Former RTC inmate recalls culture of “one-upmanship” among inmates

Teenager Amos Yee Pang Sang (pictured, left) could have faced a sentence in reformative training but was instead given a backdated jail term for convicted charges of obscene imagery and offending remarks towards Christians (Photo: AFP News/Roslan Rahman)

By: Bryan Kwa

John (not his real name) entered Reformative Training Centre (RTC) in 1997 when he was 18. He was arrested for, and convicted of, robbery with hurt and consumption of drugs.

A RTC houses young offenders between 14 to 21 years old, where they will not mix with adult convicts. Reformative training lasts between 18 to 30 months and results in a criminal record. This is the sentence teenager Amos Yee Pang Sang faced for charges of obscene imagery and offending words towards Christians. He was instead given a backdated jail term.

John told Yahoo Singapore his RTC experience was akin to “(going) through hell for the first three months”.

For the first three months, he was held in the New Reception Block (NRB) at Bedok Reformative Training Centre (BRTC). There were different cells with metal grill gates, concrete floors, and a squatting toilet without a flushing system. A cell contained four to five trainees.

“After the first three months, you will get promoted to the hall area where you can have TV at night, you can go to school and all that. But the first three months is to show you who’s boss,” John said.

Trainees started their day by sticking their toothbrushes out of their cell. The officers would then put one coating of toothpaste on each toothbrush.

He recounted, “Toothpaste is only issued once a day, so you either brush your teeth in the morning or in the night. So you will brush your teeth, you will eat your breakfast.”

After that, John and other inmates were put through mandatory foot drills and exercises such as squats and sprints.

“In fact, we look forward to it because that was the only time we get to be let out of the cell,” he said.

“The one thing that consumed most RTC boys is exercise. Even after we have gone through the drills, we exercise in our free time. We just exercise like crazy.”

After the drills, it was bath time. Trainees were issued a pail and given a “very short time” to bathe. Bathing was communal and was only once a day, according to John.

During the first three months, John slept on the floor with a mat. After that, he was “promoted” to “a very large hall” with double-decker beds.

After the promotion, his daily routine included going to school and yard time. Yard time “is for you to exercise, play some games,” he explained. In the evening, there would be TV programmes selected by the officers, which were “very multi-racial”.

According to the Ministry of Social and Family Development website, reformative training consists of two phases: a residential phase and a supervision phase.

During the residential phase, trainees undergo counselling as well as academic and vocational training, while a Personal Supervisor provides guidance and monitors the trainee’s welfare and behaviour closely.

John, a Christian, said he received religious counselling during chapel service.

During the supervision phase, trainees are expected to work, study or carry out community work while under the care and supervision of Prisons Reintegration Officers until their release from the reformative training sentence.

Frequent clashes between RTC inmates

John alleged that while serving his sentence, he witnessed RTC inmates engage in violent acts, noting that officers would step in “if it gets out of hand”.

“The scariest part is what the other boys will do to you. That’s even worse. I have friends that made people eat their own faeces, perform sexual acts or just use them as punching bags. Things like that,” said John.

Among the trainees, John said he was “quite lucky” as he was “not easily bullied at that age.”

“I kind of had gang affiliation and some connections, so I was quickly ushered into an inmate subculture regime. Nothing really happened to me.”

John recalled that during his time, he saw fights and gang clashes break out often. He said there was “a lot of enmity” between races that led to the fights.

While John “wasn’t really bullied”, he was “really involved in the gang activities”.

He said, “I think my worst fear then was if I got into a gang clash. If you behave well in RTC, you can be released after 18 months for good behaviour. So every time there was going to be a big fight, I would think, ‘Ah! There goes my chance of going out early.’ Because that was my first imprisonment and I yearned to go out. And I think that was basically every boy’s dream.”

John added that the mix of egos in the RTC contributed to a culture where anything inflicted to other inmates had to be “worth it” by inflicting “the most extreme damage”.

“There was this constant fear, the constant need to one-upmanship,” he said, adding, “People are very childish. They do very stupid things.”

He said there used to be tailoring in RTC and the trainees would make their own shirts and stitch their own shorts. They would take prison resources such as paint and brushes to make their own mould to paint over the numbers.

“These things made them stand out. It made them feel special. It made them feel they were above others because there was something special about what they were using or wearing,” he said.

RTC was a “rollercoaster ride”: former inmate

Yahoo Singapore understands the RTC regime has since evolved.

In 2009, The Straits Times reported, quoting the RTC head, that newcomers to RTC would be kept in solitary confinement for the first two weeks in a cell about the size of two ping-pong tables.

Earlier this year, a District Judge wrote that reformative training should be imposed “cautiously”.

In his judgement on why reformative training was not imposed on a teenager who had beaten up foreign workers to practise his martial-arts skills, District Judge Lim Keng Teow wrote, “Given the nature and duration of reformative training as it now stands, it should be imposed cautiously, perhaps with as much care as when a physician prescribes very strong medication carrying notable potential side effects.”

In response to Yahoo Singapore queries, the Singapore Prison Service said it “is committed to the safe and secure custody of all offenders”.

“Conditions at the reformative training centre are strict and the regime has a strong emphasis on discipline and rehabilitation,” said a spokesperson.

John, now 36, has since graduated from university and holds a full-time job.

While he described his experience in RTC as “a rollercoaster ride emotionally, mentally and physically”, he would not omit his time in RTC if he could live his life all over again.

He said, “I learnt a lot when I was at RTC – about human nature, about how people behave when they are stripped off of whatever trappings they have in life. And generally I think it is a good environment to observe human psychology – the herd mentality.”