With his back turned against the three other inmates who shared his cell, former offender Melvin Ee tried to carve out some personal space for himself as he penned a letter to his mother.
"Please forgive me," he wrote, hunched over the "table", a small plastic container which stored his clothes. He wondered if his mother would accept him again this time, after he had been in and out of prison four times in the past for drug and fighting offences.
His letter was among the thousands personally delivered by volunteers to family members of prisoners in the weeks leading up to Christmas every year since 2005.
This year, 200 volunteers have already started fanning out to different parts of the island to deliver the letters as well as food hampers to 700 families. The hampers are donated by the volunteers, churches or community organisations.
Organised by Christian charity Prison Fellowship Singapore (PFS) yearly since 2005, the Angel Tree Project aims to bring hope and joy to children with parents in prison as well as restore broken relationships between inmates and their loved ones.
For Mr Ee, his anxieties were assuaged when his mother visited him in prison two weeks after receiving the letter in 2009.
"She teared and, through the glass panel between us, told me for the first time that she has forgiven me and it gave me strength to mend my ways," said Mr Ee, who was released from prison three years ago. The 42-year-old is now a director at an events management and interior design firm.
Ms Christine Tan, PFS' executive director, said: "We started this project because the letters can facilitate reconciliation and there may be a higher chance that their families will take them back when the inmates are released."
The prison allows inmates to send two letters, which are screened by its officers, every month to family and friends via the regular postal system though their family members may not be receptive to the mail.
"If the volunteers were to go and hand-deliver the letters, it is less likely for the family members to throw away the letters without reading them, even if they are upset with the inmates," she added. It also gives an opportunity for volunteers to befriend the families to find out how they are doing.
One of those who received the letter was housewife Eswari Vadivel, 42, whose husband has been behind bars for the last four years.
She said: "I have been waiting for this letter to come. It is not so much the snacks and biscuits in the hamper but about hearing from him and reading his thoughts unhurriedly as prison visits are always too short."
Ms Sakuntala Jackson, 40, who delivered the letter and hamper to her last week, said it is her first volunteering stint with the project. "I want to share some love with families who do not have their loved ones with them, especially during this festive season," said the housewife.
The deliveries also provide a platform for the volunteers to identify families that require other forms of assistance, be it financial, medical or educational. The charity will then link them up with the relevant aid agencies or provide interim help.
On top of the Angel Tree Project, the charity also runs support groups and skills training for wives and mothers of prisoners, and provides tuition and sports and art activities for children.
Madam Eswari said: "Every year, my husband has been writing to our daughter promising that he will come out very soon. This year, I am happy that it will be the last letter from him because he is coming out next year."
This article was first published on Dec 13, 2014.
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