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Bridging divides: Using tech to guide inmates to a fresh start
Superintendent of Prisons Neo Ming Feng hopes to help improve the reintegration journey of inmates and ex-offenders. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA

A chance encounter with an ex-offender helped this MHA scholar discover his calling

Lying at the intersection of technology and rehabilitation is an electronic tablet that helps inmates stay connected with their families, keeping them informed about the well-being of their loved ones.

The deployment of secured tablets at all prisons was one of Superintendent of Prisons (SUPT) Neo Ming Feng’s ground-breaking projects since he joined the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) as a prison officer in 2011.

Inmates can use the tablets to access digital resources, such as e-letters, e-books and rehabilitation programmes through e-learning, to support their rehabilitation and self-directed learning. Through these applications, inmates can foster bonds with their family members and learn at their own pace, allowing them to take greater ownership of their rehabilitation.

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The 37-year-old knew he had chosen the right career when he witnessed first-hand how this initiative helps inmates better reintegrate into society after their release from prison.

“Inmates who were about to be released shared that they were initially apprehensive of reuniting with their family,” he explains. “With the e-letters, inmates and their loved ones are encouraged to stay connected throughout their incarceration, helping them keep familial bonds strong.”

The deployment of secured tablets in prisons allows inmates to access digital resources like e-learning materials and receive e-letters from their loved ones. PHOTO: SINGAPORE PRISON SERVICE

Finding his calling

SUPT Neo always knew he wanted a career that could make a direct impact on the lives of others, especially after his overseas mission with the People’s Association Youth Movement to help the Maldivian locals build a community centre on their island in 2004.

It was through a chance encounter with an ex-offender at his uncle’s provision shop later in the same year that led him to apply for a scholarship with SPS.

The ex-offender, who was a former gang member, shared how a prison officer’s support and encouragement throughout his incarceration inspired him to turn over a new leaf. The brief conversation made SUPT Neo realise that the role of a prison officer goes beyond just maintaining order and discipline.

SUPT Neo went on an overseas mission to help the Maldivian locals build a community centre on their island in 2004. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NEO MING FENG

He then decided to sign up for and was awarded the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) Uniformed Scholarship (SPS) to pursue the Bachelor of Engineering in Aerospace Engineering at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). He knows the career could allow him to have a direct impact on the lives of others and offer leadership opportunities as a Captain of Lives.

Upon graduation from NTU in 2011, he underwent his foundational posting as a housing unit officer (now known as senior correctional unit officer) at SPS, where he instilled hope and inspired change in inmates through regular interactions, while keeping them safe and secure in custody.

In 2014, as part of SPS’s structured career development framework, SUPT Neo was posted to the Transformational Projects Office, which gave him the opportunity to work on initiatives to use technology to enhance operations and rehabilitation processes in prisons.

One of the initiatives involved working with architects and engineers to design the security systems of the Selarang Park Complex. It was operationalised in 2020 and comprises several facilities, including a Drug Rehabilitation Centre and Work Release Centre, to help inmates with their reintegration into society.

“Being able to help inmates find a landing point in their lives and see the changes that can be made to their lives and their families – that is priceless.”

SUPT Neo Ming Feng, recipient of the MHA Uniformed Scholarship (SPS)

For SUPT Neo, such projects were aligned with his desire to help ex-offenders break the cycle of reoffending.

“There is now more community support given to rehabilitate ex-offenders. This is good because it humanises them and reminds people that ex-offenders are part of our community,” he explains.

“In the long run, I hope this can help reduce stigma and improve reintegration of ex-offenders.”

Transforming the system

Having worked at SPS for more than a decade, SUPT Neo hopes to focus his efforts on making an impact by also inspiring the younger generation to join the service.

In 2021, his career path as a SPS scholar also led him to pursue a Master of Science in Business Analytics at NTU to gain deeper knowledge and skills on artificial intelligence and data analysis to improve operational processes within SPS by leveraging technology.

“Infrastructure and processes that help improve efficiency and efficacy are critical to transforming and improving SPS’s operations,” he says.

“I hope to help address the pain points and improve the work experiences of all officers so that they can focus on the rehabilitation of inmates in a more efficient way.”

Currently seconded to the Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) as the head of programme planning and control, SUPT Neo ensures science and technological capabilities are developed strategically and in a timely manner to meet the Home Team’s operational needs, including those of SPS.

One such example is the Prison Automated Screening System (PASS), a portable toilet jointly developed by HTX and SPS that uses automation, robotics, sensors and deep learning technology to automatically collect urine samples of ex-offenders and screen the samples for illicit drugs.

PASS is currently being trialled for deployment to various community facilities. This could save supervisees time and resources when they have to report for drug tests, causing less disruption to their work and lives, and motivating them to stay clean.

The Prison Automated Screening System is currently being trialled for deployment to various community facilities. PHOTO: SINGAPORE PRISON SERVICE

Such a contactless automated system could also enhance hygiene for both officers and supervisees. More importantly, SUPT Neo says such technology-based solutions allow prison officers to focus on supervisory duties and rehabilitation work rather than routine tasks, thus improving their work experience.

No matter which facet of work one chooses to be involved in, SUPT Neo believes the impact that a career at SPS has on the community is far greater than what one can imagine.

“Being able to help inmates find a landing point in their lives and see the changes that can be made to their lives and their families – that is priceless,” he says.

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