Prisons Amendment Bill — Speech by Leon Perera

Delivered in Parliament on 11 January 2022


Madam Deputy Speaker, the Prisons Amendment Bill seeks to empower the government to designate places as temporary prison lock-ups, introduces an Employment Preparation Scheme, introduces restrictions on prisoners’ correspondence and empowers the government to requirement the co-operation of relevant persons for the investigation of prison offences, among other things. I do not oppose the Bill but will raise some questions for clarification as well as a few suggestions.

Madam, I think most Singaporeans would agree that a prison regime is necessary for the deterrence of crime, among other purposes, but most of us would agree that prisoners should not be treated cruelly or inhumanely and that as a society we should do out utmost to reintegrate ex-prisoners into the societal mainstream after they have paid their debt to society. My speech will be approaching this Bill from that perspective.


Firstly, I would like to speak on this Bill’s introduction of an Employment Preparation Scheme or EmPS – allowing prisoners to work in the community and take part in education and training for part of their sentenced time. This is something that has been tried in other jurisdictions and it is not unknown here, since we previously had a work release scheme.

This is a step in the right direction. It helps to reintegrate prisoners into society when they are ultimately released, helps them to build up some relevant skills and some form of financial cushion for that time and also helps provide local workers for our economy, hopefully enabling us to reduce some dependence on foreign workers; which is a positive thing for reasons I have articulated in past speeches in this House, notably during the debate on CECA.

SPS Employment Partnerships with companies

Firstly, I shall speak on company partnerships forged by SPS to operate EmPS. Such company partnerships should, I think, have a skilling element while at the same time incorporating fair wages, similar to traineeships, where workers are developed rather than being treated solely as sources of cheap labour.

I would like to ask the government if the screening criteria for company partnerships will take into consideration the ability of the prisoner to develop a skill that will enhance his or her employability, even if that skill is the sort of skill one needs to do a trades job, a subject I spoke about in September 2021 in this House.

Pastoral care

Community reintegration involves not just the economic aspect of living in the community. Can we also provide support services for after-prison life? There are pastoral care services, especially with volunteers.

Some of these pastoral care services are provided by prison officers on rotation from enforcement duties, in addition to the Rehabilitation Officers who are clearly already involved in pastoral care services.

Can we take steps to ensure, as far as feasible, that as many prison officers, including junior ones, have opportunities to rotate out periodically from enforcement duties to do pastoral care? This could help build restorative relationships between inmates and officers, but may also “help officers avoid the damage they experience by performing purely punitive functions”, to quote from a report on ex-prisoner re-integration around the world.[1]

Ex-offenders setting up bank accounts

Ex-offenders may find it difficult to set up bank accounts, and this may hinder their ability to find stable jobs. Anecdotally, it appears that there are still issues being faced here, notwithstanding the collaboration between the SPS and POSB that was started in 2015 to facilitate the setting up of bank accounts by ex-offenders upon release from prison.[2] Can similar collaborations be made with other banks? Also, may I confirm if there are any legal impediments for ex-prisoners who have successfully established bank accounts to obtaining access to electronic payment platforms on that account, such as for example NETS or PayNow.

Employment Preparation Scheme (EmPS) Work Conditions

Next, I would like to clarify some points relating to the Employment Preparation Scheme.

Work release schemes have been in existence since 1985. Since that time, so as to quantify and assess the link between these employment schemes and the welfare of prisoners as well as recidivism rates post-release, has the Ministry been monitoring:

  • Average per-hour wages paid to inmates, and how much of the wages are they allowed to take home (some ex-inmates report that they are only able to use their work income to buy things within the prison but I am not sure if this is indeed the case now)
  • The impact of prison work programmes on inmates’ finances after release
  • The proportion of inmates who have participated in such schemes
  • The impact of prison work programmes on recidivism

There may be an argument for not paying workers a full salary as they would earn outside prison, which is part of the punitive aspect of imprisonment. But work programmes like the EmPS should be structured to ensure that:          

  • Companies using prison labour are not unfairly benefiting from the cost. We should recall that some of these inmates may have worked far higher paid jobs and already have skills highly valued outside prisons;
  • Labour should come at a cost that is in some way benchmarked to minimum wage equivalents, so that inmates have some sort of savings buffer when they leave. They should not re-enter society at a huge financial disadvantage because this is a reason why many inmates commit crimes in the first place. In the US, a government-owned manufacturer using inmate labour reportedly pays between 23 cents to $1.15 per hour, with its facilities operating 24 hours a day. We should avoid such extreme scenarios.

I would also like to ask the Minister whether such prison work is covered under the Employment Act and if not, would the government consider introducing such protections by way of subsidiary legislation or by some other means. Such inmate workers may be at risk of exploitation given that they do not sign contracts of service.

Eligibility for EmPS

Next, I would like to seek some clarifications regarding the eligibility criteria for employment under the new Section 59 of the Act.

It is unclear what the process for considering whether an inmate is eligible for the EmPS is like. Does an inmate apply, or are all eligible inmates (ie. those who have served at least 14 days of imprisonment) automatically considered for this?  

MHA’s press release suggests the latter and specifies that the SPS will assess all eligible inmates and refer them to an independent advisory committee. But there does not appear to be any appeal mechanism, or review mechanism, if the SPS decides that an inmate is not eligible for such a scheme and hence is not eligible for referral to the independent committee. Any decision by the SPS appears to be final.

What safeguards are there to ensure that these decisions are impartial and fair?  Would the Ministry consider an alternative approach whereby all eligible cases, provided there is no prohibitive circumstance that can be clearly spelt out and filtered for, are automatically referred to the independent  advisory committee for consideration for EmPS without the need for the SPS to refer prisoners to the committee, as it were?

Next – one of the factors considered by the Commissioner is the degree to which the inmate enjoys family support. This factor is referred to in the first footnote of MHA’s press release on this Bill. Does this prejudice inmates who unfortunately do not have sufficient family support in respect of being able to participate in employment preparation?

Could more be done in ensuring that those who enjoy less family support be included in the EmPS as well – e.g. being allowed to stay in special shelters while participating in employment preparation and assigned mentors? It may be that inmates with less family support are, other things being equal, more at risk of unsuccessfully re-integrating into society than those with ample family support.


Before I leave the subject of post-release reintegration, let me speak about training. Inmates currently have access to N, O, and A level courses, alongside the Ngee Ann Poly Diploma in Business Practice (International Supply Chain Management). Recently I understand that SUSS has launched a part-time degree program that prison inmates can participate in.

I would like to ask the government if we can expand this to other educational opportunities that are important for today’s economy? For example, can prisoners be allowed to take part in Poly diploma courses related to future-ready economic sectors or to entrepreneurship and innovation? I would suggest that this could include courses offered by private companies to obtain certification in very specific types of skills, like coding for example.

I would also like to ask the government if inmates are able to take up these courses at a subsidized rate. Also, if they were to complete their studies and after release, secure a job and do not demonstrate recidivism for a certain period of time, would the government consider a scheme whereby their student debts can be forgiven? Such a scheme would incentivise inmates to take up courses of study while in prison and may also play some role in reducing recidivism, given the substantial literature that suggests a link between criminal activity and financial distress.

And on that note, I would also like to suggest that financial literacy training should also be included in the training provided to ex-offenders before release to ensure better personal financial management, which, I suspect, could help lower recidivism rates. Perhaps MoneySENSE, the national financial education program, can be brought in to play a role here.

All these measures are important in tackling recidivism. Based on the reply to a Parliamentary Question for MHA that I filed in August last year, the five-year recidivism rate for the 2011 to 2015 release cohorts were 43.1%, 43.2%, 41%, 41.3% and 41.7% respectively. These rates are far higher than the two-year recidivism rate which was around 22% in 2018. As a society, there is still much to do to tackle the risk of recidivism.


Next, let me move onto some concerns and clarifications related to the new powers in this Bill enabling SPS to redact or withhold inmates’ correspondence and curtailing what visitors can say publicly.

S 84(2)(ea) gives the Minister for Home Affairs power to make regulations to impose a condition on prescribed persons to give an undertaking that they will not publish or disseminate, or cause to be published or disseminated, any information contained in any communication with an inmate that may (i) affect the security or good order of the prison, or (ii) incite the commission of any offence, before they are allowed to visit or communicate with an inmate.

I would like to ask the government how any visitor would know whether such information falls within the categories specified above, until this information is published, and they are found by the Minister to have published information that falls foul of the categories (i) and (ii) above?

Of course, they can take guidance from the examples of information listed in footnote 5 to the MHA press release, but that does not appear to be exhaustive.  Could the Minister provide more details of the kinds of information that would run afoul of this provision? Would the Minister also confirm that a visitor disseminating information that is factually correct and does not correspond to these categories of information of which the examples have been given would not run afoul of this provision – for example factually correct information about a prisoner having suffered injuries?

Can the government also specify the penalties associated with such a prescribed person breaching the undertaking?

Next, I shall touch on the new powers for the Minister to regulate and restrict correspondence between an inmate and any prescribed person.

This provision gives the Minister for Home Affairs power to make regulations to redact or withhold, inmates’ correspondence that may (i) affect the security or good order of prisons, or (ii) incite the commission of any offence.

This provision appears to be in line with s 127A of the Prisons Regulations. Both this provision and s 127A provide that letters to prisoners may be withheld if they affect the security or good order of prisons. But this provision also goes further in providing for a new category of reasons whereby correspondence can be withheld – i.e. withholding or redacting correspondence that could incite the commission of any offence.

Prima facie, this provision has implications for the freedom of speech of inmates.

Freedom of speech is protected by Article 14 of the Singapore constitution, although it is a qualified right. The constitution provides that Parliament may by law impose such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, or the in relation to the incitement to commit any offence.

This provision confers on the Minister powers to make restrictions on inmates’ correspondences that appears to be in line with the qualifications on the freedom of speech provided for in the Constitution, i.e. security of the prison; and incitement to commit offences.

But the question remains whether this provision is a proportionate response to the problem it seeks to solve. In this spirit, while I do not object to the provision in question, I would like to ask for more guidance as to how these powers will be used.

Will actions under this provision target the kinds of information detailed in footnote 5 to the MHA press release, which seem very directly related to the commission of offences? Would the Ministry provide the assurance that information on genuine grievances a prisoner may have that do not pose security risks would not be affected?

Next, this provision does not seem to provide an exception for letters written to a prisoner’s legal adviser, unlike s 127A of the Prisons Regulation. I would like to ask if this provision is subject to the common law carve-out for legal advice privilege. My purpose in raising this point is not to argue that correspondence relating to say a planned prison break-out for example should be exempt from this provision if it is between a lawyer and his client. I don’t think it should. But it would be useful if the government can clarify the status of legal communication under this provision. For example, I think that if correspondence between an inmate and his lawyer is withheld, at the very least that fact should be conveyed to the prisoner and lawyer.

And on that note, it is also unclear if prisoners will be notified if their letters are redacted or withheld and I would like to seek clarity on this point from MHA.

It is also unclear what is the review or appeal mechanism should the Minister exercise this power – can a prisoner appeal against this decision? If so, what form would the appeals process take?

I would also like to ask if, under this provision, the government can intercept prisoner communication and convey part or all of the contents of the same to the AGC to confer a legal advantage on the latter, even if it is unrelated to the commission of an offence as described in the language of the provision and in the MHA press release. I think the answer to my question must surely be no, as everything I have read about this Bill suggests, but I would like to have that answered all the same.

Thank you.

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