A misconception I had about prison in Singapore was that it is full of unruly ruffians who are one step away from violence. I was mistaken.
In my experience, from appearance, prisoners seem almost no different from the average man in the street. They come from all walks of life. They have loved ones, they have dreams and hopes, they have worries and fears. Many truly regret what they had done to get them into prison in the first place, and many had sworn to me “I’ll never break the law again”. Most do not want trouble in prison; they just want to finish their sentences so they can be released on time and restart their lives as soon as possible. If one is decent to them, they will be decent in return. They recognise that everyone is in the same boat - life behind bars can be very tough, emotionally and mentally, so why not be civilised and make life for everyone else a little bit easier.
For me, seeing and acknowledging the humanity in other prisoners was my first step in cultivating a renewed empathy for others.
Another misconception I had was that prison officers are hard on the inmates. Also largely untrue.
The average prison officer sees his job not to punish the prisoner - that is the duty of the courts, who mete out the sentences - but rather, to oversee order in prison, and ensure prisoners are rehabilitated as much as possible by the time they are released. If they act with sternness or even coldness sometimes, it is because some prisoners do deliberately test the rules, or attempt to wind them up or get them on their side for selfish ends. I understand the prison officer’s need to maintain a certain distance from prisoners - it is a prison after all, not a holiday chalet. But generally, prison officers treat prisoners civilly, and as human beings worthy of basic respect and dignity.