Prison conditions in Singapore ‘acceptable’; no fans, mattresses in cells for security: Shanmugam



Mr Shanmugam rejected suggestions that Singapore’s prisons are overcrowded, saying that they are operating at about 70 per cent of intended capacity.

He cited a 2021 United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime report which stated that prison overcrowding was widespread worldwide, with available data showing that prisons in slightly less than half of 100 countries were operating at more than 100 per cent of intended capacity.

“I would be careful and with this caveat of comparing the percentages between countries. Because whether there is overcrowding can be a matter of definition. It depends on what your baseline is, what the intended capacity of the prison is, and how it is designed,” he said.

“If the intended capacity of the prison is lower than another, then of course occupancy rates would be higher for the first prison, compared with the second, for the same number of inmates.

“But based on media reports, I think we can say conditions in many of these jails, for example the US jails, are much worse than ours. And from what we’re seeing from photos and media reports, Scandinavian jails are generally much more luxurious.”

Mr Shanmugam pointed out that the Changi Prison Complex was built in the early 2000s. Prisons and drug rehabilitation centres currently take up a space of less than 1 per cent of land-scarce Singapore.

“This is the footprint that we have, and we have to maximise the usage of land. If we want to change it, a huge amount of money you will have to spend, possibly running into billions of dollars, and with more land taken,” he said.

Whether this should be done will depend on authorities’ assessment of current conditions, he continued.

“Our assessment is that the conditions are acceptable and fit in with our philosophy of how prisons ought to be,” he stated.

Mr Shanmugam said inmates’ “essential needs” are met, and that all prisoners admitted are assessed on their state of physical and mental health. Inmates can report sick at any time should they feel unwell.

“They are accorded the necessary medical care by prison medical officers, prison psychiatrists and supporting medical personnel,” he said, adding that 94 per cent of medically eligible inmates have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Those who require specialist attention and medical care may be referred to Government Restructured Hospitals.”

Mr Shanmugam said data on inmates diagnosed with mental health conditions upon admission are not “actively tracked”, although he mentioned that as of March, about 5 per cent of inmates are on medication to manage mental health conditions, mostly involving adjustment and mood disorders.

Inmates who need active follow-ups at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) when admitted are also referred to a psychiatrist, he said.

“Inmates with mild mental health issues are housed with the general inmate population, seen regularly by prison psychiatrists, and go through rehab programmes,” he added.

“Those with severe mental health issues may be housed in a specialised facility managed with IMH. That allows for more intensive intervention and therapy.”


Inmates who require additional care, such as those who are old or have mobility issues, will be housed in medical wards, called correctional units for assisted living. These units have beds, seated toilets, handrails, grab-bars and anti-slip flooring.

While the regular one-, four- and eight-inmate cells also come with toilet facilities, they have no bedding. Inmates are provided with a straw mat and two blankets.

“Due to our hot and humid climate, mattresses for inmates are not ideal because of hygiene issues,” Mr Shanmugam said.

“The current bedding minimises the security risks of inmates hiding contraband items in the cells. Generally, (there is) no direct staff supervision inside cells.”

These cells do not have fans either, as mounted fans could be dismantled and the parts used as weapons, or act as “potential anchor points for suicide”, Mr Shanmugam said.

“Instead, there is a combination of natural and mechanical ventilation inside the cells,” he said.

Inmates are given three meals every day, based on a dietitian’s recommendation to meet nutritional requirements. Fruits are provided daily.

Special dietary requirements are considered, including for inmates who are vegetarian, diabetic or have gout.

Each inmate is given basic necessities for daily living, including a toothbrush, toothpaste, clothing, slippers and towel. The cell also contains necessary cleaning equipment.

Inmates have daily access to electronic tablets in their cells, allowing them to get e-learning materials, read e-books, and write or receive letters, Mr Shanmugam said.

As for recreation, inmates typically have at least one hour of out-of-cell recreation time on weekdays, where they do sports and exercise, read newspapers, play board games or watch television programmes, he said.

“These are conducted either in the recreational yard or dayrooms. Staff strength is a consideration, as these activities are higher risk, and require closer supervision by staff,” he added.

“Inmates who work or attend programmes, such as psychology-based correctional programmes, family programmes or religious programmes, may spend two to 10 hours a day outside of their cells, depending on the programme intensity.”


Mr Shanmugam said the prison regime is kept “intentionally” austere, with “a lot of emphasis” on security and monitoring so officers know what is going on.

“This is because you get situations where inmates might try to do a lot of harm to themselves, get contraband (or) create security situations,” he said.

This approach is probably one reason for lower suicide rates in prisons, Mr Shanmugam said, noting that there has been one case of suicide in Singapore’s prisons between 2017 and 2021.

In comparison, Hong Kong saw 10 cases over the same period, while Norway and Denmark had 12 and 22 cases respectively between 2017 and 2020.


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