Woman reveals why she looks forward to talking with inmates on death row at Changi Prison

Laila was recognised for her volunteer work with the Singapore Prison Service at this year's Home Team National Day Observance Ceremony.
PHOTO: AsiaOne

Barring the Covid-19 circuit breaker period, Laila Hasan has showed up at Changi Prison Complex every week for the past 19 years.

During the two hours that she is there, the 65-year-old religious education teacher reads the Quran with the inmates, before asking about their day.

But as petite and soft-spoken as she is, Laila told AsiaOne recently that she does not feel intimidated during these one-on-one sessions with the inmates over the years – several of them hardcore criminals who are on the death row for drug trafficking. 

In fact, she is eager to speak with them every day, never mind their criminal histories. 

Describing the close bond she has with the inmates, Laila said: "They will wait to see me. I'm also happy to see them during these [two-hour] sessions."

Laila was speaking to AsiaOne on the sidelines of the Home Team National Day Observance Ceremony on Thursday (Aug 4), where she had received an award for her volunteer work with the Singapore Prison Service.

This event, held at the Home Team Academy in Choa Chu Kang, saw more than 300 attendees including Home Team officers, volunteers, members of the public and guest of honour Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

Inspired by other religious teachers whom she sought guidance from, Laila shared that she decided to be a counsellor at Changi Prison to create a positive environment for the inmates there.

By strengthening their religious faith, it would dispel any negative emotions that they have while on their journey towards redemption, Laila pointed out. 

"I share with them on the words of God, and I want to know more about them too," she added. 

While there might be safety concerns in her line of work, Laila is grateful that she could count on her family for support – especially her husband who also volunteers in these one-to-one sessions with inmates on death row. 

"Some of the things about the inmates are confidential, but at least I can count on him [for support]," the mother of three said. 

She recounted how the inmates often ask her to convey messages on their behalf to their family members, but she has always declined their requests as it is against the policy. 

However, that did not stop Laila from forming a special bond with them over time while keeping professional relationships with those she encountered in Changi Prison. 

The secret? The courage and passion to "sincerely" help them, Laila said.

She mused: "In the past, when they say 'I love you', I didn't dare to say it back [because] I thought I cannot [share my feelings with them].

"But I dare to say it back, you know? They really love me, and I love them too."

We overcome these emotions together

In recent times, there has been much debate about the death penalty in Singapore.

In a speech during the budget debate on March 3, Shanmugam said that the death penalty has continued to remain relevant and has "a strong, clear and deterrent impact".

He also cited a survey conducted last year by the Ministry of Home Affairs on the perceptions of Singaporeans over the death penalty, which showed that 80 per cent believed the death penalty had deterred offenders.

But a month after that speech in Parliament, hundreds turned up at Speakers' Corner at Hong Lim Park to attend a protest against the death penalty in Singapore.

When asked, Laila said that she preferred not to share her views on the death penalty, and that she has always advised inmates on death row to "accept it as part of God's will", as part of her religious teachings.

Adding that inmates might feel "scared and nervous" to be in prison, Laila said: "It's important to build sincere trust and rapport with them so that they are comfortable with sharing their feelings to me.

"I also want them to understand and accept these punishments as a blessing in disguise and we overcome these emotions together."

Giving up on them was never an option

Besides her volunteer work in Changi Prison Complex, Laila also runs a support group of around 50 female ex-inmates. 

With weekly gatherings at her religious education centre in Woodlands, she continues to give advice to help them on their path towards rehabilitation. 

There were instances of members who lost their way and reoffended, but giving up on them was never an option, Laila shared.

"I always tell them that 'even though you fall, you must stand for yourself and we'll be waiting for you'", she said, adding that her support group is like a family to her – supporting and help each other. 

But the greatest satisfaction is keeping in touch with the inmates after their release from prison and hearing about their successful stories, Laila shared, adding that volunteering has given her a meaningful life. 

She said: "There was one [ex-inmate] who shared that she had quit smoking, didn't feel the need to take drugs anymore and is running a home-based food business.

"These kinds of stories give me satisfaction which I try to sustain in my volunteering work."

ALSO READ: 'I don't want to disappoint her anymore': Changi Prison inmate cooks for his daughter for the first time in culinary competition

chingshijie@asiaone.com