Singapore Prison Systems

Why the country’s criminal justice system is ranked #4 in the world.

2016 was a big year for Singapore prisons systems and criminal justice.

There was a change of command with Mr. Desmond Chin taking over as commissioner for the Singapore Prison Service (SPS), replacing Mr. Soh Wai Wah.

The SPS also “unveiled new core values…Synergy, Vigilance, Integrity, and Care.” In their 2016 annual report, the SPS details their commitment to being a “forward looking correctional agency” that will “take the lead in the frontier of aftercare rehabilitation[1]”. Along these lines, the brief references initiatives to move toward the SPS facilities becoming “prisons without walls” and “prisons without guards”. Ranked among the top five countries for criminal justice, it seems these changes are moving Singapore in the right direction.

Suitcase Six IMG_8511-1024x683 Singapore Prison Systems
Photo by Marie Richardson | Gardens By The Bay | Singapore

Singapore Juvenile Justice (by the numbers):

Statistics from the World Prison Brief, unless otherwise denoted:

#4 in criminal justice (ranked by the World Justice Project)

12,722 people, or 222 per 100,000Total prison population in mid-2016.

*The U.S. incarcerates 666 people per 100,000 for comparison.

~407 or 3.2% of prison population- # of incarcerated juveniles under age 21 (As of Dec. 31, 2015).

7minimum age of criminal responsibility (if under 12, they must be deemed mature enough to understand the nature and consequences of their crime)[2]

The Good:

  • First, there is a large focus on rehabilitation and aftercare for offenders. The aftercare rehabilitation, or post-prison support that an offender receives in their community, is critical for decreasing the likelihood of recommitting and returning to prison.
  • Second, SPS emphasizes collaboration among the community stakeholders, recognizing that the prison systems cannot function most effectively as a rehabilitative setting for offenders if they are isolated from other community organizations. Organizations like SCORE (Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises) help create relationships and opportunities with employers who can help offenders gain critical work experience. Many offenders are leaving the corrections systems already having a job offer.
  • Third, SPS understands the huge impact incarceration can have on the family of the offender. One grassroots-led initiative, the Yellow Ribbon Community Project (YRCP), provides support to the families of incarcerated Singaporeans in an attempt to connect them to resources or supports they may need. The YRCP now has over 900 volunteers reaching nearly 5,000 families of offenders. Given their total prison population rate, this community support aids huge proportions of the prison populations.

The Bad:

  • There are tangible and sizeable limitations placed on free speech by the Singapore government. Opinions deemed as disrupting “social and religious harmony” are prohibited and can and will likely invoke legal action on the park of the Singaporean government.[3]

The Ugly:

  • Caning is still an acceptable practice for some criminal offenses. [4] There are 30 offenses for which caning AND incarceration is mandatory, and discretionary in other instances. Women, young/old men, and medically unfit individuals are exempt from caning. Still, Singapore carried out over 2,000 sentences of caning in 2012. Approximately half these cases involved foreigners facing immigration offenses. Here’s an older article about a famous case where an American teenager was sentenced to caning for criminal offenses during his time in Singapore:

Suitcase Six skyline-1024x768 Singapore Prison Systems

My Final Thoughts:

Considering Singapore’s forward thinking in being environmentally conscious, I’m not surprised they ranked so high in criminal justice. Their focus on aftercare rehabilitation is comforting and something we work hard to improve here in Indiana. My heart warmed reading about the Yellow Ribbon Community Project and seeing how much the Singapore community has rallied around offenders and their families in order to better support them. Amongst my colleagues, we know that there is much truth to the old adage, “it takes a village.” Offenders both juvenile and adult are more likely to succeed when the village is present, patient, and ready to help.

A country of contrast…

It was interesting reading about caning and corporal punishment in Singapore, as it seems to really contrast with their otherwise positive criminal justice system. I remember arriving in Singapore and noting that one of our flight documents warned visitors of the death penalty for drug trafficking – letting you know early and aggressively that they take the rules very seriously in Singapore. Indeed, there were fines for all manners of behavior throughout the city-state.

Drinking or eating on the subway and spitting could both incur large fines. Lest you forget, the transit stations plastered reminders generously throughout the public transportation subways and stations. (It worked. There were several times I had a water bottle halfway to my lips before remember drinking on subways is prohibited and hastily putting it away till I disembarked). I’m curious to read more on the issue of corporal punishment and see what Singapore might share in common with other countries who still incorporate it in their criminal justice systems.

Curious for more? Check out these additional readings & resources:

[1] Annual Report, page 8


[3] – page 10


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3 thoughts on “Singapore Prison Systems”

  • This is so interesting! I too really appreciate how the community is so supportive of offenders and their families, it reminds me of that one African tribe that “punishes” criminals by having the whole village stand around them in a circle and tell them all the good things about them as a form of rehabilitation. The world needs more love <3

  • This is so cool. I love your perspective since you come from the judicial field. Always so informative and sharing things I’d never find out on my own!

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