Singapore Prison Services (SPS) officer Helen Lim has an experience she can never forget: Speaking to a former inmate out of committing suicide.
Convinced a suicidal former inmate not to take his life
Speaking to Mothership, Lim recounted an occasion when a former inmate she supervised, whom we shall refer to as Chan, contacted the SPS and asked to speak to her specifically.
Lim was Chan’s first officer who had counselled him during his sentence.
She was also there for him during his mental breakdown about three years earlier.
Chan had requested for Lim because she was perhaps one of the few trusted individuals he could approach without feeling judged.
The two then held an intense conversation over the phone, with Chan pouring his troubles out to Lim, saying that he had difficulty readjusting to life back at work and with his family.
His wife, who suffered from schizophrenia, questioned him incessantly whenever he returned home from work.
To make things worse, Chan faced discrimination at the workplace too, due to his criminal record.
He said his employer micromanaged him, and that his colleagues kept their distance from him.
Wanting to engage him and stop him from doing anything rash, Lim kept talking to Chan, and managed to keep him on the phone.
Highlighting the positive aspects about his situation at work, she also suggested ways he could improve his relationships with his wife and son.
By the end of the phone call, she calmed him down and convinced him not to take his own life.
After the life-changing phone call, Chan went for subsequent counselling sessions and family intervention.
He has since gone on to find success as an events manager.
All in a day’s work
This episode might sound like one of those feel-good, uplifting stories that we hear from time to time, but it is part and parcel of Lim’s work at the SPS.
In the course of her decades-long career, Lim has encountered numerous inmates who were in jail for various offences.
Previously, as a Chief Personal Supervisor, she ensured the safe custody and rehabilitation of the inmates under her charge, ensuring that inmates under her care adhered to daily routines while she and her team of officers attended to their requests for programmes and support where needed.
Now, as a Reintegration Officer (RO) in the Community Corrections Command (COMC), she oversees her supervisees on the Mandatory Aftercare Scheme (MAS) -- a programme that might sound like a mouthful, but is crucial to former inmates who wish to settle smoothly back in their lives after prison.
Her workplace also includes the homes of her supervisees, where she assesses them to see if they are ready to progress to the next phase of their supervision plan.
Praised by inmates for her genuine concern
While it is never easy dealing with people, much less trying to counsel people who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law, Lim has performed exceedingly well at her job.
Over the course of her 30 years of service in the SPS, Lim has received countless compliments from inmates for being attentive to their needs, and for supporting them at a time when they were largely isolated from the rest of society.
And what has sustained her for this long is a passion for the work that she is doing.
Lim desires to effect lasting change in people and help them lead better lives after they get released from prison.
Such care and emotional support that prison officers like Lim give to inmates are crucial to helping them rehabilitate and reintegrate into society.
But despite the satisfaction she gets when she sees her supervisees settling into their new lives outside of prison, being a prison officer does come with its fair share of challenges -- as with all other jobs.
Feels for inmates when they reoffend
Lim recounted to Mothership the times she felt “heart pain” when she saw the inmates she worked with in the past reoffend after their release, even though it does not happen very often.
For instance, one was caught just a day after his release, while another was caught in less than 10 days.
They were both incarcerated for more than five years previously.
“Why have they not learnt their lesson? When I say “heart pain”, it’s not because I’ve feelings for them. Just that as a human being, I don’t know why they are so adamant on taking drugs.
They know the harmful effects and repercussions (of doing so), yet they still choose to take it again!
There are plenty of things that they can do, yet they choose to do nothing.”
But Lim has never thought of giving up on them.
Pressing on in her role as an intermediary between the inmates and the world they are trying to fit back into, she remains as dedicated to her job as the day when she first started.
Joined SPS to make a difference in people’s lives
While Lim had always aspired to be a uniformed officer since young, she took the plunge and applied for a position in the SPS when she saw a recruitment ad by chance.
The ad, which likened the role of a prison officer to saving people, one life at a time -- much like “The Starfish Story” -- inspired her to want to make a difference to others’ lives.
“I am certain that this was my personal calling -- to keep Singapore safe by deterring inmates from causing more harm to themselves and their surroundings.
I hope to change their mentality and help them understand that their criminal behaviour are not tolerated in our society.”
A few decades down the road, Lim’s choice has proven to be the right one for her.
Lim said she looks forward to her job every day.
Having the ability to contribute to Singapore’s criminal justice system excites her, Lim said.
She added that while her parents had initially discouraged her from joining the SPS -- as with all other well-meaning parents as they were worried for her safety -- they later grew to support her career choice, even telling her to “be fair and show kindness to everyone”.
Seeks to upgrade her skills constantly
But despite being recognised and commended for her patience and dedication, Lim has not grown complacent about her role.
Rather, she has constantly sought to improve her skills so she can better connect with former inmates and guide them.
For instance, she went back to school in 2007 and obtained a Diploma in Correctional and Management Studies.
Since then, she has continued to go for additional counselling-related courses to improve her counselling skills.
Such skills have come in handy for her day-to-day work with the inmates, and helped her engage with inmates more purposefully.
Biggest challenge at work is to motivate & inspire inmates
Lim said the biggest challenge that comes with her job is to “motivate and inspire offenders to change their way of thinking and belief systems” using the tools at hand, such as rehabilitation programmes.
For former inmates to be effectively rehabilitated, she firmly believes in the importance of aftercare as they need support to help them transition smoothly to life outside of bars.
But Lim acknowledged that there is not much she or her colleagues can do should their beneficiaries themselves not be motivated to change.
Despite the difficulties involved, Lim finds a sense of satisfaction from receiving words of gratitude and countless invitations to attend her supervisees’ pre-release graduation ceremonies.
“I enjoy hearing my supervisees reflect about their lives and their past,” she said.
Knowing that she has made a difference at the end of the day, Lim is convinced that she is on the right path, and is even more motivated to continue her outreach to the inmates.
As their RO, Lim will also contact their family members to find out more about her supervisees, and to better address their expectations about life outside prison so as to facilitate a smoother transition.
But more than that, Lim will listen to their grievances and struggles, and will also offer her advice on managing their incarcerated family members better.
When asked if she has ever regretted taking up this job -- after all, a role that centres primarily around human relations is never easy -- Lim gave a definite “no”, without needing to think twice.
“I am convinced that with my abilities and by genuinely following through with all my supervisees, some of them will change.
And this will lead to a ripple effect in his family, and in turn, the community.”
Top image credit to Public Service Division
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