SINGAPORE: John (not his real name), 37, is currently pursuing his studies in Tanah Merah Prison, which houses Singapore’s only prison school.
He was jailed for cheating offences and is serving a 14-year sentence. But he is seeking atonement for past mistakes by hitting the books.
“The main reason I cheated (others) was because of my own greed. At that time, I gambled and then I lost. And then the more I lost, the more I sought to cheat,” he said.
"I realised that it could be a second chance or it could be a new chance for me to reintegrate into society again. If I don't get a good education here, if I go out, what can I do?" John said.
The school has seen more students like John taking major examinations such as the GCE 'N', 'O' and 'A' Levels. In 2012, 210 inmates sat for those exams. This number jumped to 239 in 2015.
"As we enforced and maintained discipline in the prisons, we remain committed to the rehabilitation and reintegration of the inmates. Education plays a very important role in our rehabilitation of inmates,” said Mr Loh Hong Wai, a Superintendent at Tanah Merah Prison, Singapore Prison Service.
The inmates are also producing results. For instance, the percentage of students who did well in their 'N' Level exam - making them eligible to sit for the 'O' Levels - rose from 68 per cent in 2013 to 75.6 per cent last year.
"The increase is due to greater awareness among the students on the importance of education,” said Mr Loh.
John, who is a former polytechnic dropout, is picking up where he left off. However, he still faces challenges.
"I've stopped studying for close to 15 years. When I started reading the textbooks again, all those terms like in physics, biology or maths, all the formulas, all the definitions, all the theories - I have to remember them again,” he said.
He retook his 'O' Levels and scored A1s for all five subjects, outperforming his previous 'O' Level results. He is now studying for the 'A' Levels and will sit for the exam next year.
"I actually did better in prison school. I think it’s most probably because of the lack of distraction here,” said John, who hopes to eventually study Mathematics at a local university.
REBUILDING LIVES, AWAKENING HOPE
Personal supervisors attached to inmates assist in enforcing the importance of education. But before they can study, inmates are assessed on several factors, such as aptitude, level of literacy, conduct and the length of their sentence.
Rebuilding Lives and Awakening Hope is the prison school's motto. Within the school, efforts are made to create a conducive learning environment - one that is similar to mainstream schools. There are enrichment activities and a library as well.
The academic curriculum is also in line with that set by the Education Ministry and students are taught by MOE-trained teachers.
Inmates complete their studies within a shorter time frame as compared to their peers in mainstream schools. To help them focus on their studies, adjustments are made to their routines. For example, family visits and counselling sessions are scheduled at the end of their lessons.
Volunteers, like full-time teacher Tan Cher Chong, are also roped in to provide additional learning support. The 45-year-old has been helping out for the past 10 years.
"My passion is to see people learn and grow. I blur (out) this image that just because they're prison inmates, they should carry a certain demeanour,” said Mr Tan.
Mr Tan also debunked the perception that inmates are not studious.
“They - more often than not - perform pretty well in exams. I think it all stems from the intrinsic motivation that they have, the urge to want to do well,” he said.
Tutors like Mr Tan hope to motivate their students, to help them achieve their goals.
"It takes a lot of hard work, tenacity and self discipline to get used to the rigorous routine of prison school. At the end of the day, I think it's all worth the effort because it can be a life-changing experience for them,” said Superintendent Loh.