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What are we actually trying to do? : On punishment and prisons

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
9 min read

Special issues are only emailed to Milo Peng Funders, and are usually also paywalled, but I’m making this free for anyone to access, so please share it widely!


On one of end of the island sits a huge, sprawling complex, protected by walls, barbed wire fences, and surveillance cameras. Its existence is widely known in Singapore, but most people don’t think about Changi Prison Complex or what goes on in there. It’s almost as if it’s in its own dimension: for the people confined within its walls, time and space are experienced differently, and communication is largely restricted, making them exist outside the daily rhythms and interactions of life in Singapore even though we’re all living on the same land.

It’s tough to get people to care about what goes on in prisons. The dominant narrative is that everyone in prison is a criminal who has done something terrible, and therefore don’t deserve our concern or sympathy; anything and everything that they experience within prison is what they deserve for breaking the law. Often, poor or harsh conditions in prison are met with acceptance and approval, and held up as a warning to others. People expect, even want, prisons to be terrible places of suffering.

What are we actually trying to achieve?

“Prisons aren’t supposed to be five-star hotels!” Prisoners shouldn’t be comfortable, because if they were, then where would the punishment be? Where is the deterrent effect if people aren’t frightened onto the straight-and-narrow by harsh prison conditions?

Once locked into this mindset, talk of prison conditions and the human rights and dignity of prisoners seem unimportant, even fanciful or over-indulgent. It becomes so easy to fixate on punishment and retribution that we forget to ask ourselves what we actually wanted to achieve in the first place.

What does “justice” mean to you?

Very often in Singapore people conflate the concept of “justice” with that of “vengeance”. If someone does something “bad” or “wrong”, then they have to pay the price. As long as the “bad guy” is punished, then justice is achieved and we can move on. But what if we shifted our perspective?

When I talk to people about crime and punishment — as I often do as an anti-death penalty activist — I find that we all share a similar starting point. We all want to live in a safe environment, where we can flourish with our loved ones. We don’t like the idea of families torn asunder, relationships wrecked. We want as many people in our society to be secure and happy as can be managed.

Since that’s the case, then our focus should be on reducing harms and suffering, and on preventing harm from being done rather than doling out punishment after the fact. This is not to say that people shouldn’t be held responsible or accountable for the things they do, but that repairing and reducing harms should be at the centre of our approaches and strategies, and that we shouldn't be doing things that inflict more pain. We should be asking ourselves if our policies actually achieve these goals; whether they help people recover and rebuild their lives, or if they prevent people from ending up in desperate and painful situations in the first place. Who is being protected by the current systems that we have in place, and who isn’t?

“You don’t see the sky”

The Transformative Justice Collective (of which I’m a member) released a lengthy report on conditions in Singapore’s prisons in early May this year. Members of TJC’s prison conditions working group interviewed 36 formerly incarcerated people who have experienced life in prison or state-run Drug Rehabilitation Centres (DRCs), which is essentially prison with a bit more of a counselling element for drug users. The report sheds light on as much of the workings of Singapore’s prison system as our members could unearth, and prompts us to think about what we’re really achieving with incarceration.

Although the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) brands itself as “Captains of Lives” who “rehab, restart, renew” the lives of those under their custody, what TJC found from talking to formerly incarcerated people was a very different picture. As one interviewee told TJC:

“You don't break a person down before you build them up. You empathise with them, you feel what they're going through from there, both of you work together. You cannot break him down, make him feel like a total piece of shit, and then say, ‘Let's start working on him now.’ I mean, that's just not how it works. In prison, or anywhere else I feel. That's not how it works. The prison likes to say they are ‘Captains of Lives’. ‘Rehab, Renew, Restart.’ Actually, it’s more like repress, oppress, suppress.”

One important thing that not everyone realises about the Singapore prison system is that, despite what is suggested by the SPS’ public relations campaign, not every incarcerated person has access to rehabilitation programmes. Prisoners participate in such programmes based on whether the authorities think they have “potential” or not. There is even an assessment tool that’s used to determine if one is worthy of access to such programmes:

A table in TJC's report, with information taken from a paper entitled "Rehabilitation, Recidivism, and Reintegration: An Examination of Singapore’s Penal System for Drug Offenders".
A table in TJC's report, with information taken from a paper entitled "Rehabilitation, Recidivism, and Reintegration: An Examination of Singapore’s Penal System for Drug Offenders".

When deciding who to offer rehab programmes to, the prison looks at a range of things, including whether the person has offended more than once, and overall data on recidivism rates. In their paper, sociologists Ganapathy Narayanan and Lian Kwen Fee observed that this can lead to systemic discrimination against minority prisoners (who form the majority of the penal population):

“…the higher recidivism rate among the Malay and Indian offenders relative to the Chinese has led to the exclusion of minority inmates from participation in rehabilitative programs. While there is no explicit discrimination based on race per se, prison authorities are reluctant to extend rehabilitative opportunities to ethnic minorities who are perceived to be recalcitrant offenders. As one senior prison officer plainly stated: ‘I mean given our limited resources and based on the risk of relapse prediction by our psychologists, we have to make sure that we put our resources where we get our returns back... I mean you put in your money in investment schemes where you get the best out of it... We have to show results too.’”

But even those who do get to participate in rehab programmes might find them to be of limited utility to their lives. Respondents interviewed by TJC described such programmes “tokenistic”, “dehumanising”, or even “useless”. They said that some of the counsellors were “condescending” and disconnected from their own lived experiences, and that the sessions didn’t acknowledge the motivations and struggles that contributed to their drug use. How can counselling and treatment be effective if it doesn’t even connect with the root issue?

The very premise and setup of Singapore’s prison and compulsory drug detention system is antithetical to rehabilitation and healing. While the authorities claim to be providing support for people to change their lives for the better, TJC’s interviewees talked about how the system — with its practices of serving food through a slit at the bottom of the cell door, regular and humiliating strip searches, and punishment cells with the lights on round the clock messing with your sense of time — did not respect their dignity. Those who had been detained in Drug Rehabilitation Centres said that the experience was traumatising and that they felt a lot of anxiety because they didn’t know how long they would have to stay in there. As one respondent said:

“Obviously, there is a lot of fear. Because you are in there, you don’t know how long, and it can be up to a year. So you are always in a lot of anxiety… And the shitty part of DRC is, you don’t know how long you are staying, you don’t know whether you will get [into a] programme, you don’t know whether it is two months, four months, or six months. I mean there was one guy, he got caught, he has a kid, a daughter who is a few years old. He got caught, his wife refuses to see him, and the wife decides to divorce him while he is in prison.”

Taken together, the experience of being incarcerated doesn’t make someone a better person. Instead, time in prison or a compulsory drug detention centre can leave people traumatised, break down their self-esteem, and mark them with a stigma that they have to struggle against (on top of other challenges such as strained relationships, lost employment, financial problems, etc.) upon release. Research also indicates that this experience could lead to people getting stuck in an incarceration cycle, where they struggle to reintegrate after leaving prison, end up committing an offence again and get imprisoned again. A study done in Singapore with 230 people who had been incarcerated found that a person was 3.51 times more likely to reoffend with every incarceration.

In other words, the status quo is not only not working, it’s also causing more harm.

Can we have a rethink here?

If what we want is for as many people as possible in our society to be able to thrive, then prisons aren’t helping us achieve that goal. Incarceration operates as a punishment in that it gives people a hard time and causes the pain that our punitive instincts think “criminals” deserve, but this isn’t actually “justice”, especially when we consider how different communities are disproportionately affected by the system. For example, people from low-income families and neighbourhoods are often more policed and surveilled (due to classist and elitist assumptions about criminality and the poor), and, if they come into conflict with the law, have much less access to important resources like high quality legal representation to help them navigate the system. After incarceration, they struggle so much more with financial issues and finding decent employment, making their lives even worse than before.

TJC’s report ends with making an argument for decarceration, pointing at evidence from studies in other parts of the world. It points to how imprisonment can alter people’s personalities in ways that leave them in an even worse position upon release. Here’s a quote from an article cited in the report that really struck me:

“As the long-term prisoner becomes ‘adapted’ — in the true sense of the term — to the imperatives of a sustained period of confinement, he or she becomes more emotionally detached, more self-isolating, more socially withdrawn, and perhaps less well suited to life after release.”

The argument for moving away from incarceration is even more urgent when it comes to drug offences. Right now, people are being locked up in compulsory drug detention centres or prison for possession or personal consumption of drugs like cannabis, even if their use didn’t lead to violence or cause harm to anyone. (One might argue that consuming drugs is causing harm to oneself, but so is smoking or binge-drinking, and we don’t send people to jail for those things.)

From the 2021 Singapore Prison Service annual report. Over two thousand people went to either prison or DRC for drug offences last year.

Whenever activists talk about moving away from punitive drug policies, people worry that we will inadvertently encourage drug use. But a lot of work around the world has gone into figuring out what works best when it comes to drug policy and treatment for people who would like to deal with their drug dependence, and the research is telling us that throwing people in detention centres or prisons aren’t going to solve the problem.

Last month, some members of TJC attended a conference in Kuala Lumpur, organised by the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN), focused on envisioning a drug policy in Malaysia without capital punishment. We wanted to see what conversations were happening in Malaysia and what might be informing the Malaysian government's review of their capital punishment regime. On the very first day, medical practitioners working with people who have drug dependence pointed out that the punitive system in Malaysia was not only not working, but also contributing to overcrowding and public health problems (such as latent tuberculosis) in the country’s prisons. They pointed to evidence that giving people access to voluntary and evidence-based treatment, in environments where they don’t have to feel anxious about getting arrested or jailed, produced better results than criminal punishment. There are better ways to go about addressing addiction and drug dependency that don’t involve imprisoning or executing people. (If only Singapore's government would engage with this evidence rather than repeating its War on Drugs rhetoric ad nauseum.)

Singapore is an extremely punitive society; when we encounter problems, we tend to jump straight into thinking about penalties. When a problem still isn’t fixed, we don’t go back to first principles to think about alternative approaches, we assume that people just aren’t sufficiently deterred and therefore the punishment should be even harsher. We are so fixated with punishment that we don’t even stop to think about whether what we’re doing is really addressing root causes, repairing harm, helping victims heal or preventing future incidents.

This is a mindset we need to break out of. We’ve followed this criminal punishment model for so many years, and thousands of people and their families have been trapped in a vicious cycle of criminal punishment, incarceration, pain and trauma. We tell ourselves that certain people are getting their just deserts, and we turn away from them, thinking that things like prison conditions and prisoners’ rights aren’t important enough for our attention or care. But if we really wanted a society in which families thrive, harms get repaired, and people are given the support they need to live well and heal from their pain, then we urgently need to be doing something differently.

This special issue highlighted some of the key points of TJC’s report — please take the time to read the full thing if you can! — but it’s also a pitch to everyone to reflect on how we react when something wrong or bad happens, and whether we can shift our lens towards focusing on people rather than punishment.


Thank you for reading this! This is a special issue that’s usually only open to Milo Peng Funders, but I’d like more people to know about TJC’s report, so I’ve taken the paywall down. Feel free to forward this email to anyone who you think needs to see this!

Kirsten Han Twitter

A Singaporean independent journalist, activist, and cat slave.