This is one job you do not want to see people coming back. Early in his career with the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) Mr Clifford Lin saw one offender return to the Reformative Training Centre just 12 days after he had been released
“When you have worked with these inmates for months or years, seeing them come back makes one wonder if there was something more that we could have done or said to give them a better chance of staying out,” reflects Mr Lin.
This desire to change lives for the better made him decide on the SPS when he was choosing a uniformed career as a recipient of the Singapore Government Scholarship, one of the scholarship tiers under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) Uniformed Scholarship.
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Having dreamt of walking in the footsteps of his police officer father, his career path became clearer in junior college when he learnt about the work of the SPS through the Yellow Ribbon Project.
“The police do an excellent job keeping Singapore safe, but the question is, what happens to the offender after the court sentence?” mulls Mr Lin.
He found his answer in the SPS.
“I realised that the Prison Service would allow me to work with and help offenders,” he says.
Many people associate SPS with the operations of merely keeping inmates incarcerated. However, the organisation’s focus is people-centric and revolves around helping offenders turn their lives around for the better, says Mr Lin.
Beyond lock and key
On top of taking care of the inmates and overseeing their daily routines, prison officers spend a lot of time engaging inmates on their reintegration plans and helping them rebuild their lives – and stay on the right side of law – after they are released.
“A lot of effort is put into helping offenders’ rehabilitation and reintegration both within and outside of the prison walls to give them their best chance of turning their life around,” Mr Lin explains.
This is the driving force behind Mr Lin’s 12-year career, from his time as a senior correctional unit officer on the front line in prisons to the policy work he now oversees as deputy director (Rehabilitation) with the Policy Development Division of MHA, a secondment opportunity as part of career development.
“The rehabilitation journey has its ups and downs,” says Mr Lin, stressing that some offenders may need to fall more than once before they can break the cycle of crime.
“It is not necessarily the system or the individual officers who did not do their best, but it could just be the circumstances that offenders are facing and they need a bit more time,” explains Mr Lin.
This insight comes from both his professional experience and his academic background – a master’s in Criminology and Criminal Justice from King’s College London – which taught Mr Lin that every offender has their own story that needs to be understood if real change were to take place.
“Two offenders may have committed the exact same crime but the motivations that pushed them to it could be very different,” he says.
The SPS works with different stakeholders – including government agencies like Yellow Ribbon Singapore as well as community partners such as halfway houses – to draw up and implement plans to help offenders at the individual and systemic level.
Mr Lin explains that at the individual level, SPS officers consider the risks and needs of each offender and engage with the individual to chart tailored rehabilitation programmes.
A supportive community
The systemic level is where community support and awareness campaigns come into the picture. The Yellow Ribbon Project is one good example.
“Now, as deputy director (Rehabilitation), I no longer perform operational duties or interact directly with offenders, but I am still able to make an indirect impact on them via policies, thus continuing to contribute to their rehabilitation and reintegration as well as Singapore’s safety and security,” he says.
A career with the SPS is not for everyone as the work is not a routine job in a comfortable environment, says Mr Lin.
Rather, it is for someone with the heart and passion to sustain them through the challenges and opportunities they would encounter as a SPS officer, he adds.
“The job is for someone who has the integrity to do the right thing even when no one is watching,” says Mr Lin, referring to the responsibility and power prison officers have over inmates on a daily basis.
Throughout the years, he carries with him an important lesson he learnt during his time on the prison front line. An inmate with two young daughters told him that his words of encouragement had kept him on the path to change.
“A simple gesture can have a significant impact on others,” says Mr Lin. “If we are able to help an inmate turn his life around, we would be helping not just the inmate himself but also those around him.”