What it feels like…
to serve time in detention barracks.
I was sentenced to nine months for consumption of marijuana while I was in National Service. Situated within Kranji Camp 3, rows of towering barbwire fences separate the SAF Detention Barracks from the rest of the camp.
Most of the people with whom I interacted were serving longer sentences for [other serious offences]. They were the least of my worries—some code-switching, sporting a tattoo or two and a little bilingualism will get you far, but it’s easy to detach yourself from the gang activity and random frays. Once in a while, violent detainees who liked to sharpen things and spit at the guards would end up in solitary—a 1x2m cell that lacks a proper bathroom.
There’s no Wi-Fi or any semblance of technology inside. The only things that connect us to the real world are books and letters. Once a week, you get letters that are subject to checks by the military police… that is if they decide to do their jobs; if they don’t, inmates who haven’t seen their parents/wives/children in months are deprived of their only form of contact for another week.
The whole chronemics [the study of the role of time in communication] screws with your senses. The cell has a little window that was covered up during my first month because of construction within the compound. Half the block didn’t get to see the outside. No sky, no Copernicus.
Food wasn’t prepared on-site and it came on sad-looking food trays, which were slid under our barred doors. Each tray was filled with starchy, cold rice, and the rest that’s either a ‘protein’—usually processed fishballs or canned hot dogs—and a vegetable, which is just steamed cabbage. We got three meals a day and sometimes they got served late, but we wouldn’t know because we had no access to clocks.
Due to the yard being renovated, our sandbag regime—an arduous circular march while carrying huge bags of sand—was on an uneven plot of concrete about half the size of a basketball court. The sandbag regime has since been phased out and detainees now do the regular 5BX [Five Basic Exercises].
Because DB is considered a military facility, yard time doesn’t follow proper ‘prison’ legislation. Yard time entails a certain ratio of NS regulars to prisoners: if there weren’t enough NS regulars, detainees never see the sun. So, in December, when they were clearing their annual leave, some detainees never left their cells for close to a month.
‘Rehabilitation’ is a strong word. I guess ‘deterrence’, which is the goal of our justice system, would be more fitting. Avoiding DB or any similar encounter is probably the greatest deterrent besides having lots to lose. This D-grade sabbatical wasn’t worth the crime at all. I did, however, come out the other side more self-aware and grounded.
(Names and identifying features have been changed for this article.)