Published: 28 June 2019
Senior Parliamentary Secretary Amrin Amin
Commissioner of Prisons, Mr Desmond Chin
Chairman of SCORE, Mr Chng Hwee Hong
Home Team colleagues
Distinguished guests and friends
1. Our Community Action for the Rehabilitation of Ex-offenders (CARE) Network was established 19 years ago, in 2000. Today, we have more than 100 community partners, comprising Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs), religious groups, Family Service Centres, halfway houses and grassroots organisations.
2. Next year, the CARE Network will celebrate your 20th anniversary. With your help and the very consistent, disciplined and focused efforts by Prisons working with all of your partners, the two-year recidivism rate has dropped. When you were formed, it was about 44 per cent. That was comparable, maybe slightly better than other places of a similar make-up. Today, taking the 2016 cohort, it is at 24 per cent.
3. That is a very significant improvement and it did not happen by itself. I have seen figures from first world countries where the two-year recidivism rate is at 60 per cent, 65 per cent. Six or seven out of ten. We are at one out of four. That is very, very good progress. Even our five-year rate at 41 per cent now, is less than many other countries’ two-year rates.
4. This is because we have been very focused. For us, it is really people’s lives. We want to give them a better life, we want them to go out there and we want them to make a meaningful, productive life for themselves and not be in prison. It does not help them; it does not help us.
THE CHANGING LANDSCAPE OF AFTERCARE
5. Most of our prisoners are in prison either because of drugs or because they have a drug antecedent and they commit some other crime. So drugs remain an area of concern. There is a substantial amount of evidence that drug abusers tend to have a higher tendency to engage in criminal behaviour. Often, there are three triggers. One, because we make the consumption of drugs illegal in Singapore. Second, they often are involved in robbery or theft to fund their drug habits. Third, they themselves could be involved in the illegal drug trade.
6. Without drugs, our overall crime rates would be much lower. Australia, for example. There was a study that was shown to me. The likelihood of a meth abuser reporting income from a crime is four and a half times higher than that of a non-drug user. In countries that have legalised drugs - and this goes back to the debate on legalisation of drugs - we have also seen the negative impact on law and order, and also on people’s lives. Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001. The drug mortality rates there between 2001 and 2008 showed a 150 per cent increase. You look at Los Angeles, which has allowed the medical use of cannabis. They analysed the crime in a neighbourhood around a medical marijuana dispensary. Robbery increased by nearly 49 per cent, aggravated assault increased by 44 per cent, and homicides increased by 245 per cent.
7. Even cannabis, people say, “What’s wrong with it?”. We have been studying a lot of research in this area. It is not ideological for us. It has got to be based on evidence, whichever approach we take. The brain damage that children are exposed to in utero - in the tummy - or if they are exposed to cannabis in adolescence - it continues into adulthood. The irreversible changes are lower IQ and a decline in cognitive performance in adulthood.
8. We need to help abusers break the cycle of abuse. So we made a major change this year, a few months ago. It is philosophical, as well as based on what they are already doing. Instead of always treating it purely as a crime and abusers as criminals, we distinguish between those who are pure abusers of drugs and those who go on to commit other crimes. We have to protect society from those who commit other crimes, and help them break their drug habits. But for the pure drug abusers, we have taken a much more rehabilitative approach. That was very important and central all along in our approach, but we have decided to take that much further.
9. Drug offenders will be put on community supervision over longer periods of time. When they come in, we focus on treating them, looking at their risk categories - high risk, medium risk, low risk - and when they come out, we want to put much more resources in working with them post-release so that we can help them break their habit.
10. As of May this year, there were about 2,300 drug offenders on community supervision. This is expected to rise to about 3,000 by the end of next year, and will increase further. I mentioned earlier that our five-year recidivism rate for the 2013 release cohort was 41 per cent. While it is better than many other countries, the fact that almost one in two were going back to prison after five years, is still a cause for concern. We want to do better. We can do better.
11. We have been focusing on working with our partners, including the CARE Network partners. The way we see it, why many people commit crimes when they come out and come back into prison is this - when they come out, often they find themselves without social support. The very people who got them into trouble in the first place are the people who are waiting for them when they come out. Their family situation may be dysfunctional or difficult; they may find it difficult to get jobs; they may find that their social network and support are not great. Those are the reasons why they feel outside of the community, and they go back to prison.
12. We have been looking at this for years, and we have been putting in more and more resources. To me, there are two periods of intervention that are as important as the period in prison. We are looking at three periods - before, during and after. We have to intervene before they come in. There are predictive tools now that can tell you who is likely to be getting into trouble, and we can try to help them. We should be doing that. During their time in prison, we have to take the approach of trying to help them. When they come out, instead of saying our work is done, we have to do a long period of handholding, between the Government – which is not just Prisons and MSF but also others - and the community. If we can give them the support when they are out, I think the likelihood that they will come back is much less.
THEME - “TRANSFORMATION: THE FUTURE OF AFTERCARE”
13. This year’s seminar theme is “Transformation: The Future of Aftercare”. It seeks to review the purpose of CARE Network, and how it is going to be focused. It includes strengthening the support that we give to practitioners and strengthening the training of practitioners in the way they deliver aftercare services, and also reviewing the way the delivery of aftercare services affects the people who need help - the ex-offenders and ex-prisoners.
14. We do not have all the solutions. We have set up feedback channels, and it would be extremely useful if you give your frank views on what we can do better to work with you and help you.We are serious about this and you have seen our work with you. You have to help us because you are on the ground.
15. Let me share just one example of a person who was helped by the CARE Network - James (not his real name). He was an ex-secret society member. He was involved in gangs from the time he was 14, consuming drugs by 16. A fairly typical profile not just in Singapore, but in many other countries. He went into prison eight times, and spent a total of 16 years in prison. The turning point came when his son visited him in prison. The son had celebrated Children’s Day in school, and many parents had come. So the son went to see him in prison and told him, “Why were you not there for me?” I think that sort of hit a nerve with James, that all his other experiences did not. And he decided he needed to change. He renounced his gang association and participated in in-care programmes in prison.
16. We have the programmes, but people need to be able to help to get into the programmes, and they also need to make the change. So the psychological intervention is important, and we are doing that. Once James was released, his own desire alone would not be enough - he needed support.So he turned to his religious group and joined an ISCOS support group. ISCOS supported him, helped him and trained him. He got a driving licence and secured a job as a driver - quite well-paid. Now, he works as a technician and actually gives back as an ISCOS Titan. He is in the befriending programme, and conducts sharing and mentoring sessions. You know, it can be so much more powerful because he had gone through this himself, and is not a high flyer outside. So when he talks to the inmates and says, “This is what I have done, and these are my experiences”, it makes a very powerful impact. So James is now there for his son. This is just one example.
CARE NETWORK PARTNERS HAVE A KEY ROLE TO PLAY – RELIGIOUS GROUPS
17. The CARE Network is built on the support of many partners. One important group that I will highlight are the religious voluntary welfare organisations. For over 60 years now - since the 1950s, Prisons has partnered religious VWOs - whoever wants to partner with us - to provide religious programmes for inmates. In Singapore, we need to be sensitive between different religions so we are quite careful about that. The community can be sensitive about whether we are assisting people to convert. We do not do that and we leave it to the individual to decide which organisation he or she wants to be engaged in.
18. So we work with 12 religious VWOs, with about 1,200 volunteers from all major faiths. And you often provide transformative change in ex-offenders. There are many good examples, but given the constraints of time, I will just highlight a couple.
19. First, I have to mention the Prison Fellowship Singapore (PFS). It is a Christian VWO that has been providing support to inmates and ex-offenders for 70 years, right from the beginning. Just now, I said we have 1,200 volunteers - 850 of them are from PFS. We are deeply appreciative of the role they are playing. Most of them are very passionate and dedicated, and they provide religious services and programmes to more than 900 inmates. Almost one-for-one. That is a very high ratio but that is why they are so effective.
20. PFS does not just support inmates within prison, but also offenders released through the Prison Gate Model. So when an inmate receives PFS religious counselling and is going to be released, PFS will identify a suitable volunteer who will approach him, and also a church community that the releasee can go to for support. And if required, PFS will have people actually waiting at the prison gates when he is released, to receive the inmate, give him the support and the sense that there is a community that is ready to work with him and support him. The church community also envelopes the individual.
21. Secondly, let me mention the FITRAH office. This was set up by MUIS to provide support for offenders and their families through religious and family-based programmes, financial assistance as well as befriending programmes. When the inmates are released, they get a “Back to FITRAH” package which contains information, some vouchers, and an EZ-Link Card, as a simple step to assist the offenders in their transition back to the community. For an offender leaving prison, these things can make a huge difference.
22. So I thank PFS, MUIS and all the other partners for the incredible work that you are doing.
23. And in these efforts, I also want to make special mention of a couple of office holders. Amrin, I asked him when I came back to MHA a few years ago, to look at a number of areas. One was to look at the anti-drug message; and how we can put it across to the entire community, but also focused on the Malay-Muslim community. Secondly, to also give shape to our thousands of volunteers and their efforts - give some direction and coordination, because you are doing incredible work and we need to bring that together and give some overall shape - which we were doing, but I heard that more could have been done. So, he has been very dynamic in doing that. And I thank him a lot for what has been achieved in the last few years. It is not just the conceptual part of it, but the actual getting of things done in close coordination with Prisons and MHA HQ and the volunteers themselves.
24. Secondly, Minister Masagos. When I was first in MHA, I asked him to look at the issues relating to the Malay-Muslim community. We are talking about eight to nine years ago now. I told him about studying the early intervention before people get into prison and their post-release period. So he did some studies and he created some link-ups. Obviously, MSF and MOE had to be a part of it. Due to all of these efforts - in particular the ground efforts over several years now, going back to the mid-2000s - we are starting to see good results. In most countries, the minority communities usually have a much higher rate of incarceration and much higher rates of recidivism as well. That is the experience in Australia, New Zealand, and some of the other places that we have researched. In Singapore, we are beginning to see extremely good results, in terms of the minority communities.
25. I am very pleased because this is an area that I have been very focused on and I think the fact that we have been able to get so many Malay-Muslim community leaders and MUIS onboard, has been extremely good and helpful. I think we are at the stage where we can say that the Malay-Muslim community in Singapore can be the example for Muslim communities throughout the world in terms of progress, indemnity, and at the same time, spirituality, and likewise, the other communities too.
26. There is a lot of talk in many countries, including Singapore, about the partnership between government and people - how do we go together? Because society and the problems that every society faces, are much more complex today. It is not something that can be dealt with simply by governments.
27. So how does this partnership work? You know, people sometimes talk about it, sometimes they blog about it, but this, to me, is a simple start - partnership in action. We work out the problems, identify the problems together, then we set out rules, and the Government puts taxpayers’ money into it. We need the community to come in in these kinds of numbers to work with different people with different needs. You are a true hero and our partners, in terms of our great progress. The CARE Network is a prime example of how such partnerships can work.
28. The work is not easy. Ex-offenders will face many challenges, there will be headwinds. But with the right support, we can make their lives better. This is all about making lives better. So I thank each one of you, and I will say this is a great example of the kind of partnership that we are talking about, and which we hope we can replicate in many other areas.
29. Thank you very much.