New board to review long-term prisoners for remission

An independent review board will be set up to consider whether inmates who have been imprisoned for at least 20 years can be released early, even if they have not yet served two-thirds of their sentences, said Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli on Tuesday.

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Here is the response speech on the Prisons (Amendment) Bill by Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs in Parliament:


Madam Speaker, I thank all the Members who have spoken in support of the Bill and the two new policy initiatives, the Conditional Remission System (CRS) and the Mandatory Aftercare Scheme (MAS).

Members have raised a number of points on the CRS, and MAS, and also the other amendments to the Prisons Act. I will address these in turn.

Re-offending and Recidivism

I am glad that Members, such as Mr Christopher De Souza, Dr Janil Puthucheary, are just as concerned about the problem of re-offending and the vicious cycle that repeat offenders face. Dr Janil asked about the main reasons for recidivism. There is often no simple, single answer or even a solution to this. Rather, the underlying causes are typically multi-faceted.

However, based on our research and interviews with inmates and ex-inmates, as well as findings from international literature, the presence of factors such as employment, accommodation, and family support typically reduce the risk of reoffending, especially when inmates are most vulnerable in the initial years upon release. Yes, as to address Mrs Chiam's concerns, we do rely on international literature. I would like also to highlight that the individual's will to change is also very important, in determining whether the process of "desistance" occurs.

Conditional Remission System

Let me now touch on the issues relating to remission and the CRS. Dr Janil asked whether the CRS will be effective in deterrence. Given the complexity of the factors contributing to recidivism, it would be difficult to determine whether the deterrent effect of the CRS will be different between first-timers and repeat offenders. However, we will continue to monitor the situation after the CRS is implemented.

I would also like to respond to Mr Hri Kumar's question on the application of the CRS to those committed for debt under the Debtors Act. Currently, the Prisons Regulations also provide that remission does not apply to inmates committed for debt. A debtor may be committed by the courts to prison for not paying his debt in certain limited circumstances and not because he had committed a criminal offence. There is no change from the current position today.

Default sentences on the other hand are imposed on a person, should he be unable to pay a fine. Such a person will continue to be released at the 2/3rd mark and will not be subject to conditions upon release. Persons serving default sentences will not be subject to the CRS. This is for parity with those who were able to pay their fines.

Associate Professor Eugene Tan asked about when inmates will be released. Inmates will continue to be released at the 2/3rd mark. Upon release, they will then be issued with a Conditional Remission Order which will last till the end of their sentence. Inmates who breach prison discipline will still have their release delayed beyond the 2/3rd mark. This is no different from the situation today. Remission continues to be an incentive for good behaviour and conduct. The relevant provisions are specified in Section 50I of Clause 7.

I would also like to reassure Ms Sylvia Lim that we are not changing the power of the President to grant remission under this Act. The power of the President to grant remission without limit is provided for under Article 22P of the Constitution. Hence, this obviates the need for such a provision in the Prisons Regulations, which predated the Constitution.

Next, I am glad that Ms Lim supports the provision to review inmates who have served more than 20 years in prison for release. As also raised by Mrs Chiam, we will be setting up an independent Review Board to review these cases and advise the Minister accordingly. The assessment will be based on a holistic set of factors that include his conduct and progress in prison and his risk of re-offending. This is similar to the arrangement for inmates that have been sentenced to life imprisonment.

Ms Lim also touched on the forfeiture and subsequent restoration of remission. Under the Prisons Regulations, an inmate may forfeit up to 180 days of remission for an offence committed in prison. Currently, the Superintendant may restore up to 7 days of remission which had previously been forfeited by an inmate. The new Section 77A empowers the Superintendant to restore remission that had previously been forfeited by an inmate, but does not impose a limit on the number of days that can be restored.

The intent of Section 77A is not to reverse earlier decisions where remission was forfeited. Indeed, it creates the opportunity and incentive for good conduct and behaviour among inmates. Superintendants will not have unfettered discretion in restoring remission. The Commissioner of Prisons will set strict guidelines, which all Prison Superintendants must adhere to, in the exercise of these powers. For example, when an inmate remains offence-free for a certain time period, a number of his days of forfeited remission may be restored to him. Therefore, it is the behaviour of the inmate that determines whether forfeited remission is restored, rather than the authority which ordered the forfeiture.

Philosophy of the MAS

Let me move on to the MAS. The objective of the MAS is to help ex-inmates help themselves. We will do this by giving them structured support and assistance to stay crime-free and out of prison. All inmates convicted of offences specified in the First Schedule to the Act will be emplaced on the MAS. Mr Hri Kumar had asked why certain offences in the Misuse of Drugs Regulations were included. We took a comprehensive approach in listing the drug and property offences linked to the drug problem. The Commissioner of Prisons however will have the discretion to determine specific MAS conditions for the ex-inmate, depending on a holistic set of factors such as the nature of offence, criminal antecedents, progress in prison, risk of re-offending, and family support.

The MAS provides continuity to the incare rehabilitation programmes that inmates receive while in prison. It builds on, brings together, and improves upon existing aftercare programmes as part of Prisons' broader throughcare strategy. The intent is, as Associate Professor Tan has mentioned, to provide a smooth transition for the inmate to reintegrate into society. So I disagree with Mrs Chiam who said that we do not need to do anything after that while the data shows that only 25 per cent has reoffended and those who are of high risk up to 40 to 50 per cent have drug antecedents and those with property offences do re-offend. And we must give them more help. Each ex-inmate, or "released person" as Mr De Souza has said, and I like that term better than "ex-inmate", emplaced on the MAS will be assigned a case worker prior to his release.

As part of the casework process, the case worker will refer them to the various social assistance programmes available to address their needs. These include short-term financial assistance, shelter and housing, skills training, and job matching.

Many Helping Hands

The MAS is not a journey that the ex-inmate embarks on alone, but one undertaken with the support of his family and the community. I agree with Mr Zainal Bin Sapari, Mr Muhamad Faisal Bin Abdul Manap, and Associate Professor Tan that the community as a whole, including families and potential employers, play important roles in supporting the MAS. This is important even during the incare phase and Prisons already actively involves inmates' families in the rehabilitation process. Prisons will also continue to engage families after inmates have been released from prison under the MAS. Similarly, SCORE provides inmates with vocational training and employment matching before their release. In answer to Dr Janil, SCORE also works with employers to match inmates and ex-inmates to jobs after their release. In 2012, SCORE emplaced 5,840 offenders on its employment and reintegration programmes. This is almost double the number in 2008. Of those assisted by SCORE, almost 98 per cent of them successfully secured employment in 2012.

We also recognise that religion can play a part in the reintegration process. We have a comprehensive support structure of community partners, including religious organisations, grassroots organisations, community self-help groups, and Family Service Centres, that work with inmates in prison and are ready to provide a pro-social network of volunteers and befrienders to ex-inmates and assist them in their reintegration into society. Such engagements begin while the inmates are still in prison so that it is a smooth transition to the aftercare phase when they return to society. Prisons provides training for these community partners.

For example, Prisons works closely with community self-help groups such as MENDAKI and SINDA to provide incare and aftercare support for high-risk inmates and their families. This is known as wrap-around care, which provides support to both inmates and their families during this difficult time. Prisons is also working on a pilot project with the National Council of Social Services to leverage on localised Family Service Centres to provide even better wrap-around care for inmates and their families to meet their specific needs.

I agree therefore with Mr Faisal that support services provided by case workers during the MAS should be accessible to ex-inmates and proximity is important. They should ideally be near where ex-inmates live or work. This is why the centres for MAS casework and counselling will be located across Singapore.

Our multi-stakeholder approach to throughcare has worked well and we will continue to work closely with the various stakeholders and community partners on our throughcare programmes.

Structure of the MAS

Next, I would like to reassure Mr Zainal and Associate Professor Tan that before an inmate is released on the MAS, Prisons will first make a holistic assessment of each individual based on factors such as the nature of offence, criminal antecedents, progress in prison, risk of re-offending, and family support. Each inmate will then be emplaced on a suitable programme within the MAS. Not all individuals will have to go through all the 3 MAS phases of a halfway house stay, home supervision, and community reintegration. Some may be placed on the halfway house phase while others may be placed directly on the home supervision phase.

The time spent and intensity of the programme at each phase depends on the ex-inmate's progress over the course of the MAS, which will last for up to 2 years, even for lifers or long term sentence and not forever as Mrs Chiam thought.

Let me briefly outline the regime for an inmate under the MAS. Take the example of an inmate who is a repeat drug abuser and was sentenced to Long-Term imprisonment for 6 years. He is subsequently released from prison after serving 4 years, or at the 2/3rd mark of his 6-year sentence. He is then issued a CRO and subject to the basic condition for 2 years. As a drug offender, he is also emplaced on the MAS for up to 2 years.

Based on Prisons' assessment of this inmate's circumstances, he is emplaced in a halfway house upon his release. The halfway house programme is a residential programme that will last for at least 6 months. There, he undergoes regular counselling and casework sessions to address his rehabilitation and aftercare needs. These sessions are meant to address his criminogenic needs and risk factors of re-offending. He will be able to leave the halfway house during the day to work.

After several months in the halfway house, he is assessed to be coping well and making good progress in his rehabilitation and reintegration journey. Hence, he is allowed to return home and continues on the MAS while on home supervision.

When on home supervision, he is subject to curfew hours and electronic monitoring, and continues to attend counselling and casework sessions. After several months on home supervision, he is assessed to be progressing well. He will then be placed on the final phase of the MAS, the community reintegration phase. As part of community reintegration, he is no longer subject to curfew hours or electronic monitoring. However, he will still need to attend counselling and casework sessions. This will continue till the end of his time on the MAS, which will be for up to 2 years.

The example shows how the MAS is a structured programme with progressive step-down aftercare arrangements to help the individual reintegrate into society, build resilience to stay crime-free, and adapt to "post-imprisonment realities", as Associate Professor Tan put it. However, I would like to emphasise again that it is just as important that ex-inmates be motivated to help themselves.

There will be consequences when MAS ex-inmates breach their conditions. Mr Hri Kumar and Mrs Chiam asked about what constituted a minor and a serious breach. An ex-inmate would have committed a minor breach, for example, when he misses his counselling sessions or breaches his curfew hours. For such breaches, the Commissioner of Prisons may administer punishments, from tightening the ex-inmate's conditions to temporarily recalling him to prison. An ex-inmate would have committed a serious breach, for example, if he tampers with his electronic monitoring device, or if he has committed multiple minor breaches. For such breaches, the courts will sentence the ex-inmate to imprisonment for up to the remaining duration of his remission period at the time of the serious breach. Minor and serious breaches will be stipulated in the Prisons Regulations. The body administering punishments for breaches is calibrated to the severity of the consequences of the breach.

Mrs Chiam asked what steps must the Commissioner take before he is satisfied that a minor breach has been conducted. Yes, he (the inmate) will be given a chance to explain his actions and hear the evidence against him. The intent of MAS is not to punish the ex-inmate but to assist him in his rehabilitation and reintegration journey. There will also be an independent Advisory Committee set up to advise the Director of Prisons on MAS-related matters. This can include appeals from inmates themselves.

Strengthening the Aftercare Sector

As several Members noted, the CRS and MAS are significant undertakings for Prisons. I would like to reassure Members that Prisons has sufficient capacity, should there be an increase in the prison population arising from breaches of the basic condition and MAS conditions.

At the same time, with the implementation of the MAS, Prisons will be building up its aftercare capabilities and strengthening the aftercare sector as a whole. Prisons will be developing a Halfway House in the new Selarang Park Complex to provide a structured environment to supervise and rehabilitate ex-inmates emplaced on the MAS. It will cater to both male and female ex-inmates, and will complement the efforts of our current halfway house partners who work with lower-risk inmates. Prisons will also engage more counsellors and case workers. Furthermore, Prisons has recently developed a new training and development framework to raise the competencies and capabilities of personnel and volunteers in the aftercare sector to support ex-inmates in the community.

We will continue to work closely with our community partners, including halfway houses, to raise the capabilities within the sector. These are worthwhile investments and initiatives. We hope to see improvements in recidivism rates over the longer term, with fewer ex-inmates returning to prison and a lower prison population over time.

Current Aftercare Programmes

Next, I would like to clarify that the MAS will not replace but will build on current aftercare programmes. There is already in place aftercare programmes run by our community partners, the Singapore After-Care Association (SACA) and the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association (SANA), which all ex-inmates may register for, after their release from prison or after they complete the MAS. Halfway houses that are operated by VWOs also accept walk-ins from ex-inmates. Those who are not covered by the MAS will continue to be able to benefit from these programmes.

Employment of APOs in Prisons

Ms Sylvia Lim asked about the amendments to the provisions on the employment of auxiliary police officers, or APOs, as escorts and guards. The objective of these proposed amendments is to facilitate the expanded deployment of APOs so that prison officers can focus on the rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates.

APOs currently assist prison officers with escorting inmates of low- and medium-security risk to external locations such as the courts or to hospitals and guarding them while there. This amended provision will enable APOs to be deployed for functions such as inmate escort within the prison complex, and prison patrol. They will not be involved in rehabilitation functions. APOs deployed will be within the prison setting and will continue to receive specialised training to deal with inmates and fully supervised by prison officers.

The amendment will neither compromise prison security nor the safe custody of inmates. Prisons remains fully accountable for the safe custody of inmates both within and outside of prison.

External Placement Scheme

Finally, on the External Placement Scheme, I would like to clarify Associate Professor Tan's point about the EPS as well as address Ms Lim's queries on the need for and safeguards for the EPS. The EPS is distinct from the MAS. The EPS, unlike the MAS, is not meant to be a step-down arrangement to facilitate reintegration. The EPS is meant to right-site inmates in places more suited for their physical or mental conditions. The Scheme will be tightly scoped. For a start, we will limit eligibility only to inmates who have been certified by Prisons-appointed medical specialists as being at the end-stage of a terminal illness with a poor prognosis. In addition, the Minister will be advised by an independent committee that will include medical professionals. Finally, the inmate will be subject to conditions and restrictions and closely monitored. The placement can be cancelled at any time if the inmate's circumstances change and external placement is no longer deemed appropriate.


Madam Speaker, I am glad that members generally agree with me that there is a need to do more to deter offending and re-offending and help ex-inmates rehabilitate and reintegrate into society. The amendments, which seek to introduce the CRS and MAS, will strengthen Prisons' through-care system, particularly in the aftercare phase. These two initiatives mark a paradigm shift in our rehabilitation of inmates. However, the inmate's motivation and will to change and his determination to turn over a new leaf for the sake of his family and himself is critical. Together, with the support of the community and employers, we will help ex-inmates break the cycle of re-offending, return to their families and reintegrate into society.

I urge Members of the House to give your support to the Prisons (Amendment) Bill.