Current carceral state-mandated rehabilitation framework predicated on fear, “blankets” all addicts: Former Drug Rehabilitation Centre inmate shares experience

The current carceral state-mandated rehabilitation framework appears to be predicated on fear and “blankets” all addicts instead of recognising the specific challenges each person in recovery might face, said a former Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) inmate in a Zoom session organised by the Transformative Justice Collective on 27 May.

The session, titled “Prisoner Rights and Prison Wrongs: Perspectives from Formerly Incarcerated People”, was facilitated by activist Kokila Annamalai.

L, who spent around three months in the DRC in 2016, said that his time in the centre felt “very much more (like) a prison experience rather than a rehabilitative” one.

“In fact, what I would say is that it is very much a prison with some rehabilitation elements in it,” said L.

During his time in the DRC, the centre was housed in one of the units in Changi Prison.

However, L considered himself more fortunate compared to other inmates in the DRC, as many others would “spend relatively longer times” ranging from four months to six months.

His shorter stint in the DRC, in his view, was “a rather privileged experience”, largely due to him “having people outside activating and pushing things” on his behalf.

“I was probably one of the fortunate ones where I had people out there who are able to activate someone to come in, to speak to me, to at least run some sessions of counseling through the glass window, which if you are up mostly 23 hours within a prison cell itself, that one hour sometimes is a much sought-after relief itself,” said L.

Many of his other cellmates, however, did not have “the good fortune or privilege to have people outside advocating for them”.

“You could say that they probably had a family visit much later than me, even though they had come in around the same time or even earlier … You are picked up by CNB (Central Narcotics Bureau) and they don’t find that it is their responsibility to let your loved ones know that you’ve been arrested until much later,” said L.

As such, inmates whose families may not have the means to obtain information or to advocate for them are often left “sort of just drifting right in there, waiting for their first family visit”.

“It’s all sort of tied together in a strange, little domino effect … You must show that there will be people to come and visit you to therefore prove to them that you have family support,” he said.

However, circumstances may prohibit family members from finding out where an inmate really is, and they are left in the dark about what has happened to the individual in question.

“You’re almost caught in this strange, vicious cycle as you are deemed to be higher risk because nobody is coming to visit you,” said L, adding that the number of family letters received by inmates in the DRC are also used as a benchmark of family support, which will affect whether they are deemed high-risk or low-risk.

For people who are supposedly in rehabilitation, such demands result in high levels of stress for inmates who do not have family members visiting them or sending them letters, he said.

“There are many inmates in there who may have relatives or friends who are not the most literate and aren’t going to be writing letters to them all the time,” Mr Joseph stressed.

Someone in recovery, he said, is likely to view rehabilitation under DRC as “a very flawed system”.

Life in the DRC, in L’s experience, is like “any other prison system”.

“You basically do your business, you shower, you (do) whatever it within the cell itself. One-hour yard time per day. No yard time on weekends and all the routines and protocols of the present system apply the same here, within the DRC context itself,” he said.

In L’s case, he was allocated around 10 days of “rehabilitation activities” throughout the three months.

These activities range from talks on addiction to classes sponsored by the National Trade Union Congress to help people reintegrate into working life before their release from the centre.

While counselors delivering programs in prison may be “well-intentioned”, L is of the view that they are ill-equipped in terms of the tools they have in doing so.

“I think that there’s also a tremendous lack of training. Many of the people who were teaching us these classes via an addiction or how to be reintegrated into the work conditions, you can see that you’re either had their roots in religious groups and they wanted to be part-time counselors or part-time.”

“They themselves have very little knowledge of what addiction means,” he said, citing an instance in which the counselor asked the participants why they took drugs.

“It felt almost a little condescending even though it was well-intentioned … There was a guy who said, ‘I took it because I work two jobs. I needed it to keep me awake. I needed to give me strength.” And you know that for the first few months, meth(amphetamine) really revs up your energy. But the (counselor) guy’s response to us was, ‘It’s bad for you.’

“So the rehabilitative element of it is very rudimentary,” he said. “If we were to, perhaps, maybe go deeper into their individual stories about their addictions, I think that rehabilitated quality would actually be a lot more meaningful.”

L added that for many inmates, a looming shadow of fear lingers over them as a result of the rigid system, which entails being surveilled via a tracker.

“I remember that a lot of times was just these guys telling us you can only eat here because if you move somewhere else, your tracker will alert us. You can only travel this route by bus to where you work, because if you do anything else, the tracker will alert us,” he said.

“If maybe even half of that energy is put into ensuring that we have better-trained guards and counselors … If we have counselors who have actually maybe have themselves experienced what drug addiction is, then I feel that they would probably resonate better with people who are in recovery,” he said.

His DRC experience, said L, taught him “a tremendous amount of humanity” and has exposed him to “a part of Singapore society” he thinks “deserves a tremendous amount of attention”.

Addiction, he noted, oftentimes strikes people who are from challenging backgrounds, and prison-like conditions only serve to exacerbate the odds against recovery.

“Many of these inmates actually become sort of almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy in the eyes of the powers that be that within the prison system itself,” said L.

“These people could have been like, gangsters or whatever your tattoos and all that. But they’re all people with a certain level of humanity … Just because they may not be able to use the kind of language people consider to be civilized or acceptable, they get themselves in trouble into trouble with the guards. And that’s again deemed as difficult to rehabilitate as opposed really looking at other more meaningful indicators,” he said.

Responding to a question from one of the viewers on why CNB officers do not immediately inform immediate family members or offer support to the family to facilitate visitation of inmates in the DRC, L said that while he was fortunate to have been able to reach his sister on his first phone call, many other inmates he had spoken to said that they were not able to reach out to anyone.

“If you’re arrested late at night, some people might not pick up the phone, right? So you’re allowed that one phone call, (but) you don’t get anybody,” he said.

“I noticed that they don’t feel that it is their (CNB’s) duty to follow up and say, ‘Can I have that number? And I will call that person for you like this.'”

The parents of some of his cellmates then, said L, “had to wait about a week or two before making a police report”, which “resulted in the police actually getting back to them and say, ‘We found where your relative is’.”

Replying to another viewer’s question on how to prevent the normalisation of drug culture if recreational drug use is decriminalised, L said that such an issue is “almost like a red herring” with the authorities.

“It is the idea of what we believe to be state-mandated rehabilitation. If we will truly believe that the ‘R’ should be the keyword, then they should make it rehabilitative rather than actually just saying ‘Oh, it’s prison, and by the way, we kind of have some rehabilitative elements to it’. So I feel that’s probably more of a pressing issue,” he said.

While protecting the young and vulnerable from the dangers of recreational drugs is important, such an issue does not “take away from the fact that we should still really rethink what we mean by rehabilitation”, said L.

Based on his experience working with addicts in recovery in voluntary settings such as with Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, L said that recovery is “about the idea of honoring people as individuals, and that every addict has a story”.

The current state-mandated idea of rehabilitation, he said, “blankets” and generalises all addicts.

“(It is as though) we need to grab them all together, net them, and then put them together and then, by the way, give some sort of a bit of a cursory approach to rehabilitation. I think that’s very problematic,” said L.

Answering a question from a viewer on why the number of letters or prisoner receives is seen as an indicator of whether they are thought to be high or low risk, and whether such information is made public, L said — based on his anecdote — that a panel of “higher-ranking guards” will carry out an assessment on such a matter.

“(They will ask) ‘Do you have a home support system?’ And then they ask ‘Have you gotten letters?’ So you, you’re reminded that you need to get letters,” he said.

“Whether or not that really truly relates to a true indicator or not, it’s constantly being made known to you while you’re inside there. And so, for someone who is under rehabilitation, that’s a very huge source of stress,” L added.

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