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Home Detention Scheme: 9 in 10 don't turn back to crime

Three years ago, Ms. Faith Tan, now 32, earned an 11-month jail term for possessing and taking drugs.

While in prison, she found the loss of freedom difficult to take.

When she heard about the Home Detention Scheme under which eligible inmates could spend the tail-end of their sentences in their own homes while they worked or studied, she was determined to get on it.

She put on her best behaviour to make the cut. That required controlling her temper and avoiding fights with other inmates. She also worked hard at the hairdresser and kitchen assistant jobs she held in prison.

She eventually had two months shorn off for good behaviour, and got to spend her ninth and final month on home detention, during which time she worked as a sales coordinator for a florist.

She has since completed her term and now works at a recruitment firm.

She recalled: 'I missed my home and when I got onto the programme, it was like a dream come true.'

The eight-year-old scheme run by the Singapore Prison Service came under the spotlight recently when Law Minister K. Shanmugam gave an update on the rehabilitation and reintegration programmes here.

The fact that Singapore's crime recidivism rate - the rate at which prisoners re-offend - is one of the lowest in the world shows the success of the programmes, he said.

Recidivism is lower among inmates who have been on home detention than among the general prison population. According to figures from the prison service on inmates freed in 2005, the recidivism rate for those on home detention was 10.3 per cent, against 24 per cent among the general prison population.

Since 2000, 11,626 inmates have qualified for home detention, with 98 per cent of them completing the programme.

The 2 per cent who did not are either still on the scheme, or had flouted the conditions and were sent back to prison.

Assistant Superintendent Ivy Soh, who is a staff officer with the programmes branch at the Singapore Prisons, explained that the scheme was started with the purpose of 're-integrating inmates into society'.

Inmates who are of 'lower security risk' and are amenable to rehabilitation qualify for home detention; their conduct in prison is also considered, she said.

But having a supportive family is key to determining an inmate's eligibility for the scheme, she added.

Ms. Tan said her mother was there for her, calling her regularly to check that she had reported for work.

'She kept reminding me not to go back to my old life. We also sat down and talked about how I could face society again,' she said.

Another former inmate also in for drug possession and drug taking, Mr. John Koh, 39, had the support of his wife of 15 years.

His 37-year-old spouse, who declined to be named, organised her day so that she and their daughter were home during his curfew hours.

All those on home detention have to keep a curfew, which is tailored to their work or study schedule. Inmates are given two hours to get home from work or school.

The curfew kicks in after that and is lifted the next morning, two hours before they are due at work or school. On non-work or school days, they are home-bound between 8pm and 8am.

Break the curfew and the prison authorities will know, alerted by a monitoring device that the inmate has to wear on his or her ankle around the clock.

Mr. Koh, who was given home detention for the last five months of his term, worked as a kitchen helper in a fast-food place and earned $600 a month.

His wife bought him fried rice and chicken wings - his favourites - as a form of encouragement; she also reminded him to stay on the straight and narrow.

Mr. Koh said that although the non-curfew hours were limited, the difference between the prison and the outside world 'was like going from hell to heaven'.

'In prison, you can drink only tap water but at home, you can drink orange juice. It's a very big difference and a huge luxury to us,' he said.

He recalled being caught in a traffic jam once on the way home from work and being 'very scared' about not making it back home in two hours. He called the prison officer in charge to explain his delay.

But despite his desire to stay on the scheme, he was sent back to jail when he took medical leave from work but failed to return home within two hours. He had not informed the prison authorities that time, and was found out.

The price he paid was heavy: Solitary confinement for a few days and an extended jail term.

'It was hard to adapt to prison life again, and was a huge wake-up call. Going back was unbearable but it reminded me not to ever go back again,' he said.

Although he did not complete his home detention, he still thinks it is a good programme because he could be with his loved ones and he had freedom.

For Ms. Tan, the scheme was about taking charge of her life.

'You're so used to being disciplined when you're in there, but on the scheme, you have to be disciplined yourself.'

She was conscious of that black ankle tag she had to wear, but came to see it as the symbol of a life that she did not want to go back to.

ASP Soh said some inmates on home detention are also grateful that the scheme helped them to secure a job:

'Some inmates committed crimes because they didn't have a proper means of survival. Being on the scheme enables them to go out to earn a living and support their families.'

*The names of the former inmates have been changed at their request.

About the Home Detention Scheme

The Home Detention Scheme enables eligible offenders of non-serious crimes to serve the tail-end of their sentences at home.

To get on it, they must have been sentenced to at least four weeks behind bars, and have already served at least 14 days of it.

The home detention part of their sentence can last up to a year.

One condition is that the prisoner must either be working or studying while on it.

These prisoners must also at all times wear an electronic anklet, which tracks their whereabouts, and be at home after work or school and through the night.

The scheme was introduced in May 2000 to put community-based sentences in the criminal justice system.

To be eligible for the scheme back then, prisoners had to be jailed for a minimum of six months, and have served at least half the sentence. Home detention then lasted six months at most.

As the scheme was a success, it was expanded four years later to the current timeframes so that more inmates could get on it.

Prisoners convicted of serious offences such as sex and violent crimes do not qualify for it.


By Carolyn Quek

Straits Times 16 Mar 09