How Singapore is training inmates in digital literacy

By Jaz Low and Yun Xuan Poon

Interview with Shie Yong Lee, Commissioner of Prisons at the Singapore Prison Service.

In the heist thriller film “Now You See Me 2”, Morgan Freeman’s character conducts shady business deals from a personal computer within his prison cell. Aside from the irony of organising crime in a place meant to deter crime, an inmate having access to an electronic device and the internet can be concerning.

But Singapore’s prisons are challenging this very thought. It has granted inmates the use of electronic devices so they learn digital literacy skills. Here, digital tools represent the path to employment, acceptance, and hope beyond prison walls.

Shie Yong Lee, Commissioner of Prisons at the Singapore Prison Service (SPS), shares how the institution is preparing offenders for the digital economy and improving rehabilitation services with tech.

Preparing inmates for the digital economy

SPS offers specialised courses on data analytics, cybersecurity and social media marketing. These form part of the Prison’s first ever Nitec in Business Services programme, which produced 29 graduates last year. Singapore's Nitec courses focus on equipping students with relevant workplace skills.

Moving forward, “SPS is looking into expanding these courses to allow more inmates to benefit and become digital professionals in an increasingly connected world, upon their release,” Shie says.

The organisation also works closely with Yellow Ribbon Singapore, a statutory board that supports ex-offenders, to conduct regular reviews on particular sectors. They then look into career opportunities and training that would give inmates the most valuable skills. These might be social media marketing, or logistics management, she shares.

“Gainful employment is crucial in supporting an ex-offender’s reintegration journey,” Shie says. SPS and Yellow Ribbon Singapore conduct virtual job interviews for inmates with potential employers. This allows inmates to secure employment even before release.

SPS will also help inmates learn basic digital literacy skills as part of their employability training. They will pick up practical computer skills and be comfortable with smart devices, both in their daily lives and at the workplace, she explains.

Training will begin in April 2022. SPS aims to train around 700 inmates a year, with a target of more than 3000 inmates over the next four years.

“Making the transition from prison to the community can be challenging in these digital times but…[we want] to reduce the barriers of entry for former offenders,” shares Shie.

Rehabilitation empowered by tech 

SPS also turns to technology to rehabilitate ex-offenders. This can lead to better emotion regulation, lower recidivism rates, and higher employment rates.

Inmates have access to special tablets to tap on rehabilitation and resource materials – such as e-Learning platforms and motivational podcasts – to learn at their own pace. Different modes of learning enhance interactivity and promote engagement, Shie shares.

Inmates in Singapore tablet digital learning rehabilitation
A group using a tablet to access rehabilitation materials. 

These tablets are strictly reserved for learning and communication purposes. Due to security reasons, these tablets have limited applications and generally do not have Wi-Fi or internet access.

The tablets complement the teachings in existing behavioural correction programmes. For example, counsellors and teachers use live-action and animation to impart key skills such as communication and problem-solving. This teaches inmates how to better respond to situations when under pressure.

The tablets also smoothen communication between inmates and their loved ones through e-letters. Maintaining contact with family and friends is integral to building a good support system for inmates. This enhances their wellbeing, improves inmates’ conduct, and reduces reoffences.

Currently, SPS is working on a mobile application that serves as a one-stop portal for inmates placed on community-based programmes.

This application will allow them to take notes after counselling sessions, access a job database, complete e-learning programmes, and document milestones during their supervision period.

It will also allow supervisees to make requests, such as an extension of curfew hours, and update officers on absence from work. “This will allow supervisees placed on community-based programmes to take greater ownership of their rehabilitation and reintegration,” Shie highlights.

Improving prison operations 

Apart from inmates, prison staff stand to benefit from technology in terms of quicker incident response time.

Video analytics allows officers to detect abnormal behaviours, such as fights and self-harm. The system automatically picks up motions of aggressions and immediately alerts prison officers, allowing for swifter responses to incidents.

Previously, officers had to regularly patrol and browse through large amounts of CCTV footage to keep an eye on inmates. Video analytics helped to automate this tedious and time-consuming process, Shie notes.

Technology can also give inmates and staff greater freedom. Facial recognition technology allows inmates to move within the prisons’ secured zones unescorted. Prison officers can use communication devices to remotely inform security to grant inmates access at different entry points.

facial recognition access control inmates singapore
An inmate entering a zone via facial recognition technology.

This gives prison officers more time for purposeful engagements with the inmates, Shie explains. It allows them to understand the concerns of inmates on a more personal basis and intervene promptly when problems arise.

SPS will continue to expand their technological solutions to prepare inmates for the digital economy, enhance inmates’ rehabilitation, and improve daily operations. Technology can empower inmates to become architects of their future as opposed to prisoners of their past.

This article was produced for International Women's Day.