In a first, 5 inmates jailed multiple times tell all from inside Changi’s maximum-security prison
SINGAPORE: He remembers the last time he saw his daughter. It was two years ago.
She was holding him and asked a question that is seared into his memory: “Can you just don’t commit any more crimes?”
But it was too late. Her father, Boon Keng, had already broken the law, again. A few days later, he was caught.
The 34-year-old is now in jail for the fourth time, serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence for theft, drug consumption, criminal breach of trust and breach of personal protection order. This time, his daughter, who is of school-going age, has not visited.
Khai, another inmate at Changi Prison, has not had a visit from anyone at all. While his 12-year-old daughter writes to him, he has not been in contact with his mother.
“After my late father passed (away), my stepbrother took my mum away,” said the 31-year-old. “On the day of my sentence, I couldn’t even see my mum. I couldn’t even talk to my mum.”
His father died of colon cancer in December 2020. Three months later, Khai started serving his 29-month sentence — with two strokes of the cane — for extortion, blackmail and voluntarily causing hurt. It is his sixth imprisonment.
This time, he reached the point where he told a prison officer that he felt like ending it all.
The two inmates are among Singapore’s most hardened criminals, who are incarcerated in Changi Prison’s maximum-security institutions. And the rigid regime behind these bars can now be observed in CNA’s groundbreaking four-part documentary, Inside Maximum Security.
The first episode attracted over a million views on YouTube in just four days, and the series also trended at number one on YouTube.
Because for the first time ever, these inmates reveal their identities on camera to tell their stories — an unvarnished look at their lives of crime, their stint in jail as it unfolds and their battle to reform.
LIFE IN LOCK-UP
Boon Keng and Khai are being held in Institution B1, one of the maximum-security institutions. It houses about 500-plus inmates — out of Singapore’s inmate population of about 11,000 — and includes those with long sentences and recipients of violence intervention programmes.
“We don’t want any unnecessary conflicts. That’s one of the reasons why we house them in a single-man cell,” said Jim Ang, the housing unit’s officer-in-charge.
That is part of what makes prison life hard for Khai, because of “that loneliness when you can’t express yourself, when you need to talk someone”. “You’re stuck,” he said.
Or as Singapore Prison Service (SPS) senior personal supervisor Muhammad Shalih Mahli put it, “It can be psychologically small, in a way, if you’re cooped up here for a very long time.”
The impact is especially felt at weekends for inmates who are not involved in rehabilitation programmes, as they may be locked up for 48 hours.
“Knowing that your perimeters are only this much (for 48 hours) really disturbs the mind and body,” said inmate Rusdi, 33, who was in prison for the fourth time.
The cell measures seven paces by five paces, as Boon Keng is wont to count when he is bored. Usually, it also gets “very hot” inside, he said.
Showers are taken stooping over a squatting toilet pan. And the CCTV camera in each cell can capture everything inside, including the toilet area.
“If they go to the toilet … if they were to take a shower, we can see everything,” noted Shalih, adding that the CCTV is also equipped to monitor the cells during the night.
Of all the items issued to inmates, the most important ones, cited Rusdi, are the two blankets. They can be used as a pillow, or as cushioning if the straw mat on the ground is too hard for sleep.
For Boon Keng, what is hard to take is the food and the way it is distributed, which is through a food ledge — a low aperture in the door that is opened for inmates at mealtimes.
“The way we’re being served is like being treated as pets in the cage,” he said.
The food is packed in covered trays and placed in food trolleys that are meant to keep the food warm until it reaches the inmates. But it is not warm enough for his liking.
“If (I had to) give points — zero to 10 — I’d say maybe it’s zero,” he said, referring to a Wednesday lunch of mee goreng (fried noodles). “Because it’s very cold. Then, sometimes, the mee has also hardened already.
“When I was doing illegal stuff, when the money was (good) … mostly every day I ate in restaurants. So compared to the food now, it’s like one heaven and one hell.
“Usually, after eating, I still feel hungry. The portion for me isn’t enough.”
Taste aside, the food is approved based on a dietitian’s recommendation as noted by Vinod Karikala Sozhan, an SPS work programme officer in kitchen operations.
“The kitchen will ensure that the daily protein and vegetable nutrition requirements are catered for, for the inmates,” he said.