SINGAPORE: Ethan (not his real name) keeps his days busy by exercising regularly, mingling with friends and playing board games like Scrabble and chess.
The 38-year-old also plans and conducts basic English, information technology as well as arts and music courses for his peers. The days go by gradually, and sometimes not quickly enough.
Ethan has been in prison for the past five years. With the current remission system, he still has seven years left of the 16-year sentence he was handed for trafficking methamphetamine.
"The challenges I’m facing are my own emotions, like thoughts about the remainder of my sentence," he told CNA on Thursday (Oct 22) in a phone interview from Changi Prison.
"I’m almost halfway through, but there’s still a considerable amount of time left. So this sometimes can be quite stressful. It can be a challenge to me."
Ethan is thankful for anything that keeps him busy. For instance, his job as a trainer to other inmates requires him to plan courses in advance and review them. He is also grateful for prison officers who are willing to listen to his problems.
"In the environment I’m in, the inmates are facing quite long sentences also, so the officers show concern to us and our family," he said.
"I remember RO Sherman telling me that when I’m out of prison, I’m still young and will have a good future ahead. So, I should cherish my life and live it purposefully."
Ethan was referring to Rehabilitation Officer (RO) Sherman Kwang, a housing unit officer in Institution A1 of the Changi Prison Complex.
HELPING INMATES CHANGE
ROs are uniformed officers who ensure safe and secure custody of inmates, establish order and discipline, and create a suitable environment for rehabilitation.
The latter involves getting inmates to come up with an action plan for their time in prison and beyond, asking them about their well-being and needs, monitoring their progress, and proactively engaging them regarding their challenges.
READ: Regret over how he treated inmates: This former prison warden has been counselling them for 15 years
RO Kwang, 28, also appears in a video released last week by the Singapore Prison Service (SPS), where he supports an "inmate" who is stressed about his family and an upcoming examination in prison.
The video is part of SPS' latest Captains of Lives campaign, which aims to showcase the work prison officers and staff do to rehabilitate and reintegrate inmates.
RO Kwang, who joined SPS two-and-a-half years ago after he studied criminology in university and was intrigued by theories behind prison and rehabilitation, counts Ethan as one of 15 inmates he is in charge of.
The two meet once a week, where RO Kwang asks Ethan about his family and how he is coping in prison, as well as the goals he set for after his release. Officers meet inmates who need more help more frequently.
While the interviews with Ethan and RO Kwang were facilitated by SPS, there were moments when the genuineness of their relationship shone through.
Ethan remembers one occasion earlier this year before the start of the "circuit breaker", when RO Kwang helped him out of a dark place. Ethan said he had just come out of a visit with his family and was feeling downtrodden.
"During the visit, my parents actually expressed their heartache and disappointment over me, and it affected me badly because after the visit, I got upset and angry with my myself for disappointing my parents," he said.
RO Kwang noticed Ethan's body language and asked him what happened.
"I’m willing to share because I can sense that he’s really willing to help me, and he’s patient in listening to my problems," Ethan said.
"He gave me very good and positive advice, and said I was the one who has done wrong to my parents, so I should be patient with them.
"Ultimately, I’ve hurt them for so many years, so I can’t expect them to believe me and not be disappointed. So, I should give them the time to see the changes in me."
RO Kwang said he was not trying to tell Ethan what to do or what is right or wrong, but to ask him to reflect on things. "That's the least we can do," he told CNA in a separate phone interview.
This episode reinforced Ethan's impression of RO Kwang as someone who is empathetic and willing to go the extra mile to support inmates.
For instance, when Ethan needed to print out some grammar exercises as part of his course materials, RO Kwang helped him out even though he did not need to.
"He’s always willing to help and he’s always on the ground interacting with the inmates," Ethan said. "There are many ways where he shows compassion to us."
A FINE LINE
Ethan believes it is "vital" to have supportive officers around.
"If I don’t have anybody to prove myself to (in prison), why do I need to change? So when I see the officers making the extra effort to find out about our problems, counsel and encourage us, it really helps us a lot in our rehabilitation," he added.
"However, I also recognise that in a prison environment, supportiveness and strictness can’t sustain without each other. There are still instances where discipline needs to be instilled."
While RO Kwang said he wants to show inmates he is willing to help and listen to them, he tries to "draw a fine line" in their relationship.
"I do not want to be too friendly with them as if we are buddies," he said, adding that fist bumps or hugs are not part of the equation.
RO Kwang acknowledged there are particularly difficult inmates to deal with, including those who get angry and argue with other inmates. In these cases, he usually gives them time to cool off before talking to them again.
"We have to spend more time, not just a few minutes or hours, but maybe days letting them calm down," he said. "We are all trained to deal with difficult inmates."
RO Kwang recalled one occasion more than a year ago when an inmate sat on the floor and refused to leave his cell to go out for work in prison. It turned out that the inmate's wife had filed for divorce.
"When I checked with him, he was very angry and disappointed and even raised his voice when he replied me," RO Kwang said.
"I could see his frustration and disappointment and I don’t think he wanted to work that day. So I gave him some time to cool down in his cell. And then I engaged him again after a while."
RO Kwang said he was heartened that the inmate eventually apologised and was receptive to what he had to say, noting that officers have to be patient when dealing with inmates.
"We know that he raised his voice or showed bad attitude not on purpose, but due to other reasons," he said.
"So for me, I try to put myself in his shoes and ask how I would feel if my wife wanted to divorce me. So from there, I think we can act accordingly and rationally."
"NO ONE INMATE IS THE SAME"
RO Kwang said the ability to recognise when an inmate is acting differently and pre-empt problems is one of the more challenging aspects of the job.
"We need to be very observant and vigilant, and learn to expect the unexpected," he said.
"No one inmate is the same. They come with their own sets of stories and difficulties. We need to sense that, check with them and guide them accordingly. If there is a dispute, we need to stop them immediately and accordingly."
In fact, when RO Kwang was new to the job, he had heard that Ethan used to be a "very angry kind of person" who had disputes with fellow inmates.
"But I see that he has changed and toned down a lot, and become more responsible," he said.
"Now he’s working as a trainer; the job allows him to be more responsible and set a good example. I see a lot of changes in him and I see he’s quite motivated, looking forward to life outside, how he can do better."
READ: More admitted to drug rehab centre in 2019, driven by changes in law aimed at reducing relapse
While Ethan said he cannot avoid agonising over his long sentence and whether he is wasting his life, he is thankful he is learning new skills in prison, through computer and public speaking courses.
It is something he plans to continue doing even after he is released, as he vowed to also volunteer as a prison counsellor to help other inmates turn over a new leaf.
"I believe that with my circumstances and past crime, if I can change my life for the better, anyone can change too," he said.
BREAKING THE STIGMA
But most of all, Ethan said he longs every day to reunite with his family over his mum's home-cooked food.
"It’s been a long time since I had a good meal at home with my family," he lamented. "It’s not the food but the company that counts; the family that I can sit down together with to share a meal and bond."
When asked if he feared the stigma of being an ex-offender, Ethan admitted that "there will still be some challenges in society".
"I know I have my shortcomings. The most important thing is to stay out of drugs and to live a life that does not put drugs and money as a priority," he said.
"I cannot avoid how people will look at me or my sentence. But it is my responsibility to change myself and live my life in the right way."
RO Kwang said he is especially pleased when inmates are motivated to change for the better in prison, stating that he knows it is not easy for them.
"I will feel proud as well that they have managed to persevere and and open a new chapter in their lives," he said.
RO Kwang also agreed to appear in the SPS short film as he thought it was a good way for the public to see offenders in a different light and hopefully give them a second chance.
"I hope that family members of ex-offenders and also our community most importantly can embrace them and give them a second chance when they work hard towards it," he added.