Journey of change not easy

Journey of change not easy
Counsellor Charlotte Stephen with inmates.

Children and the elderly.

They are almost always the top concern for incarcerated women, said Ms Charlotte Stephen, who is the prison service's senior assistant director of Correctional Rehabilitation Services (Women).

"I think for anyone who comes into prison will have a huge adjustment issue, regardless whether you're a parent (or not). Being separated from your family members is a challenge," she said.

But for some inmates, it might stress them so much that they act up, which is when the prison officers and counsellors have to step in. Ms Stephen said: "The officers would ask if everything is all right, if visits have been missed. Or if their family has been visiting, (they would ask if) everything is all right at home. They cannot simply assume that someone's just acting up."


Sometimes, the counsellors would even coach the women on specific questions to ask their family during visits.

Ms Stephen added: "For some, they might think 'I can't talk to my mother about money, or whether she's managing the household properly.'

"But the fact is, if the women don't ask such questions, they don't get any answers and they get stressed."

Ms Stephen is one of a team of 11 counsellors within the Singapore Prison Service who conduct various initiatives, including "intervention programmes" when they try to change someone's "criminal thinking".

She said: "For instance, someone might think that stealing is fine, as long as I'm not hurting anyone. But they need to learn that it's wrong to take someone's things."

Some inmates might not have grown up in a family setting where good values are emphasised, Ms Stephen explained.

But changing an inmate's attitude, a process she describes as "a journey", is not always easy.

The upside, she said, is that women tend to be more accepting of asking someone for help.

"Women are generally open to conversations, open to building relationships," Ms Stephen added.

Another person who has been building relationships with inmates is Ms Emily Tan.

The 45-year-old mother of one has been working with inmates in various capacities since she first started volunteering with Prison Fellowship Singapore (PFS) five years ago. She now works with the Christian charity coordinating volunteers.

PFS provides support for inmates and their families at all stages of incarceration: pre, during and post.

Some of the programmes they run in prison include modules teaching inmates how to re-integrate into society.

While not all inmates might be open to receiving help, there are some, like Tracy (not her real name), who keep Ms Tan going. After 2½ years in prison, Tracy lost contact with her family.

Ms Tan recalled: "Her family moved, so she lost touch with them. And she couldn't find a job. When she needed help, she went to a library, used a computer there to search for PFS and found her way to our office."

From there, Ms Tan arranged a job interview for Tracy the very next day at a maid agency, where she has been working as an administrator till this day.

"How she managed to find us, and what we've done for her, it's something that I remember until now," said Ms Tan.

And she makes sure that newly released inmates feel welcomed back into society, too.

"As long as I know their release date, I will pick them up. After taking them out to lunch, I'll take them home," she said.

In spite of her efforts, there are still some of her former charges who re-offend and end up in prison again.

Asked about whether she feels disappointed when that happens, Ms Tan smiled.

"If I get disappointed, then it means that this isn't the job for me. I usually tell the inmates, 'Never mind, don't think too much about it. What's important is that when you are released, you make good'," she maintained.

This article was first published on Dec 11, 2014.
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