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Prison CP - September 2008

Corpun file 20597


Straits Times, Singapore, 15 September 2008

New check on punishing prisoners

External panels must be consulted before errant inmates can be caned

By Teh Joo Lin

THE prison authority's power to cane inmates who wreak havoc within prison walls is about to get an outside check.

External committees will be set up to deliberate on whether the number of strokes meted out to inmates for major breaches like mutiny, warder assault and gang activities, is too excessive.

One or more committees will look at caning punishments for drug rehabilitation centre inmates while others review cases in the rest of the prison population.

The new regulations - which come under the Prisons Act and the Misuse of Drugs Act - enabling their creation were published in the Government Gazette on Friday and become effective today.

Under the law, a superintendent can order up to 12 strokes of the cane after investigations by officers who are not from the same unit as the complaining warder.

He will also hear from the inmate before deciding if an offence has been committed and what punishment to impose.

The Prisons director must approve the punishment before it can be carried out. He also has the power to alter the punishment, and the inmate can appeal to him.

This has not changed.

But under the new rules, the Prisons director will first refer the case to the relevant committee and get its take on whether the penalty is too harsh before he confirms or varies the corporal punishment.

A Prisons spokesman said the change provides an extra layer of checks to make the process 'more robust' and 'promote the transparency and rigour of the institutional disciplinary system'.

On why this was being done now, she said this arose from a 'periodic review of operational practices'.

Each committee will comprise a maximum of four members led by a chairman. They are likely to be drawn from the ranks of former judicial officers, justices of the peace and community leaders.

No prison officer will be involved in the committees.

The new regulations state that the committees, which will work out their own procedures, will 'sit in private and shall not be required to interview any prisoner or any other person'.

Dr Teo Ho Pin, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Law and Home Affairs, likened the committees' role to that of an independent auditor.

Apart from ensuring the caning punishments are fair and to check against abuse, the committees can also spot disturbing trends and raise them to higher authorities. They can sound the alert that discipline is slipping, for example, if they find a disproportionate number of caning cases from one part of the prison system.

For the new process to work well, lawyer Chandra Mohan Nair suggested that the members be made aware of the typical number of strokes handed down for the various offences, 'so they know what is too much or too little'.

The former Law Society president also suggested that the Prisons director should give his reasons if he disagrees with the committees' view on the severity of punishment. 'When you've to give reasons, you think harder and are more's like how judges give reasons for their rulings,' he added.

The Prisons spokesman did not give exact figures for the number of inmates who have been punished by prison-ordered caning, except that the number was 'very small'. She said the ability to order caning contributes to a strict disciplinary regime that has kept the prisons - which house about 11,800 inmates - safe and conducive for rehabilitation.

Last year, there were about 22 major assaults for every 10,000 prisoners, lower than in places such as Hong Kong and some cities in the United States. There have been no major riots or escapes in the last five years.

Copyright 2007 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.

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