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Writers' Fortnight 2020: The Ruptured Road to Rehabilitation - how social stigmas and prison systems feed the failure

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Writers' Fortnight 2020: The Ruptured Road to Rehabilitation - how social stigmas and prison systems feed the failure

Image above: A workshop at Olmos Prison, Argentina. Photo by Ezequiel Putruele of El País Newsletter

The vibration of Martin Suarez’s phone resonated within the bottom of his coarse pocket. As he held the phone in his trembling hands, he whispered out the name on the display. Mr Suarez’s heart ached with agony. This time, he was sure: there was nothing he could do to save his old friend from crime.

The Rehabilitation Debate
It is a universally known fact that criminals are assigned to prison to reintegrate back into society. However, the impact of rehabilitation programmes in strict nations are far from effective, and in extreme cases perverse. Singapore’s prison system has remained controversial for several years now, with expert organisations such as Prison Insider and Human Rights Watch criticising its “inhumane” prison facilities – lack of beds, nutrition; as well as the “barbaric practice” of capital punishment. According to the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore’s recidivism rate in 2016 was 23.7% – relatively low in the rankings for recidivism rates around the world. However, Singapore’s more compassionate neighbour on the chart, Norway, has stark differences in the prisoners’ living conditions. Therefore, organisations like New Naratif are actively demanding the Singaporean government to ensure prisoners their essential rights to nutrition, recreation, and decent shelter.

Mr Achik Ithnin, a former Changi Prison warden in the midst of conducting  a counselling session with inmates. (Photo: Jeremy Long of Mediacorp).

Another advocate for prison reforms is a high school physics teacher in our UWCSEA East community, Mr Martin Suarez. At age 16, Mr Suarez was taken to a maximum-security prison in Argentina by his Spanish teacher. Unlike his inaccurate expectations of ruly, violent inmates, what Mr Suarez witnessed was not brutal, unorganised gangsters hurling fists around each other. On the contrary, the prisoners were devout listeners, passionate to learn, and respectful towards others. “It was then that I realised: they were human, just like me.”

After encountering the inmates, Mr Suarez questioned as to why the prisoners were not what his imagination recalled. But he discovered the causes were countless: Argentina’s deficient prisons, societal prejudice among the citizens, and more. These obstacles would prevent the prisoner’s opportunities for a new life after prison, unintentionally converting them back to the ways of crime - increasing recidivism rates while feeding the beast of hatred in Argentinian society towards prisoners.

Three Friends, Two Prisoners, One Dream
After he finished his training to become an educator, Mr Suarez joined a service programme to teach in the prison he previously visited. The goal? “Change the individual, not the world.”

With the astounding redevelopment of two prisoners, Gaby and German, Mr Suarez believed that prisoners were not so different from his family members at heart. “They are like us,” he exclaimed, “but they have just made mistakes - out of ignorance. However, their strength, intelligence, leadership, and resilience made me realize; these inmates were not just my students, they were my life-teachers.”

The first, Gaby, came from a poor background with very little education. According to Mr Suarez, Gaby was one of the Argentinian children deeply affected by “big problems of underemployment and economic crisis.” Fleeing from an abusive father, Gaby and his mother were forced to the streets, joining a vicious gang to get by. Despite the 25-year sentence placed on his head, Gaby developed a passion in law, and even completed 90% of his university degree while studying in prison. Moreover, through guiding other inmates to literacy, Gaby proved himself ready to reintegrate into society, and the judicial system reduced his sentence.

Contrarily, German originated from a middle-class background with a sufficient education. Besides teaching the other inmates through the cell aperture, German discovered his knack for art. After meticulous training, German emerged as a renowned car painter in Argentina. He also participated in several service projects, like painting for an orphanage, to share his art with others

The Groundbreaking Reality
Upon release, German never stepped foot into the ominous crime scene of Argentina ever again. However, Gaby’s situation was completely different. Regardless of his hard-earned qualifications, law firms were hesitant to hire Gaby – not just because of his impoverished background, but rather his status as an ex-offender. The tremendous wall of discrimination towards ex-inmates had prevented Gaby from acquiring the well-deserved chance to start anew.

Today, Gaby is once again on the run, evading the authorities in Argentina. Although this was quite shocking for Mr Suarez, he declared, “I have no regrets. Compassion is the word.” Mr Suarez knew in his heart that he could not blame Gaby for all that he had done, because he was not as privileged as himself or German.

Crime Index for Country (2019 Mid-Year). Spreadsheet link. Data by Numbeo

According to Mr Suarez, almost 90% of inmates at the time returned to crime. On the surface laid the unemployment and economic crisis of Argentina, but the underlying problem was that prisoners were not aware of how to reintegrate into a society which still feared and stereotyped ex-inmates just because of their background.

He even stated, “In Argentina, the authorities are not helping the prisoners redevelop, they are just disposing of people like garbage. They do not care. And the people? They just complain about the fees.”

An inmate basking in Bastoy Island Prison, Norway. Photo: Fredrik Naumann of the Guardian

Rethinking Rehabilitation
But there is no need to lose hope. There are still effective methods to stop the cycle of recidivism. In 2013, Norway’s prison system carried the lowest recidivism rate in the world – nearly 20%. What was their secret? In Bastoy Island Prison, prisoners are required to take responsibility for their rehabilitation by becoming a self-sufficient member of society. For example, some of the prisoners run farms and kitchens to cook food for the others in their resident community. This makes the prison significantly cheaper to maintain than conventional penal institutions.

According to Mr Suarez, this is the right path for rehabilitation. “There are two types of solutions to handling criminals: kill, or educate. I wish that our country would use the opportunity to rehabilitate people through the latter.”

He also commented on the requirements needed for the people who accompany these prisoners on their journey toward rehabilitation. ”The best in their expertise should go to the prisons – but they do not. No one gives a damn. We need presence and attention for these inmates – not societal neglect.”

As Gaby once said, “Past was destined, present is inevitable, but future is up to me.” Mr Suarez looked into his eyes, and could not help but see himself in the hopefulness of Gaby’s pupils. This statement would have been true for hundreds of thousands of prisoners today. But to rebuild the ruptured road to rehabilitation, the world still has a long way to go.

Works Cited:
Human Rights Watch. “World Report 2016: Rights Trends in Singapore.” Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch, 27 Jan. 2016,

James, Erwin. “The Norwegian Prison Where Inmates Are Treated like People.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 Feb. 2013,

Ministry of Home Affairs - Singapore Prison Service. “Recidivism Rate.”, Government of Singapore, 29 Mar. 2016,

Numbeo. “Crime Index by Country 2019 Mid-Year.” Numbeo, Numbeo, 2019,

Think Centre, Prison Insider. “Prisons in Singapore.” Prison Insider, Prison Insider, 2017,

13 May 2020
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