Behind the scenes of Inside Maximum Security: Producers reveal what filming with inmates was like
Two producers share what went into the making of the documentary, while the Singapore Prison Service responds to some of the comments from viewers — and also gives an update on the five inmates featured.
SINGAPORE: When current affairs producer Liu Ziqing first heard that he would be filming a Changi Prison inmate who initially faced the gallows, he was a little concerned.
“What did he do?” wondered Liu, part of the team behind CNA’s groundbreaking documentary, Inside Maximum Security. “He must’ve been, like, a badass to be charged with the death penalty, right?”
That inmate was 41-year-old Iskandar, who was ultimately sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment and 15 strokes of the cane for drug trafficking, drug possession and consumption. He was held in maximum security before he was transferred to Prison School.
After talking to him and filming him, however, Liu came away with the impression that Iskandar was “no different from us”.
“I got to know him, and he’s very fun-loving,” said Liu. “He’s very likeable, he gels with his classmates, his teachers like him.
“And he’s very considerate … Whenever we had to film him, he’d come to us and say, ‘Hey, can we try to reduce any inconvenience to my cellmates.’”
The CNA crew tried to oblige by, for example, using only half of his shared cell to do interviews, instead of the full cell.
Liu’s fellow producer, Anna Tolentino, was also “caught by surprise” by the inmates she filmed.
She remembers, for example, the first interview she conducted with Khai, 31, who was serving a 29-month sentence — with two strokes of the cane — for extortion, blackmail and voluntarily causing hurt.
He said things like, “I’m a bad person”, “I failed my father” and “I’m failing my mother as well because I don’t know where she is — I don’t know how she’s doing”, she recalled.
“So the first time you meet (the inmates), you feel like there’s a huge load on your shoulders,” she said. “It was so heavy; it was so emotional.”
It has been three months since the documentary was first broadcast, with its four episodes notching more than 8.5 million views combined on YouTube.
And looking back on the four months of filming, Tolentino thinks it is safe to say the producers “went through the same journey as the audiences who’ve watched this”.
For the first time, the producers are sharing what went on behind the scenes, and the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) responds to some of the comments from viewers.
There is also an update on the five inmates featured — the journey may not be over yet.
WATCH: What we learnt filming maximum security inmates — Behind the scenes and updates (16:24)
CHOSEN FROM AMONG 22 INMATES
Iskandar, Khai and the three other inmates, Boon Keng, Graceson and Rusdi, were among a group of 22 who were selected by the SPS and had volunteered to share their stories.
The CNA producers then did a “pre-interview” with all of them.
The production team put the inmates in front of a video camera for about 30 minutes each to see how open and comfortable they were about sharing their past, and the reasons they committed their offences, with the camera rolling.
“We also asked them, why do you want to be part of this documentary?” recounted Tolentino. “A lot of them thought that recording their time inside would be a good way to remind themselves not to come back again.”
WATCH: How tough is Singapore prison life? | Inside Maximum Security — Part 1/4 (46:09)
Among them, Boon Keng was “very sceptical” about his prospects for change, recalled Liu. The 34-year-old was in jail for the fourth time, serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence for theft, drug consumption, criminal breach of trust and breach of personal protection order.
He almost did not make CNA’s final cut, but Liu is glad he did in the end. “He really shared how he felt about being in prison,” said the producer. “He was very blunt, as you’ve seen.”
The producers did not film inside Changi Prison every day. When they did, however, there was no guarantee that the seven hours they had — after security checks and logistical set-up — would be fruitful. A lot depended on the inmates themselves.
“If they wanted to skip filming … or if they didn’t want to share anything about that part in their lives, we didn’t force them to do it,” said Tolentino.
“There was a day when Khai told me, ‘Can we not film today? Because I didn’t sleep last night.’”
That was after his phone call to his mother ended in dispute when his stepbrother and his stepbrother’s wife “jumped in” on speakerphone, he eventually related.
WATCH: Coping with family problems while in prison | Inside Maximum Security — Part 2/4 (46:08)
The producers also found out when not to film certain inmates during the day.
“For Graceson … you couldn’t bother him when it was yard time. You could film him, but you couldn’t do a lot of talking because you’d be disturbing his high-intensity interval training,” cited Tolentino.
“For Khai … he was very protective of his TV time.”
The inmates were also “anal about cleanliness”. The first day the crew filmed Khai, for example, he requested that they remove their footwear before entering his cell. It did not go unnoticed by Tolentino.
“Every time I filmed, I made sure that I told the cameramen … ‘Please take off your shoes,’” she recounted. “Because it was very important to (the inmates).”
PUBLIC RECEPTION BEYOND EXPECTATION
The producers were expecting the documentary to be a talking point among viewers, but they did not expect people to be “so invested” in the inmates’ stories, said Tolentino.
At the same time, she knew some people would think these are “scums pretending to be good people”. That was what made the storytelling process especially interesting for her.
“We’re all human, right? We’re all flawed, we have our own histories, we have our own truths. Sometimes we think we’re always right,” she said.
“And so, when you have … (people) who’ve committed mistakes in the past, how do you put them in a system and change them for the better?”
WATCH: How do you break bad habits in prison? | Inside Maximum Security — Part 3/4 (46:31)
The work being done in prison to achieve this change is what the SPS “wanted the public to understand” when it gave CNA unprecedented access to life behind bars, said SPS assistant director for media relations Ravin Singh.
“We had two key objectives for this documentary series. The first one was to demystify what goes on behind prison walls … We also hoped to explain the rationale behind some of our prison processes,” he said.
“Secondly, we hoped to humanise the prison staff as well as the inmates. Because we feel that the inmates, like all of us, have their own dreams … And it’s important to showcase the struggles they face in their journey towards achieving these goals.”
He and his colleagues also expected the documentary to be “relatively popular” but did not anticipate the extent of the online reaction. “There’s this natural curiosity about what happens within the very unseen world of the prison system,” he noted.
One thing that struck him, however, was that “there was a group of people who felt that our prison system wasn’t effective because all the profiles had multiple incarcerations prior to this”.
Offering another perspective, he said: “Offenders actually undergo many cycles of successes and failures before they desist or lead a crime-free life. For some offenders, it may take only one incarceration event, but for others, it may take multiple attempts.
“What we can be sure of is that each incarceration for these inmates brings them a step closer towards a crime-free life, as it helps them build their positive identity and pro-social thinking.”
He also picked up on comments about the non-provision of beds in the cells. This “long-standing practice”, he said, is to “keep our prisons spartan and sufficiently deterrent so that inmates are no better off than people in the community”.
“That said, inmates who require beds for medical reasons or for assisted living will be provided one either in our medical wards or in housing units which have facilities for assisted living.”
INMATES SHOWN THE DOCUMENTARY
The inmates featured in Inside Maximum Security have also seen the series, Singh disclosed. “They’re very glad that their stories have been shared with the general public, and they’re very happy that the response has been very positive,” he said.
During filming, Graceson had about a year left before his release. He is serving a sentence of six years and five months, with 21 strokes of the cane, for drug consumption, criminal intimidation and carrying weapons on three occasions.
The latest update on his situation is that he is waiting to be placed in a pre-release programme, after which he will serve the rest of his sentence in the community — subject to curfew and other supervision conditions — Singh shared.
Boon Keng is also waiting to be transferred to the pre-release centre and to serve the remainder of his sentence in the community.
“As for Khai, he’s still working as a peer supporter, and he’s still doing well,” said Singh.
“Iskandar is currently pursuing his diploma (in logistics), and if he does well in that, he also has the option to extend it to the degree programme.”
WATCH: Getting ready to be released | Inside Maximum Security — Part 4/4 (46:34)
The fifth inmate, 33-year-old Rusdi, who had served time for drug consumption and obstructing a public servant, was released during filming in January. “We hope he’s doing well in the community and he’s still leading a crime-free life,” Singh said.
The prison officer noted that over time, the successful re-integration of ex-offenders depends on “two key things”. One is their resolve to change — whether they are motivated enough, “else whatever programmes or interventions done for them will be ineffective”.
“Secondly, we need the community to give them this second chance. So be it your neighbour, or if you’re an employer and you’re employing somebody, we’d like to urge you to give them that chance to prove themselves,” he said.
Given the sentiments expressed online — for example, by viewers who felt for Graceson when he was on the phone to his daughter, and those who were happy to see Iskandar’s good results in Prison School — Liu the producer is hopeful.
“(People) are looking at (the inmates’) struggles and not only why they make mistakes,” he observed.
And given the public reaction, CNA and the SPS are in talks about a follow-up series involving the five profiles. “We (the producers) also want to document the lives of the inmates — what’s going to happen to them,” he said.