Exclusive: Singapore wants a prison without guards

By GovInsider

Interview with Soh Wai Wah, Commissioner of Singapore Prisons.

“We envisage a future where we can run a prison without guards,” says Soh Wai Wah, Singapore’s Commissioner of Prisons. His vision is intentionally “provocative”, he tells GovInsider: he wants to show the potential of technology, but doesn’t plan to cut staffing.

Instead, prison officers will change roles, spending their time on rehabilitation, rather than on patrol. As a city state with a Smart Nation strategy, it is easier and faster for Singapore to make major reforms. Soh’s vision is therefore a snapshot of the future for law enforcement.

He spoke exclusively with GovInsider about what that entails.


Singapore is looking at how video analytics and facial recognition can free officers from the passive tasks of guarding prisoners.

Inmates currently have to be escorted when they move around the prison complex, he says, but this will soon no longer be required.

”With facial recognition, I can know where the prisoner is and where he is supposed to be.” This tech will first be implemented at the women’s prison by the second half of next year, Soh adds.

The prison is being moved from its current 1990s base - a modern complex in international terms - to a newly refurbished complex with the state of the art technology.

Prisons may conjure images of dark dungeons or old brick walls, but here “they will be at the vanguard of our technological revolution”.

These tools will also help him “repackage the job” of prison officers, making it more attractive to the younger generation. Government has to compete to hire against other industries which are rapidly transforming, he believes, and when backed against Singapore’s ageing population, this means that the prisons workforce will shrink.

In turn, “I need to transform the work to make it more interesting, compelling and purposeful”, he says.

Data-driven prisons

Soh has history as a reformer, who used technology to enable his vision. He inherited a Prisons Service that was focused “overwhelmingly” on security and safety, but it was clear to him that they need to focus on prisoners’ reintegration to ensure that they don’t slip back into prison.

“We have made after-care as important as in-care”, he says. “We have made after-care as important as in-care”  The Prisons Service uses an advanced analytics system to score each prisoner’s chance of re-offending.

“We have now come up with a business analytics tool that statistically can assign a risk score to every prisoner in our population,” he says.

Officers use this score to select prisoners for suitable rehabilitation programmes. Soh outlines three critical steps to rehabilitation.

First, inmates must be willing to change their attitude. The Prisons Service has hired more counsellors to get prisoners to reflect on their journey, and identify what triggered their offending. They also make them think about their goals in life and how they can change their lifestyle.

Second, they must “confront” their relationships with their families, he believes. Family members are brought into the prison to interact with their relatives. “We have family bonding sessions to help in reconnecting, which will be critical when the person is released,” Soh says.

The third step is ensuring they have skills and can find jobs after their release. The Prisons Services uses the national skills framework to identify what skills inmates will need. “It is important that we give them work inside the prison that can be found after they are released,” he says.

For instance, Singapore has a thriving food industry so prisoners can learn cookery skills and baking.

From good to better

This pivot to rehabilitation required Soh to change the culture of the institution. Every official has to be mindful of how they interact with prisoners and the words they use, he says.

This was harder than just implementing systems and programmes: “It was a challenge to tell my staff that they can be better”, he says.

The pivot has changed each official’s role in the prison. Officers have to think of how they treat inmates because that affects their rehabilitation process.

At the same time, counsellors have to be mindful of the safety and security of prisoners. New skills will also be needed to continually improve the Prisons Service.

“The corrections officer of the future must be a person who is well-versed in social skills,” he says.

They must be able to read inmates’ body language, enter into a conversation with them, interpret their responses - and from there - gather intelligence of what is going on in the prisons population, he believes.

Tech takes away the other role, so the human touch becomes more important.

Moving ahead

Soh’s career in the public service is also changing. After 34 years in the Ministry of Home Affairs, he is leaving to become Principal and Chief Executive Officer of Singapore Polytechnic.

This is fitting for a man who has created a learning hub at an unlikely institution, and teachers could potentially learn a thing or two about giving detentions.

He sees his purpose as creating strong organisation visions with a human touch. “The work still involves interaction with people”, he says, and in a rapidly changing workplace he wants to “make sure people find purpose in what they do”.

Perhaps that is also why he likens his correctional work to a football game.” Being focused on security and safety is like having a strong defence, but to win the game you need to have a powerful attack - a strong rehabilitation”, he says.

And on a football field, he sees himself as a player manager: interacting with the players and being on the floor when the occasion rises.

On October 1, Soh will be succeeded by his current deputy, Desmond Chin Kim Tham.

The commissioner has a piece of parting advice for the next leader and all 2,500 officials of the Prisons Service: “We must believe that ex-offenders can be reformed. And we must believe that what we do can help in their reformative journey.”