ST Aug 24, 2005
24-hour call centre - behind bars
By Tanya Fong
IT'S the prison that never sleeps.
Female inmates at the Changi Prison Complex are working as phone operators and telemarketers in a 24-hour call-centre. They answer queries on everything from mobile prepaid phone cards to how to work a consumer product.
The 38 women turn up for 'work' in rotating 12-hour shifts. The call centre is housed in an office about the size of a basketball court.
They may not be able to take tea breaks whenever they like, but judging from their enthusiasm as they pick up calls, these workers enjoy their jobs.
Aris, a 32-year-old inmate serving a six-year term for cheating, loves every minute of it.
'I was a workaholic before, and not having anything to do in jail made me feel down,' said the university graduate. 'Being in this programme helped me to be myself once again because I feel useful.'
The high-tech call centre was set up last December at the Changi Women's Prison and Drug Rehabilitation Centre.
It is the latest project initiated by the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (Score) to create work for inmates and to rehabilitate them while they serve their sentences. Score's first project was a 24-hour laundromat in the Changi Prison Complex, the largest in South-east Asia. It was rolled out last year.
Fifteen of the inmates handle outgoing telemarketing calls, while the rest handle incoming calls. All calls are controlled by the phone and computer systems.
Connect Centre's business operations manager, Miss Elena Lim, said: 'We run this place exactly like a commercial call centre - the difference is that we are doing it behind bars.'
Businesses need some convincing before they sign up as call centre clients. 'When we make cold calls to potential clients, they sound apprehensive,' said Miss Lim. 'But when we take them inside the centre, they end up coming out impressed.'
The reason: The women receive training of a similar standard afforded to people working on the outside. They are trained to project their voices, enunciate their words and handle difficult customers.
As a former Deputy Public Prosecutor, I used to deal with criminals on a daily basis. I have a fairly good idea of how devastating a past criminal conviction can be, for a person endeavouring to rebuild a proper life from scratch. The Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (SCORE) therefore always has a fond spot in my heart because I think they do excellent and very important work to rehabilitate ex-convicts and reintegrate them into society.
When I was a DPP, my peers and supervisors sometimes criticised as being overly compassionate. "Soft" was the word. I think they generally misread me. Mr Wang is not a particularly compassionate person, except perhaps to little children and stray cats. Mr Wang, however, is highly utilitarian, future-oriented and big-picture in his thinking (all classic INTJ traits). These traits very much shape Mr Wang's perspective on criminal legal issues relating to ex-convicts.
A young man commits robbery, is arrested, charged, prosecuted and sent to jail for the next seven years. Case closed? No. Seven years will pass. One day, he will be released. He does not simply vanish into a hole in the ground and disappear forever. And without help and support, chances are that the same factors which originally drove him into criminal activity will continue to mess up his life and prevent him from being a normal, useful, productive citizen. He may continue to exist in his economically useless state for all the remaining decades of his natural life. Worse, he may be compelled to return to a life of crime.
It's therefore very much in the interests of society to put serious effort into rehabilitating and reintegrating its ex-convicts. In Singapore, this is even more compelling because we are so aggressive and efficient in prosecuting people even for relatively minor offences. I've previously come across a study suggesting that on a per capita basis, Singapore probably has more ex-convicts than any other country in the world.
Mr Wang also feels that society (and especially its prospective employers) often makes the grave error of tarring all ex-convicts with the same brush. The truth is that all criminals are human beings, and being human beings, they come in numerous different versions. Each of them only has particular weaknesses and tendencies, but none of them will be "high-risk" in all ways.
For example, if a man had previously molested children, it would be foolish to employ him as a nursery school teacher. And if a woman had previously cheated money, it would be unwise to employ her as a finance officer. On the other hand, the ex-child molester may well make a good finance officer, and the ex-cheat may well make a good nursery school teacher.
Thus it is not a good reason to reject an ex-convict for a potential job solely because of his past conviction. One should consider the nature of the crime committed, and whether that kind of crime raises any bona fide concern that the ex-convict is inappropriate for that particular job.
In the above ST article, Aris is said to be serving a six-year sentence for cheating. She is now working from prison as a call centre personnel. A prospective future employer such as a bank may arguably have a legitimate concern about hiring her to handle calls from credit card customers (since Aris would have access to credit card numbers). However, her cheating conviction should not bar Aris from performing other types of call centre functions, for example, dealing with customers' queries about how to operate a consumer product.
Mr Wang applauds SCORE's good work and wishes them every success.