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Helping inmates break the cycle of crime
By Marianne Tan

As a Superintendent with the Singapore Prison Service, Ms Koh Zhi Mian believes empathy can be a powerful force to guide inmates along their journey of change

Ms Koh Zhi Mian’s job as superintendent of Institution A3 at Changi Prison Complex not only makes an impact beyond the prison walls, but has also changed her as a person.

Ms Koh Zhi Mian, who works for the Singapore Prison Service (SPS), has never felt unsafe at her workplace. In fact, she says her job of the last 12 years has brought her great satisfaction and made her a better person.

She recounts many heartwarming episodes that have reinforced her conviction to serve. “On the day of his release, an inmate (who was initially rebellious) told me how my care for inmates motivated him to turn over a new leaf, “ she shares.

“Another inmate expressed his appreciation to me for taking the time to listen to and encourage him. Their simple thank you’s mean a lot. No matter how insignificant our actions may seem, it may be the turning point for inmates.”

Ms Koh, 35, has always wanted to work in a profession that would allow her to help others. Her interest was piqued when she came across a scholarship feature of a prison officer. “His passion and experience really spoke to me,” she recalls. 

“He referred to his work as being a Captain of Lives, steering change in the inmates. This made me realise that the work of a prison officer is more than just a custodial or disciplinary one, and that there is something deeper.” 

She was awarded the Local Merit Scholarship (SPS) in 2005, which supported her degree programme in psychology at Nanyang Technological University. Under the scholarship, she also had the chance to take on leadership positions within SPS and actively shape the future of correctional services. 

“Thanks to the scholarship, I had the opportunity for secondment to the Ministry of Home Affairs, where I saw our daily work become legislation, and go on to have a greater impact on society,” she says.

Planting seeds of change

In her current role as Superintendent of Institution A3 at Changi Prison Complex, Ms Koh leads a team of about 80 officers to ensure that the basic and rehabilitation needs of over 500 inmates are well taken care of, and that programmes are run properly. 

In prison, inmates attend rehabilitation programmes and skills training sessions as well as other programmes that prepare them for reintegration into society. 

However, trying to effect change is not always a smooth-sailing process, she notes. “Ex-offenders could go through several cycles of successes and failures before eventually breaking the cycle of offending, so community support for second chances is critical for the successful reintegration of ex-offenders.”

She adds: “As a prison officer, it’s important to have the belief that change can happen incrementally. Our work is in guiding inmates on this journey.”

Over the course of her career, Ms Koh’s many experiences have left an indelible impact on her, including taking part in a performance with inmates during a National Youth Achievement Award Ceremony in 2016.

She played the keyboards while one of them sang. “It was inspiring to journey with them, watch them overcome their fears and become more confident,” she says.

When Ms Koh did her attachment at Changi Women’s Prison, she had hoped to be able to work there. It was a special moment when she became the officer-in-charge of a Correctional Unit in Changi Women’s Prison. She shares: “It was my first leadership role where I led a team of officers. I had my own vision of how I’d like to run my Correctional Unit and inspire change in the inmates under my charge.”

By working closely with the inmates, Ms Koh feels she has developed more empathy for others. She explains: “Usually, when people look at offenders, they see the offence that was committed. However, we seek to understand the underlying reasons that might have led to them committing the offence.” 

She encourages the younger generation to consider a career with SPS. “The impact of our work goes beyond the prison walls – it is not just about the inmates but also their families who have been impacted by their incarceration, and even helping to ensure a safer Singapore.

“Within these walls are stories of hope and opportunities for change to happen. This change could happen because of you.”