24 August 2005

Three Cheers for SCORE!

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.

"I need help, I tell you! I need counselling!"

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.

"I swear to God that I would
never think of molesting a woman."

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.


american dream said...

Well said Mr wang... *applauds*

Merv said...

One Question though. Where are the profits from these prison 'ventures' channelled to?

no mention on the article.

Anonymous said...

A little finger work:


singaporean said...

From an employer's point of view, if I have ten equally qualified candidates and nine of them have no problem with honesty or keeping their hands away from children, why should I even *consider* the application of an ex-con?

The only way this will work, is with the ex-con's record is wiped clean and the employer is legally bounded from asking.

Ironically, the ex-cons are the ones competing hardest with cheap easily available foreign labour, who themselves could be ex-cons.

tscd said...

It's nice to know that there are second chances in this world.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Singaporean, you raised a very valid point. I think that one answer is that the 10th candidate is likely to be willing to work for a lower salary than the other nine.

There are also a small number of companies which specifically make it a point to hire ex-convicts so as to help them. These organisations are members of SCORE. Of course, there aren't many of them.

Ex-cons do not necessarily compete with cheap foreign labour like Bangladeshi workers etc. This is because ex-cons come with diverse backgrounds. Aris, as mentioned in the ST article, is a female graduate.

In the past, there were several significant barriers to ex-cons trying to find a job. For example, LTA used to bar anyone with a criminal conviction from driving a taxi; some other govt authority (ENV?) used to bar ex-cons from renting space to run a hawker stall. This issue was previously raised in Parliament and some MPs argued that such barriers were unnecessary and harmful. But I cannot quite recall the outcome. I hope these barriers no longer exist.

Anonymous said...

Singaporean, your last sentence is worth pondering. In our gahmen's haste and eagerness to import foreign "talents" of all sorts, i have always wondered how stringent are checks made on their background.

Admin said...

Dear Mr. Wang,

In your own opinion, has the authorities done enough to help convicts?

In HK, they do have a special radio program every Sunday night, specially for prisoners to send their letters to the DJ to read out and dedicate songs to their love ones "out there". This program is actually started by an "ex-convict" who have spent some time in jail and understand the loneliness and social needs of those prisoners in there.

I really hope we could have anti-discrimination law in place which will include laws that outlaw discrimination against ex-con. Human beings aren't perfect and they made mistakes. It is normally the stigma of society that discriminate against ex-convicts that causes the vicious cycle that surround the ex-convicts.

Goh Meng Seng

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Well, for years now, the Singapore Prison Service, in its public materials, website etc has been repeatedly emphasising themes about reintegration and rehabilitation, and based on this, it seems that they take it quite seriously.

On the other hand, it could be one of those "lip service" type of things. You know lah.

What I would really like to see is serious changes in government policy and underlying laws, to help ex-convicts. Then you know we are getting somewhere.

Anonymous said...


Don't forget that case about a year ago, when the Gahmen issued a (white, American) convicted paedophile with an employment visa to work as a tuition teacher to young kids...

There was quite an uproar, and I believe the official Gahmen response was something along the lines of "it's not our fault, it's up to them to declare whether they've got previous convictions or not"...

Dave said...

In Changi jail upon death row
Breathe live corpses, unjust woe.
No darker space condemned to die,
Where Time, still barely etching by,
Weeps words amid the bleak sorrow.

Compassion's Dead, gone long ago.
They tried, went wrong; felt hatred grow,
Loved and are loved, they should not die,
In Changi jail.

A wake for them, who cannot show,
To you their failing hearts let go.
And on their eve when death is nigh,
Nary lose faith with those who die.
For know, down deep, injustice flows
In Changi jail.