Ex-convicts: Jail is tough but no inmate abuse

SINGAPORE - Last week, a deputy superintendent of prisons was fined $10,000 after he pleaded guilty to causing the death of a 21-year-old inmate by negligence.

He had been supervising a group of seven other officers who were trying to subdue an inmate who assaulted a warden at Changi Prison on the morning of Sept 27, 2010.

The inmate died from breathing difficulties after he was placed chest down on the ground in an isolation cell.

Is life behind bars here inhumane and violent - like the movies would have you believe?

Living conditions/Routine

Unlike American drama serials, where prison cells contain bed frames with thin mattresses, inmates here are handed floor mats and blankets for sleeping.

But they are seldom used unless the inmate is old and frail, says Mr Peter Teo, who did time in 2000 and 2006 for offences related to drugs.

"It's very hot, so most of us just sleep on the floor," he says.

Sanitary conditions differ from prison to prison, the ex-convicts say.

Mr Quek Hock Siong, who shared a cell with four other inmates, recounts defecating in pails given to the inmates.

He was locked up in Moon Crescent Prison in Changi in 1999. The prison has since closed down. "It was very dirty... the cell. Thankfully the pails came with a cover," he says.

Mr Teo, who did time at Queenstown Remand Prison, was a tad luckier: His cell came with a squatting toilet with a flush system.

"It was still very dirty. You'd have to take a lot of effort to maintain it, especially because once in a while we drank from the water there," he says.

Much to this reporter's shock, he says inmates who want more drinking water than the amount "topped up" once a day would collect water dispensed from the flush system.

"It tastes like tap water," says Mr Teo.

Meals were served thrice a day, he says.

"You typically get bread and coffee for breakfast, then for the remaining two meals you get one meat and one veggie dish or three veggie dishes with rice, beehoon or noodles," says Mr Quek, who worked as a kitchen helper while behind bars.

Inmates never starve, but variety is typically limited as the standard meal sets are repeated every few days.

Yard time is the highlight for inmates who do not work, either by choice or because their sentence is too short.

Says ex-convict Jason, who declines to reveal his real name: "For those who don't work, it's the only time in your 24-hour day you get to spend outdoors. Three days of the week we spend time at the basketball or sepak takraw court, three days in the indoor common space called the day room, and on Sunday, you don't get to come out at all," says the 35-year-old, who served a four-month sentence at Changi Prison a few years ago.

Benefits

Whenever a new inmate enters jail, existing ones will ask about his gang relations and the crime committed, say the ex-convicts.

Being part of a gang outside also means that behind bars, you enjoy more privileges and benefits, says Mr Teo.

"Some of your gang mates may work in the store, so having them recognise you as part of the group means you get extra stuff like soap and towels.

"The amount we rightfully received was just insufficient," says the 29-year-old chef.

There are a variety of jobs inmates can do behind bars, from helping in the kitchen or handling laundry to making 3-D models in a workshop.

For their work, they receive varying amounts, typically ranging from $1.50 and $6.80 a week, which can be used to buy snacks from the canteen.

The inmates are never handed physical money behind bars, say the ex-convicts.

"Your salary is recorded by the system and you can spend the money by ordering a pack of chips, sweets, or soap among other supplies. The goods will then be placed in plastic bags with your number on it the following week.

"When you are finally released, they hand you what you earned in cash," says Mr Teo.

Mr Alex Loh, who was behind bars between 2000 and 2009, says in their free time, some inmates also gamble by betting on football or basketball games.

"You use the money you earn as wager, and if you don't have money to pay, you can expect that the gangs decide how to settle the case," says the 64-year-old, who declines to go into more detail.

While Hollywood depicts cigarettes as the main currency behind bars, the ex-convicts says getting your hands on some is impossible here.

"Many years ago, inmates on death row would receive a packet of cigarettes after returning from the High Court. They would then split it among the other inmates. These days, they're completely banned. You can't find them anywhere," he says.

Says Mr Quek, who spent about 10 years over three separate stints behind bars: "When you don't have it, you realise how little you actually need it. It was all in the mind," says the 30-year-old, who today runs a fish beehoon stall at a hawker centre in Redhill Lane.

Fights

Small scuffles among the inmates are common.

Says Mr Loh, who now works as kitchen helper at an old folks' home: "The disagreement could be over just anything. Something as simple as a set of newspapers or two people wanting to watch different channels on TV."

Mr Quek says those who behave effeminately or look scrawny and weak may get bullied.

"They get teased or disturbed verbally. But getting beaten up is quite rare," says Mr Quek, who was released about five years ago.

While it is common for fights to break out among inmates, the ex-convicts say that an attack on a warden is very rare.

Besides the incident three years ago, it was reported that an inmate stabbed a warden with a pair of scissors earlier in June this year.

But none of the ex-prisoners say they have ever witnessed such an attack.

"If they (prisoners) do that, it's because there's something wrong with their brain, lah. The number of policemen there are inside... you can't fight you know," says Mr Loh in Mandarin.

Pent-up sexual urges can also result in sodomy, he adds.

"Men will be men. It's not about how old they are... they will have urges," he says.

"Typically one person will keep a lookout whenever these things are happening, so as to alert the others if a prison warden approaches."

Inmates who engage in such prohibited activities are aware of punishments, which include caning and brief extensions of their sentences, so they are careful.

"Rules and punishments meted out within the prison are not made known to the public. Only the prison wardens and the inmates will know," says lawyer Chia Boon Teck.

Based on comments from his clients however, prison life here is not tough.

"It's boring, but you don't get mistreated. I've never had complaints. A female inmate I visited recently was singing praises about how supportive her cell mates are and how professional and humane the wardens are," he says.

A system which rewards good behaviour through "discounts" in jail time and punishments in terms of sentence extension or denial of privileges like yard time has resulted in relatively well-behaved inmates, reckon the lawyers.

"After all, everyone inside wants to get out as soon as possible," says lawyer Luke Lee.

"You typically get bread and coffee for breakfast, then for the remaining two meals you get one meat and one veggie dish or three veggie dishes with rice, beehoon or noodles."- Mr Quek Hock Siong (left), who spent about 10 years over three separate stints behind bars


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