How Singapore Society Punishes Families of Inmates and Ex-Offenders

inmate Singapore

In 2016, there were 11,229 local inmates held in prisons, penal institutions or correctional institutions in Singapore according to

A Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy report showed that of the 9,502 total convicted penal population in 2016, 6,666 (or 70%) were convicted for drug-related offences.

When an inmate isn’t the only one punished for his crime

Much media attention has been given to helping inmates prepare for employment upon release and ex-convicts reintegrate into society (a 2016 dataset showed 60% of ex-offenders retained their jobs after 6 months).

However, there is a dark shadow that looms over a larger and often-forgotten group: their families.

These are the grandparents, spouses, siblings and children whose lives are impacted not only by the incarceration of their loved ones.

These family members are also judged according to a different lens by Singapore society, which can be unforgivingly biased against anyone with a liability, even if it’s simply by relations.

The stigma of being associated with incarceration can be so embarrassing that many families try to survive without ever daring to voice out on how they are treated differently and unfairly by others, when they themselves are innocent.

inmate Singapore
Prison Fellowship Singapore (PFS)’s Care club which offers tuition, art and music classes to inmates’ children. Think about why these children are covering their faces.


Here’s an attempt to shed light on how Singaporean society punishes these families for crimes their loved ones committed.

1. One less income to feed the family

According to a social worker I know who works closely with these families, he estimates at least half of these families depend on the inmate as the sole breadwinner.

This creates great difficulty especially for the inmate’s spouse, who in many cases has stopped work for several years and not kept up with the skills and network demanded in the workforce.

For families who previously had a dual income, the left-behind spouse who is already working may even have to drop out of the workforce to tend to caregiving needs, and may face difficulty finding a suitable job in future.

If there are alternative caregivers, the spouse left behind has to shoulder the single income burden.

Madam Amelia (not her real name), and her 4 children struggled during the years her husband was in and out of jail 9 times for theft and drug-related offences. Although he has been released and sporadically chips in to pay the bills, she has filed for divorce. Throughout this period, the family depended on bursaries from Industrial & Services Co-operative Society (Iscos) and government handouts to survive.


I personally know a dedicated mother who even in poor health, has to work overtime to single-handedly raise her two daughters who are still schooling, as their father is in jail.

Unable to look after her daughters when their school ends, her elder daughter lives with a relative and her neighbour helps to look after her younger daughter. She toils every day to make a living, punished by her husband’s crimes.

2. Difficulty in securing a job and caregiving arrangements

Left-behind spouses struggle with the classic chicken and egg dilemma: they cannot get a job without finding alternative childcare arrangements, but they cannot afford childcare if they don’t have a job!

If both parents are incarcerated, the grandparent has to juggle both working and childcaring duties.

Vani (not her real name and not in the picture above) was left with her grandmother when both her parents went to jail. They lived in a one-room flat and could not afford childcare. Vani was referred to My First Skool childcare which subsidised her fees via its Bright Horizons Fund.


Although there are funds available to help low income families with childcare fees, employers still have to be understanding in allowing the spouse or grandparent time off or childcare leave.

This is because when the childcare closes, the child falls sick or there is a family emergency at home, they could be the only caregiver available.

3. Facing the consequences of the crime IRL

As 70% of inmates are in prison for drug-related offences and may have owed money to moneylenders, these moneylenders may continue harassing their families to pay off debts.

Although there are police efforts to clamp down on loanshark activity, low harassment doesn’t mean no harassment.

Other families may have to publicly apologise on behalf of their family member (who committed a crime against another person) and face the wrath of the public.

Media attention can also be unforgiving on these families who face loss of privacy and reputation.

4. Managing incarceration-related issues i.e. court hearings, lawyer fees.

Families may have to cough up legal fees and time to help their family member who is accused of a crime.

Ng Suet Cheng (in red), who has an intellectual disability since young, had to go through court hearings and was locked up in IMH for a month. However, his mother couldn’t pay for a lawyer. He eventually received help from a pro bono lawyer.

Video source

These fees can add up to hundreds of thousands and family members have to take leave from work to sort out all these issues.

5. Children feel abandoned, stigmatised at a young age

Many adults do not disclose the incarceration to their young children. Many a time, the young children feel a sense of abandonment who cannot understand why their fathers or caregivers are not with them at home.

Those who are aware that their parents are in prison face a real sense of shame and stigmatisation if others come to know about it.

The dedicated mother I mentioned earlier faced this issue during Primary One registration when she had to explain to the school as to why she couldn’t produce her husband’s IC.

According to the Singapore Prisons’ Service website, spouses will have to approach their Visit Officers and request for a Letter of Incarceration (LOI) through a face to face visit. They can then submit the LOI with the letter from Ministry of Education for their child’s enrolment in primary school.

Will this cast a black shadow over her child’s life in school and impact her future?

6. Negative influence and impact on future generations

Research has shown that there is a higher likelihood that children of offenders will exhibit similar criminal behaviour in future after they grow up, aka intergenerational offending cycle or transmission.

Chanel, who was interviewed in 2013, grew up without much parental guidance. After her dad passed away when she was 5, her mum went into drugs. When she was Primary 3, she witnessed her mum being arrested by the police. Abused at her aunt’s home, she ran away and started working for loansharks as she was broke, but then got caught and sentenced to a shelter. After receiving legal help via a pro bono lawyer, she decided to study and find work as she was given a second chance to turn her life around.

Video source

In a 2016 interview with the Straits Times, Ms Jessie Wong, assistant director of family policy at the Singapore Prison Service, shared the reasons these children end up committing crimes:

  • parents may take drugs home and children learn (from seeing their example)
  • the lack of proper guidance
  • money woes
  • other stresses when a parent is jailed

As a society, even if we are starting to open up to the idea of giving ex-convicts a second chance, let’s remember that for every inmate/ex-offender, there are families who suffer quietly behind the scenes.

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