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Insights into another world

In 2018, Channel NewsAsia filmed a feature of Changi Prison Complex’s Institution A4, which is the women’s prison. This gave the public a rare insight into a place of which few possess an understanding. Watching the video brought back memories of my time in Institution B4 Level 4, which was for first-time male offenders. There are some similarities and differences between A4 and B4 Level 4, and I’ll share them here.


0.08 of the video:

What struck me was the brightness of the paint job. I remember B4 Level 4 having a dull, faint blue paint job, reminiscent of a hospital ward. Three months before my release, I was moved down to Level 1, the pre-release level, which was to prepare inmates for release. Level 1’s walls were yellow, apparently to cheer up inmates and make them feel a fresh beginning was on the horizon. Perhaps CNA had filmed in the pre-release section of A4 too.


0.37:

This is a four-person cell, and each of the four Toyogo boxes is the entirety of each of the four inmates’ possessions during their sentence. One is forced to take on a minimalist lifestyle, which mentally assisted my rehabilitation.


There are one, four, and eight-person cells in prison. One-person cells are punishment or isolation cells, monitored 24/7 by CCTV cameras (not a pleasant prospect). Four-person cells are most common in remand, which is Institution B2. Eight-person cells are the norm in B4. I preferred eight-person cells simply because they were bigger, which meant more space to walk around.


0.40:

This layout is for when prisoners leave their cells - they must keep their cells tidy. Of course things are never this neat when everyone’s in.


The rolled-up straw mats, known to everyone as “tikar”, the Malay word for “mat”, are mostly for show - they’re supposed to be used for sleeping, but virtually no one uses them, because they’re hot and can make the skin itch. I slept on it on my first night, and only my first night. I slept on the bare floor the rest of the way. It’s way more cooling, especially during the rainy months!


The cell floor looks different from B4’s cell floors. B4’s floors are the dark grey of smoothened concrete.


1.10:

For B4 Level 4, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are “yard days”, in which we head to the open-air yard for physical exercise, while Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays are “dayroom days”, in which we head to the dayroom to watch TV. The “dayroom” is actually the common space in front of our cells - I’m not good with sizes, but I estimate the dayroom to be about the size of two basketball courts. It’s indoors, so if it’s raining on yard days, we hang out in the dayroom instead. Of course we preferred yard days because it’s our only chance to get proper fresh air. And while we used the terms “yard days” and “dayroom days”, we only spent an hour each in these places. I suspect the officers sometimes allowed us more than an hour, but since there was no clock, we couldn’t be sure.


What about Sundays? Sundays see a skeletal crew of rostered prison officers, so to reduce strain on manpower, prisoners have to spend 24 hours in the cell, unless one had religious classes in the afternoon, which meant one to two hours in an air-conditioned room. Which probably contributes to the high take-up rate for such classes...


Public holidays also mean a 24-hour lockdown, regardless of day of the week. We all hated long weekends, especially the Lunar New Year, which had two public holidays in a row.


1.41:

This is an indoor yard, which means this level in A4 isn’t the top floor. The prison blocks in Changi Prison Complex are multi-storeyed to save space, so only a minority of prisoners - those living in the top floors - actually enjoy an open-air yard.


I was fortunate to have been in Level 4, which was the top floor of B4. I enjoyed sunshine and natural wind for much of my sentence. When I was moved to Pre-Release, it was on the ground floor of the same building, so I had to make do with indoor yards like the one above. Everyone I asked preferred the open-air yard to the indoor yard.


1.45:

Ah, memories of having to queue up just to use the nail clippers. Every yard has just two, and there were perpetual queues. The wait can be as long as 20 minutes, which is a sizable portion of one’s one-hour yard time.


1.53:

Now, this is new. It must have been introduced recently.


This iKiosk thing looks good because prisoners won’t need to accost officers for a thousand requests. In my time, one had to wait for yard or dayroom to approach an officer for requests such as enquiring the status of letters or books received from one’s family. This sounds easy in theory, but there would usually be just one or two officers on duty, and they would be swamped by many prisoners… whenever an officer took down a request on his notebook, he had to head to his office later and manually log the request in the system. Sometimes, I had the feeling some officers deliberately avoided prisoners because taking requests meant more work for them. From the looks of it, this iKiosk system allows prisoners to enter requests directly into the system, removing the need to approach officers and give them more administrative work. It simplifies the process and benefits everyone.


2.02:

Sounds good? Nah, not really. Prisoners don’t start their sentence with money in their prison accounts. They must be recommended by officers for work inside the prison (only a minority do), take on these occupations, earn a salary, and then use the salary to purchase the items above. The consumer price index inside prison is wholly different from that of the outside world. I’ll elaborate more in another post.


4.28:

See the blue electronic wristband? All prisoners must wear one (anyway, we can’t take it off). The band contains a barcode which can be scanned for all kinds of things, such as the swift checking of records, issuing of medication, etc. Deliberately damaging a band is a chargeable offence. Of course, this didn’t stop many from slowly picking at it day after day, aiding the natural wear and tear… The blue layer would be the first to go, so many would try to make the band completely translucent. It was a fun, idle thing to do. Mine became translucent after about nine months. Usually, by then, an officer would have spotted it and put in a request for it to be swapped for a brand new one. And the cycle repeats until release.


Having an officer remove the band from my wrist on the day of release was a wonderful feeling. I truly felt freed.


(I did ask the officer whether I could keep my band as a souvenir, but he politely declined. Hey, it was worth a shot.)


5.27:

These women are so fortunate - they get to eat their meals at proper tables and benches!


Throughout my sentence, even during Pre-Release, we ate all our meals sitting on the floor of our cells. One got used to doing so after a while. It contributed to the feeling of leading a minimalist lifestyle.


6.02:

Ah yes, the ubiquitous plastic trays.


Green means halal - most prisoners receive this as it’s easier to prepare halal for everyone. Yellow means vegetarian, while red means special diets for prisoners with allergies.


Each prisoner is issued a plastic spoon (the kind you get in the millions at hawker centres when you do takeaways) upon entry into prison. The spoon is for eating meals. That was the only piece of cutlery we ever got, and we had to wash it after every meal for reuse. Breaking it and not reporting the breakage immediately is a chargeable offence - the plastic shards are a potential weapon. I remember how my first spoon was broken after just two weeks when a fellow prisoner accidentally stepped on it just before dinner. To his credit, he profusely apologised and gave his spoon to me. That second spoon lasted me for the next nine months. Then it finally gave way due to natural wear and tear, and I received a third spoon that lasted until release.


The little things I used to take for granted…


6.37:

Yes, prisoners do contribute to the economy.


Laundry for public hospitals here is done by prisoners, and the Gardenia bread sold here is baked by prisoners.


7.12:

The newspapers prisoners read are usually around two weeks old, to allow time for the censors to do their work. News touching on “sensitive” topics like race and religion are removed or pasted over, as are crime news, for obvious reasons.


The TV screens pre-taped shows, usually variety shows, movies, or documentaries not covering race, religion, or crime.


It is one’s family who actually delivers real-time news updates. After all, no one can stop what loved ones choose to share during visits.


8.27:

Thank you.

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