Zealand. The five-year recidivism rates can be in the 60 to 70% range. So, we make a real difference to the lives of our inmates.

79.   If you look at the assault rate per 10,000 inmates – the assault rate is low, it is around 47 since the year FY2019. 47 per 10,000 is very low. In comparison:
•   520 for Hong Kong;
•   270 for England and Wales;
•   214 for Australia; and
•   105 for South Korea.[3] 

80.   So, these things do matter. You look at the total picture, and you look at the effort put in.

81.   There is another aspect of our prison management that I would like to point out. In some countries, there is a hierarchy amongst the inmates. Some inmates are allowed to exercise control over other inmates. Gangs of inmates are also often allowed to exert their power inside the prisons. We often see media reports; you would have seen enough films about this.

82.   Prison gangs informally set the order, that includes controlling the underground trade in drugs and contraband, like cell phones, inside the prison. What happens is that in such prisons, those who are weaker will often be at the mercy of the stronger prisoners. Assault rates between inmates can be quite high.

83.   And inmates who go in first time, could come out as even more hardened criminals, brutalised by their experience. And their lives are often set on a very sad trajectory, from which it is very difficult to change.

84.   In Singapore, the position is quite different: Our Prisons officers run our prisons, not inmates, not gangs. Prisons are run in a fair and disciplined manner. We have a zero-tolerance stance towards gang-related activities. Assault rates between inmates are much lower.

85.   The gang situation in our prisons is closely monitored, and Prisons takes disciplinary actions against those found to be involved in such activities, including corporal punishment which Prisons can mete out. Now, don’t take me to be saying that some bad things don’t happen sometimes in our prisons. The point is, we maintain more control and on the whole, less of these bad things happen compared with most other places.

86.   And we try and maintain safety, order, and discipline in our prisons. We want our inmates to be focused on rehab and turning their lives around, without having to live in constant fear for their personal safety.

Rehabilitation and Reintegration

87.   Let me now move on to our rehab and reintegration approach.

88.   Members will know how extensive our rehab efforts are.

89.   Again, I’ve made several speeches on this so I won’t go into it in detail.

90.   Instead, I will distribute a document, setting out the points in brief form. Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission, may I ask the Clerks to distribute an Annex, on the rehab approach of Prisons. Members may also access this Annex through the SG PARL MP mobile app.

91.   The rehabilitation approach by Prisons is based on the concept of throughcare:
•   Address the rehab needs of inmates in prison;
•   And facilitate reintegration upon release.

92.   Dr Tan Wu Meng and Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim had asked about the challenges faced, and support for inmates with mental health and medical issues. These inmates may face challenges in accessing continual treatment after release, he said.

93.   Prior to release, inmates with mental and medical conditions may be referred to IMH or the restructured hospitals, for follow-up care.

94.   Dr Tan Wu Meng had asked about the handover of medical care for ex-offenders during this year’s COS debates. Ex-offenders who need further follow up after release are referred to Changi General Hospital’s specialist clinics for continuity of care. Prisons is working with SingHealth to facilitate follow-up appointments for ex-offenders at other public healthcare institutions which are nearer to their home.

Concluding Remarks

95.   Mr Deputy Speaker, in conclusion, I have set out in some detail the approach we take for our prison regime, and the reasons for our approach.

96.   I have also set out our approach towards rehabilitation.

97.   Thank you, sir.


Annex - Infographics on Approach to Rehabilitation and Reintegration (PDF, 764KB)

[1] The expert witness was Dr Alan Mitchell, who was engaged by the Council of Europe to the European Convention on Human Rights, that prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

[2] 2021 UNODC Report “Data Matters No.1”

[3] The assault rates for Hong Kong, Australia and South Korea are for CY2019, while the assault rate for England and Wales is for CY2021.