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Parliament passes laws for eligible convicts to work outside prison and be home on selected days

SINGAPORE — Ensuring prisoners are not exploited in their work and they are paid fair wages were part of the debate in Parliament on Tuesday (Jan 11) in relation to changes to the Prisons Bill.

Parliament passes laws for eligible convicts to work outside prison and be home on selected days
Besides getting access to educational activities, inmates found to be suitable will get to take up skills training and work outside prison.
  • Parliament debated the Prisons Bill before passing it on Jan 11, 2022
  • MPs wanted to ensure that inmates who work get fair wages, are not exploited and are not stigmatised
  • A new community rehabilitation programme for suitable inmates will allow them to attend classes, skills training or work in the community
  • They may be allowed to go home on some days
  • The revised laws will also give the Minister of Home Affairs power to intercept inmates’ letters if they pose security risks

SINGAPORE — Ensuring prisoners are not exploited in their work and they are paid fair wages were part of the debate in Parliament on Tuesday (Jan 11) in relation to changes to the Prisons Bill.

The Bill, which was passed after the debate, will allow inmates to take up skills training, education and work in the community before they finish serving their sentences — under a new programme called Employment Preparation Scheme (EmPS). 

Replacing the current work release scheme, which allows prisoners to be released only for work towards the tail-end of their sentence, the new programme will allow suitable inmates who show good progress to eventually return to their homes on weekends or even daily after their work, skills training workshops or educational classes. 

Eligible inmates will include those who have served at least 14 days in prison. 

Apart from how much prisoners will be paid for their work, several Members of Parliament (MPs) wanted to know how inmates will be selected to be part of EmPS, the type of jobs or skills training they will get and how they will manage the stigma towards convicts when they are out in the community.

PAYMENT AND WORK CONDITIONS

Mr Leon Perera, opposition MP for Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC), said that companies should not be using prisoners as sources of cheap labour and end up unfairly benefitting from it. 

"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," he said during the debate. 

Mr Yip Hon Weng, MP for Yio Chu Kang, warned of errant employers who may join the programme just to benefit from the various government grants and positive publicity. 

Associate Professor Faishal Ibrahim, Minister of State for Home Affairs, said that employers will be crediting salaries directly into the inmates' bank accounts or issue cash cheques for those who do not have an account. 

Mr Perera suggested that the Singapore Prison Service work with other banks besides POSB to set up these accounts for ex-offenders because some of them seem to still have problems applying for one.

However, Assoc Prof Faishal said that the existing arrangement with POSB is sufficient. 

Their salaries will be pegged to the market rate, if the inmates take up job roles outside the prison. 

If an employer is reported to treat employees unfairly because of their criminal records, Yellow Ribbon Singapore may pause, or even cease the partnership with the employer."
Associate Professor Faishal Ibrahim, Minister of State for Home Affairs

Assoc Prof Faishal also said that prisoners who have been placed on EmPS and are working with an employer will be protected under the Employment Act.

Employers partnering Yellow Ribbon Singapore (YRSG), a government agency focused on rehabilitating inmates, have to abide by fair employment practices and inculcate a supportive work environment, he added.

"If an employer is reported to treat employees unfairly because of their criminal records, YRSG may pause, or even cease the partnership with the employer."

Inmates placed on EmPS will be assigned a career coach for up to 12 months to ensure that they get adequate support as they adjust to their work demands and environment.

These career coaches may also mediate between inmates and employers if there are any issues between both parties, or even advise inmates to escalate instances of discrimination to the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep). 

Assoc Prof Faishal said that inmates attending classes with members of the public would not be identified, and he suggested that those wearing an electronic tag can try to cover the tag by wearing long pants or skirt, in response to concerns by Mr Yip on whether they may be scrutinised. 

"We do not compel individuals to reveal their inmate or ex-offender status to avoid further stigmatisation," Assoc Prof Faishal said.

To further reduce stigma, Bukit Batok MP Murali Pillai even suggested that ex-convicts be invited to perform at this year's National Day Parade. 

WHO WILL BE SUITABLE FOR WORK

Assoc Prof Faishal said that inmates will be thoroughly screened based on their response to rehabilitation, their conduct in prison and whether they have enough family support. 

Those who are deemed safe enough to not present a significant threat to public safety will be considered and brought before an advisory committee for review.

The Commissioner of Prisons will then decide whether to put the inmate on EmPS. 

A few MPs wondered whether inmates without strong family support will be left out of the programme. 

Assoc Prof Faishal said that these inmates may still be given a place, but they may not be able to progress to the second phase, where they will be able to stay at home on weekends and, eventually, on a daily basis if they continue to show improvements. 

During the first phase of EmPS, inmates will be returning to a work release centre after they finish their work or classes. 

In response to MPs’ concerns that these inmates do not abscond, Assoc Prof Faishal said that they will have to comply with strict conditions such as electronic tagging, curfew and reporting. 

They are also not allowed to take alcohol or drugs, or patronise brothels, nightclubs or massage parlours. 

Assoc Prof Faishal also said that the Ministry of Home Affairs expects the number of inmates placed on the programme to be similar to the ongoing work release scheme. About 200 prisoners are placed on this scheme yearly, which accounts for about 3 per cent of the prison population. 

Last year, an average of two prisoners on the work release scheme absconded every month, so a similar number for the EmPS is expected.

Those who are selected for the new programme will be matched — through YRSG — to suitable courses or employers, based on their skills and experience.

Radin Mas MP Melvin Yong suggested that more can be done to place ex-offenders in manpower-starved sectors and to review hiring restrictions for ex-offenders in certain sectors such as security services.

Although YRSG is already working with employers to build up inmates' skills, which will enable them to have good employment opportunities, Assoc Prof Faishal said that hiring restrictions for certain sectors are still necessary to keep the balance between rehabilitation and public safety. 

Power to withhold inmates' letters and communications

Among the changes to the amended Prisons Act are laws that give more power to the Minister for Home Affairs to regulate inmates’ communications.

The minister can remove or withhold any information or correspondence from an inmate that may affect the security of the prison or that incite other prisoners to commit offence.

Ms Nadia Ahmad Samdin, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, questioned whether this would delay the processing time of written correspondence between inmates and their families, to which Assoc Prof Faishal said that it would not.

Mr Leon Perera, Aljunied GRC MP, pointed out that this provision could have implications for the freedom of speech and asked that the Ministry of Home Affairs provide assurance that information regarding an inmate’s genuine grievances that do not pose a security risk will not be intercepted.

In response, Associate Professor Faishal Ibrahim, Minister of State for Home Affairs, said that only correspondence that affects the security of the prison or those that instigate inmates to commit offences would be withheld.

“Prison officers are mindful of the sensitivities involved in processing and screening inmates’ correspondence.

“While every attempt is made to preserve the confidentiality of inmates’ letters, any content with security implications will be surfaced for consideration by a superior officer, to decide if the letter should be withheld,” he added.

“These amendments are not an attempt to stop inmates’ communication and prevent them from speaking out about genuine grievances or giving feedback.”

He also said that an inmate will be informed if his written correspondences or those addressed to him are withheld, and he will be allowed to rewrite if he wishes to do so.

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Parliament Singapore Prison Service inmates rehabilitation work employer Yellow Ribbon

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