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Prison CP - May 2003

Straits Times, Singapore, 31 May 2003

News Analysis

It is time to set information free from Singapore's prisons

By K.C. Vijayan

IT IS ironic, given the sea of information available these days, that the public knows less about what goes on behind bars in Singapore now than it did 30 years ago.

The last Prison Service report, presented to Parliament in October last year, probably contained no more than 20 per cent of the amount of information which was in such reports up to 1973.

Appearing as three well-spaced pages in the report of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), it spoke about the department's roles, captured its highlights and achievements for the preceding year in 12 brief paragraphs and explained its current plans in seven lines.

Before independence and for some time following it, prison statistics were routinely given in an annual report to Parliament.

A typical report would provide information about age groups, nature of offences, lengths of sentences, the number of prisoners who had reoffended after being released and the number of patients treated at the prison hospital.

Other details included the number of offences committed while in prison and the number of cane strokes ordered by prison superintendents for serious violations of prison rules, compared to the number of strokes ordered by the courts.

The public could purchase copies of the report from the Government Printing Office in the Fullerton Building for the princely sum of $1.50, in 1955.

After 1973, such information was no longer presented before Parliament routinely, although it would still have been collected. Then, in 1998, the prisons report re-emerged as part of the MHA's annual report.

However, there have been developments in the Prison Service since the last detailed report of 1973, and they deserve to be publicised regularly.

For example, it is believed that organ donations from death-row inmates are increasing, and this begs the question of whether the numbers on death row are increasing annually.

It may be that published information shrank in the past because a less educated public had fewer information demands. The reverse is true today, given a generation which wants to know what goes on in its society, even behind bars.

Sometimes, the information is indirectly available - for example, when prisons staff attending meetings abroad share some of the statistics with other participants, and these are picked up and published by other groups.

But this is not enough.

Releasing more data is an invitation to get more engaged, and provides a fuller backdrop, so that when problems erupt, there is better understanding and preparation from a better informed public.

The Prison Service's fellow Home Team members like the police, Civil Defence and the Central Narcotics Bureau are aware of this, and keep the press updated annually.

The Prison Service deserves all the support it can get, given its unenviable task of dealing with the rogue elements of society.

Long-standing public prejudice cannot be addressed by adopting a Hamlet-like silence: 'But that I am forbid to tell the secrets of my prison-house, I could a tale unfold.'

The captains of lives - as the cover of the latest Prisons Annual, issued this month, calls prison officers - may want to review how they captain the sea of information in their custody, in the public interest.

Copyright @ 2003 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.

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