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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Inside Prison

If you

a) loathe going to school, dislike taking exams and doing homework

b) not satisfied with the amount you’re earning but want more and at an exponential rate

c) complain that your mum always cooks the same thing or that it’s very bland

d) curious what Prison life is like

You should read this. Annual reports are usually boring, but Singapore Prisons annual report is an interesting read. I’ve edited it to keep it short yet maintaining its essence, but you can read the whole book at

I took a wistful look at the cloudless blue sky above my shaven head. How did I ever end up sitting in the yard of a maximum security prison as a Long Sentence inmate? I was a high-flying white-collar accounts manager, someone who enjoyed fine dinging and the occasional Cuban cigar. I am a family man with no ex-con relatives or acquaintances.

My name is Tim, I was born the youngest to an odd-job labourer father and a seamstress mother. My life took a dramatic turn when my parents perished in a fire that consumed our Queenstown flat. My brothers and I were watching a TV show when suddenly we heard screams coming from the kitchen. We witnessed our parents being burned alive.

According to investigators, my father was pouring petrol into a jerry can as my mother lit the stove. The sparks probably caused the petrol to ignite. After that incident, our family split up. I was moving from one relative’s house to another. It was tiring and I felt sad most of the time.

Despite the odds stacked heavily against me, I did well to graduate from the local university with much funding from my Clan Association’s bursary. My first job was as an executive at a government agency. The salary was low, albeit stable. It was amazing then. In a space of 10 years in the civil sector, I got married and I worked hard to provide for my wife and kids. But there was also an innate hunger in me to see how far I could go. I do not know if the pressure from society, friends and family was real or imagined. But I knew I had to prove to everyone around me. I always wondered how they could afford their big cars, Italian furniture, ski holidays and material things like that. I knew it was shallow but I wanted all those things for my family and myself. I felt that I, too, could obtain them.
“Tim Chan,” a voice bellowed. I looked up, the voice belonged to Rehabilitation Officer Kok, a young officer who had joined the prison service upon graduation from University.

“Sir,” I greeted him and stood up, hands firmly straightened by my sides. Whenever we spoke to officers, we had to be polite as this was part of the disciplinary process aimed at fostering respect fot the authorities. Every reply had to be ended with a “sir” or “sarge”, depending on the officer’s rank.

“I heard you’ve a request to make? What is it?” RO Kok asked.

“Yes Sir. I was wondering if I could change cell,” I replied.

“Change cell? Why? Someone is bullying you?” RO Kok asked, his brows furrowed with concern.

“No Sir. I was wondering if I could have some privacy.”

I knew the unspoken thought in RO Kok’s head was “Privacy? Are you kidding?” as he squinted back at me before asking if I knew why I am in Prison.

The cell was the place where we spent most of our time. A heavy metal door with a spy hole made sure we all remained securely within it.
Housing 3 to 4 inmates each, it meant a total loss of freedom for all inhabitants. We did everything in our humble abode, and I mean everything. We had our meals here, we read here, we wrote letters here, we slept and bathed here. Some of us also cried here, softly, in the dead of the night.

In my opinion, the biggest challenge was sharing the toilet, which was the squat type. It was situated at the end of the cell and our only reprieve from awkwardness while doing our business was a modesty wall measuring no more than half a metre in height. Till now, I still cringe whenever someone has to defecate urgently while we are having dinner. We also took turns to bathe, also at the toilet area, by pressing the shower button.

Today marked another typical day for me and the 85 residents of Housing Unit A. I knew it was Tuesday because they served the-O this morning. The prison served either kopi-O or the-O on alternative mornings. Strictly speaking, the day made no difference to me. Besides crossing the dates on the mini calendar Jean sent me during her last visit, everyday was the same. The same yard, the same officers, the same plastic food plates, the same taste of coffee or tea. It was the same routine, all day everyday.

Every morning, we were awoken by five knocks on a gong. Following that, we had to stand in a row in the cell for the officer to do his headcount. Breakfast comprising bread with spread was then served by the inmate assistants through the food hatch at the bottom of the cell door. For the next hour or so, we could carry on with our sleep or meditate until the heavy door opened for us to fall in along the corridor for our yard.

Before moving off, we had to be searched. The officers had to ensure we were not concealing any contraband or improvised weapons. In fact, movements from one location to another were accompanied by searches. Even though I had been subjected to this for 9 months, I could never get used to this procedure.

Yard time was a highly cherished time for inmates like us. Unlike the inmates working in workshops or inmate helpers, ‘lock up inmates’ (those not given work for various reasons) only had one hour of yard time daily.
And there were activities aplenty to squeeze into the one hour- shaving, trimming nails, exercising, watching pre-recorded television (kissing/ bed /violent scenes are removed), reading censored newspapers (news that depict violence, crimes and any other act deemed detrimental to the security of the prisons were blacked out), playing board games, having basketball etc.

The yard also provided incoming letters that many of us looked forward to with glee. Besides visits that took place twice a month, letters were our only other connection with our loved ones.

Visit days were the only days I woke up feeling elated. Being able to meet one’s loved ones always made me tear with joy before being led by an officer to the visit area. The raw emotions on display were heartbreaking: tears from an old mother, screams from an insecure wife, despondent stares from children who don’t know their fathers, the palm-to-palm touches across the transparent screen that separated us from our visitors- scenes reminiscent of a television tear jerker. Only difference? The actors wished they did not have their roles in the first place.

I left the civil service eventually after much deliberation. I wanted more. I wanted a lifestyle that others would envy. I joined a private firm as an accounts executive. The temptation soon proved too much for me. Over a period of one year, I embezzled thousands of dollars from company funds, it was so easy. The directors always pre-signed a stack of cheques for administrative convenience and since they did not have proper checks and balances, I exploited the loophole.

However, during that period, I lived in fear.

The spartan regime in Prisons gas taught me the difference between needs and wants. I managed to survive with nothing more than a plastic box, a plastic spoon, a mat for me to sleep on, a blanket, three sets of t-shirts and shorts, a tube of toothpaste, toothbrush and two rolls of toilet paper that were supposed to last a whole month. What can I not live without? I have also changed my perspective on material things. I must not want them. The desire to possess them causes misery because the want and the ability to afford cannot match sometimes.

The prison is not a place one should be in. The regime is tough but I guess we deserve it because of the harm we have done to society, and therefore we need to pay for our offences.

Right now, my only wish it to serve out my sentence and quickly return to my family to make up for many years of lost time. What wouldn’t I give for a simple dinner at the coffee shop with my family?

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