The doors of Singapore’s maximum security correctional facility were unlocked for Robin Hicks and Kelly Ng to find out how technology has made one of Asia’s most high-tech jails more secure and efficient.
Changi Prison entered the history books in the 1940s when the Japanese army used it as a prisoner of war camp. Its notoriety was brought before a global audience in 1962 with the novel King Rat by James Clavell, which was later made into a film. But these days, five years after the old prison was knocked down and rebuilt, Changi is better known for its high-tech “keyless” security systems than haunting tales of abused Allied soldiers.
The Singapore Prison Service built the first cluster of the new Changi Prison Complex – known as Cluster A – in August 2004. The idea of having prison clusters is to avoid putting “all of our eggs in one basket”, explains the Commander of Cluster A, Koh Tong Hai. Cluster B is being built. Cluster C is still at the planning stage.
Surprisingly, the introduction of state-of-the-art technology has not led to a reduction in the number of prison staff per inmate at Changi – even though the facility now runs more efficiently because of it. What technology has done is allow additional capacity and economies of scale. It has also given officers – known as “Captain of Lives” – more time to spend with inmates on their rehabilitation, safe in the knowledge that the facility is more secure.
There are five ‘rings’ of security at Cluster A, which can house up to 5340 inmates. What follows is an account of the technology used to keep the prison secure at each ring, from the four walls of the cell on the inside, to the motion-sensitive fencing on the outside.
Changi Prison’s 5 rings of security
1. Cell Unit Ring (the cell). Roughly the area of two ping-pong tables, a cell usually houses three inmates. Each inmate wears a wrist band containing a barcode. Inmates are required to scan the wrist band at readers placed at strategic locations around the prison, so that their movement can be electronically tracked. Inmates spend a significant amount of time in their cells, which are designed to be safe. Nothing inside the cell can cause harm. Clothing pegs are made of brittle plastic; they would break if anything heavy was hung from them. The inmate’s toothbrushes are made of bendy rubber so that they cannot be used as weapons. A small air-vent is the only hole in the cell wall. Outside the wall is a narrow corridor where maintenance work can be carried out. The corridor is flanked by another tall wall.
2. Housing Unit Ring. This is where inmates eat, exercise, work and receive medical check-ups. They can also use the tele-visit facility. “The cluster is designed to reduce the movement of inmates,” explains Mr Koh. “The less they are moved around, the more secure the facility is. The tele-visit centre is one measure that reduces movement.” The tele-visit room is fitted with Tandberg cameras and Sharp screens. Inmates are under the constant watch of CCTV cameras (most cells have cameras). These are hooked up to the Housing Control Centre (HCC). An officer sits inside the HCC, monitoring the CCTV screens. He can ‘talk’ to prisoners using a public address system.
The HCC controls the opening and closure of all the doors in the unit. The doors within the housing unit use an interlocking system where only one door to a specific path can be opened at any one time. Each door is opened electronically by an officer in the HCC, although there is an option for manually override if the electronic system goes own. “Officers used to spend 50 per cent of their time opening and locking doors. Now that they prison is keyless, officers have more time to interact with the inmates and aid their rehabilitation,” says Mr Koh. In the dining room, tables and chairs are nailed to the floor to prevent them from being used as barricades. There is also a holding room in which prisoners wait while they are transferred to the medical or dining room. An officer’s room is only accessible to officers with personalised security cards.
The prison’s laundry service is also contained within the housing unit, again to reduce the movement of inmates where possible. A separate workshop providing Asia’s largest laundry service contains an X-Ray machine to detect inmates hiding out in laundry baskets.
3. Institution Ring. Anyone who enters the Institution Ring, including all prison officers, is screened thoroughly before they are allowed through into the housing unit. Verification and checks will be done on the person entering the housing unit by the officers on duty at the Institution Control Centre (ICC).
4. Cluster Ring. Before entering the cluster, visitors have their possessions x-rayed (using Rapiscan 515 X-Ray machines) before passing through a metal detector (a Metor 200-HS) at the Security Control Office. As an extra precaution, visitors are also scanned for weapons or other unauthorised objects (cigarettes, lighters, mobile phones and cameras) using Garrett hand-held scanners.
As if the SCC wasn’t secure enough, a facial recognition system is being trialed. The unit, which is positioned in a room leading on from the metal detector, is the same as that used at the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics a year ago (which used AuthenMetric face recognition technology). Contractors could pose a serious security threat to the prison. On entering the building they must have their equipment photographed before they enter. “What comes in must come out,” says Koh.
Two fences enclose the Cluster Ring. The first has vibration detectors, taut wires and anti-climb features built in. Any attempt to cut or scale the fence will trigger an alarm. The location of the security breach is pinpointed and shown on the computer system inside the control centre. The sensitivity of the vibration detectors can be altered. When on high alert, even a shadow will trigger the alarm. When the threat level is lower, the detectors are made less sensitive so that the alarm is not triggered by birds or rodents. A network of video motion detectors provides an additional layer of surveillance around the fencing, alerting officers in the control centre to any suspicious goings-on. The Cluster Ring also contains the Cluster Control Centre (CCC). This is the nerve centre of the prison and its “last line of defence”. The CCC controls the Institution Control Centre, which in turn can override the Housing Control Centre. All are linked by an integrated security system pieced together by the jointventure company TMS, of which Tyco, Megason and Signalor are the three partner vendors.
5. Complex Ring. Contains the main entrance to the prison complex and the Prison Link Centre, in which outsiders can visit inmates. Both visitors and prisoners use separate secured underground tunnels to get to face-to-face cubicles. Visitors have their thumb prints biometrically tested (using NEC equipment) at the entrance of the Centre, to ensure that only authorised visitors are granted access to inmates. Outside the complex stand newly-erected observation towers. The towers have v-shaped roofs to give the guards (armed with Heckler & Koch MP5 sub-machine guns) maximum visibility.
…and a taste of freedom: Singapore Prisons’ e-services
Visitors to Changi Prison don’t have to go to the Prison Link Centre to arrange some time with inmates. Lawyers, social workers, families and friends can book a visit online via the ePris Booking System (on the web site prisons.gov.sg). The site also enables researchers to send in requests to do fieldwork, loved ones to send an eCard to inmates and votes on prison issues cast via an ePoll. There is even an “inspirational game” which invites visitors to the site to “guess the quotation” by completing in a cross-word puzzle of a freedom-related quote from a famous poet or writer.
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