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'Outside, we don't get a chance': What it is like studying for a degree in prison

'Outside, we don't get a chance': What it is like studying for a degree in prison

SUSS lecturer Zhou Zihan said her students are inquisitive and have performed well. (Photo: Singapore Prison Service)

SINGAPORE: Every Thursday after having lunch, Wayne (not his real name) will make the short walk to school.

The classroom has a familiar feel: Whiteboard, blue tables and dusty grey floor. But the windows have metal grilles, and Wayne and his classmates sport standard crew cuts, white T-shirts and rubber slippers.

Wayne, who is divorced with two children, has about 3.5 years left to serve after considering remission. (Photo: Singapore Prison Service)

Wayne, 48, is about four years into his 11.5-year sentence for drug offences. This is his sixth time in prison, but the first time that he, or any inmate for that matter, is enrolled in a structured degree programme behind bars.

The Singapore Prison Service (SPS) has partnered the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) to let inmates take up a Bachelor of Science in Business programme, specialising in logistics and supply chain management.

It is an eight-year part-time programme that started last July, with lessons taking place in the prison school every Thursday.

READ: Recidivism rate at all-time low; more inmates serving part of jail term in community: Prison Service

The idea for this degree programme came about after a batch of inmates completed a diploma in a similar logistics field in May last year. This diploma programme was launched in 2018.

"Some of them had enough sentence length to kickstart the (degree) in which they had keen interest in," said Prison School principal Leong Sow Phong.

"As SUSS offers this degree on a part-time basis and the students met the entry requirements, Prison School initiated the discussion with SUSS, to offer opportunities for inmates to further their studies and assist them in their employment prospects after their release."

The inmates do a lot of preparation before coming to class. (Photo: Singapore Prison Service)

For Wayne, who said he came from a poor family and grew up with a single dad, going to university had never crossed his mind.

So when he was offered the opportunity to get a diploma and then a degree in prison, he "grabbed" at it with both hands.

Inmates who have completed the related diploma, or an A-Level with a pass in GP and two H2 subjects, can apply for the degree programme. Factors like conduct and motivation to learn are considered.

Inmates who take up the programme also get financial assistance under a Yellow Ribbon Fund bursary.

The prison school must also ensure safe and secure custody of inmates. (Photo: Singapore Prison Service)

"All this while, I've been working low-skilled jobs that don't need me to use my brain, like being a pub manager," Wayne said.

"I'm quite interested in improving and upgrading myself. I know that education is important. If I want to continue to survive in Singapore outside, I need education."


On weekdays, Wayne and five other classmates will head to the prison school after lunch for half a day to self-study, complete assignments and work on group projects.

They are given laptops for this, but they cannot send emails, so Wayne writes down the questions he has before asking them during lessons on Thursdays.

When there are no lessons, inmates do their self-study at the prison school. (Photo: Singapore Prison Service)

The Prison School also works with the inmates' personal supervisors and correctional rehabilitation specialists to balance their "academic and rehabilitative needs", Mr Leong said.

The inmates can bring reading materials back to their cell for revision when they have free time. The classmates also bunk together, which Wayne said is helpful as they can discuss the coursework and solve problems together.

Wayne said the lessons and quizzes have been manageable, and that his interest in the coursework means he has had "no problem" so far.

"We have plenty of time here, so I don’t think anything has been stressful," he said, calling the prison environment "conducive" for learning.

The Prison School and SUSS are encouraged by the inmates' results so far. (Singapore Prison Service)

Mr Leong said SUSS and the Prison School are encouraged by the inmates' results for the July 2020 semester. "We have confidence that the students have the potential to do well and handle more modules," he said.

Nevertheless, Mr Leong said those who need more help will get the support, adding that the Prison School works closely with lecturers from SUSS.

Wayne said he has gone for lessons with three lecturers so far, adding that they have been helpful and will provide students with "whatever we need".


SUSS lecturer Zhou Zihan, who teaches the inmates how to generate and interpret statistical findings, said she was initially a "little worried" about how the inmates would cope with the workload, as she was unsure about their backgrounds.

Dr Zhou welcoming the inmates into her class. (Photo: Singapore Prison Service)

"But in the first seminar, after I went through several concepts, asked them several questions and did some class activities together, all of these concerns were gone," she said.

"I understand that they are really good. They have done a lot of work."

A typical lesson will start with a lecture on some concepts, then a class activity and finally a question-and-answer session, similar to what happens in SUSS, she said.

Dr Zhou has six students in prison, compared to her usual 30 to 40 back at the university. (Photo: Singapore Prison Service)

Dr Zhou said the teaching experience has been "quite smooth", with inmates performing better than she expected. There is "not much difference" in the learning attitude of her prison students compared to their SUSS counterparts, she added.

"The inmates are curious about the knowledge, and actually they ask me a lot of questions," she said, smiling.

"All of them are very related to statistics; I think they have done a lot of preparation before they come into class."

Dr Zhou hopes she can continue teaching other modules in prison. (Photo: Singapore Prison Service)

The soft-spoken Dr Zhou replicates this enthusiasm in class. In one lesson, she speaks into a microphone and points to a slide on a statistical test. She beams as an inmate raises his hand.

But a poster beside the whiteboard, stating that bullying is a crime, is a reminder that this is not the average classroom.

While the usual learning tools like projectors and laptops are available, mobile phones and access to online platforms are not.

Before her first lesson, Dr Zhou attended an SPS briefing to familiarise herself with the new teaching environment and its "strict rules and regulations".

"For example, I cannot bring a bottle of water but only an empty bottle, or I cannot wear a smartwatch," she said. "There are many more things like that, but the colleagues in SPS have been very helpful."

Inmates are given basic learning tools like laptops and calculators. (Photo: Singapore Prison Service)

With limited access to external information, Dr Zhou said she gives her students more examples of how to apply the knowledge to different real-life situations.

"I rely more on traditional interaction, such as asking students for their opinions one by one," she added. "But this kind of traditional interaction is feasible, because I only have six students here."

READ: 85% of student-inmates score at least 3 passes in O-Level examinations: Amrin Amin

Dr Zhou said she volunteered to teach in prison as she wanted to teach inmates new knowledge and skills "for a new chance in their lives".

"I believe I have benefited from my previous education, so I want to give back to society through teaching," she said.

"At the same time, SUSS provides strong support for social good initiatives such as inclusive education."


Prison School principal Mr Leong said education is one way inmates can "kickstart" their rehabilitation and reintegration journey while in prison.

"The Prison School provides platforms for them to pursue various academic opportunities while in prison, and help them secure good jobs upon their release, which is crucial to helping them reintegrate into society and prevent re-offending," he said. 

"SPS may facilitate other courses of studies if assessed suitable and appropriate."

Prison School principal Leong Sow Phong hopes that larger batches of inmates will take up the degree. (Photo: Singapore Prison Service) ​​​​​​​

Wayne feels it is a "very good" opportunity for inmates to get a degree in prison, pointing out that he could have been "doing nothing" during his sentence if not for the programme.

"Outside, we don’t get a chance (to study for a degree)," he said.

"Even if we had a chance to go to university, we don't have the time. It’s better to add value to ourselves inside than have nothing to do and waste our time."

During visits, Wayne's family asks how he is coping with his studies, and he says he is doing just fine. (Photo: Singapore Prison Service)

Wayne said he hopes to continue going for classes at SUSS during the mandatory aftercare scheme following his release, and complete his degree in fewer than eight years.

His eventual aim is to run a chicken rice stall, saying that the degree will equip him with the logistical knowledge needed to manage a business.

Mr Leong said inmates can complete as many modules as possible while in prison, and finish up the remaining modules at SUSS after their release.

"I never actually thought about (my convocation ceremony), but if I have a chance to put on that kind of (graduation) hat, I will feel very proud," Wayne added.

Source: CNA/hz


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