Monday, 9 May 2016

Prison School: More get to study behind bars

Inmates take same exams as mainstream students, some aiming to go beyond A levels
The Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

Rahim (not his real name) scored nine points for the O-level examination last year, with distinctions in subjects such as principles of accounts and combined science in physics and biology.

Unlike most students, he took the national exam while in prison.

The 21-year-old, who will take his A levels later this year, attends the Tanah Merah Prison School - the only such school in Singapore.

Over the past five years, it has seen a jump of more than 20 per cent in the number of inmates taking the N, O or A levels, from 193 in 2011 to 239 last year.

The inmates take the same papers as students in mainstream schools. Some use their new qualifications to further their studies.

Tanah Merah Prison superintendent Loh Hong Wai said education plays a crucial role in the rehabilitation of inmates. With their qualifications, it is easier for them to find jobs after release, and this reduces re-offending rates.

"Increasingly, there's a greater awareness among the inmates about the importance of education," he said.

The school's youngest student is 17. The oldest, at 62, will be taking his O levels this year. "It is never too late to learn," said Supt Loh.

But not everyone can get into the school, which has a total capacity of 250. Admission is based on the inmates' academic qualifications, their conduct in prison, as well as recommendations from supervisors. Many have not picked up a textbook for years.

"We tell the inmates prison school is not exactly easy, because everything is tough and rigorous, especially for those who have not studied for a long time," said Supt Loh.

To expose students to questions likely to appear in the exams, teachers provide past years' papers, including those from top schools, for the inmates to work on.

Like his classmates, Rahim often requests extra test papers. Because, he said, "we are so committed".

Whenever the exam season approaches, Rahim would step up the revision in his cell, even after the lights-out time at 10pm. "I would push myself, sometimes even until 11.30pm," he said.

He is not the only one, as student inmates are often in a race against time. Unlike mainstream schools, the prison school's curriculum is "very much compressed", said Ms Phang Ka Leng, the prison school's vice-principal.

"They don't have the luxury of time," said Ms Phang, explaining that the curriculum is geared towards helping student inmates excel at the exams. This allows them to move on to more advanced levels in a shorter time.

The inmates have only a year - or 10 months to be precise - to prepare for the N or O levels, unlike the four to five years for students in mainstream schools. Those taking the A levelscan choose to sit the exam within one or two years.

Besides preparing students for national exams, the school also offers Nitec in Electronics and General Education courses.

A typical school day begins at 8am and ends at 3pm. Classes, held five days a week, are taught by teachers seconded from the Education Ministry, along with part-time teachers and volunteers.

For weaker students who require more help, the school taps volunteers to hold evening tutorials.

But it is not all work and no play.

After school, student inmates can take up enrichment activities - almost like co-curricular activities in mainstream schools. Held on Mondays for about three hours, the activities include reading, dancing or playing a musical instrument such as the guitar and the cajon, a box- shaped percussion instrument.

Supt Loh explained: "We strive to provide a holistic education. Prison school is not just about academic results. We also strive to impart the right values to them, so that upon their release they can go back to society as responsible and law-abiding citizens."

Rahim admits he wasted his teenage years mixing with unsavoury company.

His gang involvement landed him in jail at the age of 17. He was detained without trial for gang-related activities.

"I think I've wasted my youth. Opportunities were presented to me, but I didn't see them," he said.

"In here, I started to worry about my future. Prison school is a second chance. I want to prove that I am a changed person."

He hopes to pursue a business degree after his release and aspires to be an entrepreneur and support his three siblings, aged four to 16. His parents, who are in their early 40s, run their own business.

"When I came in, I was very young. I didn't know the consequences of my actions," he said. "I don't think I will go back to my old friends. My focus is different now."

Prison school started in 2000
By Calvin Yang, The Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

The idea for a prison school was thought up by former director of prisons Chua Chin Kiat in 1999, and became a reality a year later when the Kaki Bukit Centre (Prison School) opened.

It was relocated to Tanah Merah Prison in 2011.

The four-storey Tanah Merah Prison School building houses, among other facilities, several classrooms, a science lab, an IT lab and even a well-stocked and planned library.

The classrooms are simple and filled with spartan furniture such as tables and chairs, but also boast equipment like projectors.

In the science lab, stools are bolted to the ground so they cannot be thrown, while items such as scissors are locked away when not in use.

The library, situated on the ground floor, could easily be mistaken for a mainstream school library.

It carries a wide selection of encyclopaedias, books - including those on topics such as social science, religion and philosophy - and magazine titles like the National Geographic and Reader's Digest.

The library is also stocked with relatively new reads, like former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's 2014 book World Order, and literary classics such as Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Inmates are able to borrow these books and take them back to their prison cells to read.

At a section near the entrance of the library, the prospectuses of various tertiary institutions, including the polytechnics and universities, are available for students to browse and plan their higher education.

Inmate aces O levels, aims for degree
By Calvin Yang, The Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

He had duped many into putting millions in an investment scam he came up with, and was later jailed 14 years for cheating.

Now 37, Paul (not his real name), who is still serving his sentence, hopes to get his life back on track by excelling in prison school, and eventually pursuing a mathematics degree after his release.

He took the O-level examinations at Tanah Merah Prison School last year and did well, scoring five points and A1s in all five of his subjects, including English, elementary mathematics and additional mathematics. "Now I have a clear target," said Paul, who will be sitting his A levels at the prison school next year. "I want to get good results for my A levels and, hopefully, get into the National University of Singapore to study maths."

When asked about the choice of a degree, Paul, who hopes to become a data analyst, explained: "Maybe it is because I am pretty good with maths. Some people find it tough, but I find it easy to understand."

His life has not always been this focused. Two decades ago, Paul managed 18 points at his first attempt in the O levels, and barely got into the electronic and computer engineering diploma course at a polytechnic. He dropped out of the course after the first year, and went to a private school to get an advanced diploma in IT and business management. Later, he pursued a degree at a private institution, but again dropped out after a semester.

"I was drifting in life, and taking it one day at a time," he said. "I kept playing and wasted money."

He could not hold down a job after leaving school and got into the wrong trade, and eventually landed in jail. "Looking back, if I had put in more effort, it could have been a different result now. I might also have a different life," he said.

It has been challenging picking up the books again. Until last year, Paul had stopped studying for some 20 years. "It's a stretch because I'd forgotten a lot of things," he said, adding that now, he would summarise topics into a few pages of notes and revise them in his cell.

He stops revising at 10pm as he cannot see well in the dark. "I try to cram in as much as possible before they turn off the lights," he said. "But I will start revising again in the morning, once I wake up."

For Paul, prison school has given him a second shot at education, providing a path to a better future. "To study here is a privilege," he said. "Hopefully, I can secure a good job and take care of my parents in their golden years."

His parents are in their 60s. He has two siblings aged 28 and 35, both of whom are working.

"I've learnt not to take my family for granted," said Paul, adding that his family still visits him despite his past wrongdoings. "My family comes first. If my income can only sustain them, then I would have to postpone my further education."

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