Chris Nestled in a grove of leafy shade trees far from the bustling skyscrapers of modern Singapore, lies a large, beautiful two-story house. The windows in its grand facade look out over the trees, and its driveway is large enough for two luxury cars. It’s surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, and there are security cameras all around. Someone walking past might mistake it for the grand home of a wealthy family.
A few months ago, I visited this house with my student Weiyun, a Sociology major. Curiously, she brought along her older brother. This was because it was no ordinary home.
Weiyun I had been warned to be careful. My mom told me to cover up with long pants. My friends said “don’t stare straight at them.” I took my brother along just to feel safer.
But when we arrived, there were no thick concrete walls or threatening guards on patrol. Instead, the place was surrounded by lush greenery – a rarity in Singapore’s urban concrete jungle. As I listened to the crowing roosters and chirping crickets nearby, a sense of ease washed over me.
Chris I’m Chris McMorran, a professor at the National University of Singapore and this is Home on the Dot, the podcast that explores the meaning of home in Singapore, through the stories and lives of my students. When I teach about home, I make students find a place in Singapore that uses the powerful idea of home to sell something. It can be a store that uses home in its name, or like we heard in Season 1, it can be the nation itself, which uses things like museums and songs to remind all Singaporeans that this is their home.
In Season 1, we also heard how student dormitories explicitly try to create what they call a “home on campus”. Dormitories are one example of what we might call “institutional homes”. Hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages. Institutions like these use the language of “home” to try to soften their image and make residents feel the same sense of comfort and belonging they do in their own residence.
But at their core, these places can be quite cold and, well, institutional. You can hang photos of all the residents in a hallway and celebrate the birthdays of every resident and nurse, but no hospital or long-term elderly care facility can ever be quite as private and personal and comfortable as home.
In this episode, Weiyun and I visit another institutional home. This one comes with warnings like Weiyun heard from her family and friends: it’s a halfway house.
Every prison system eventually releases some inmates back to the general population. In some cases, they could use a step between prison and home, a safe and supportive place to help smooth their transition. This is what a halfway house is for. It’s a place where prisoners can get job training, reconnect with their families, and show they can be trusted, sometimes for early release.
This week on Home on the Dot, Weiyun and I visit a halfway house. We get a tour of the facilities from the Director, who points out some of the ways the halfway house tries to make residents feel more at home. Finally, we interview a resident. He tells about the harsh realities of prison and explains how the halfway house is slowly resensitizing him to the post-prison world.
When Weiyun said we were visiting a halfway house I didn’t know what to expect. I had no experience with the Singapore prison system and had no idea how a halfway house worked or what the facilities looked like.
Weiyun The wooden board panels and potted plants along the parking space made the halfway house seem more like a resort than an institutional home. The gloom associated with institutional homes was replaced here with sunlight and a well-kept environment. The staff greeted us warmly as we entered the gates.
The wall was lined with plaques from government officials praising the place. Heartfelt Mothers’ Day cards made by the residents dangled from the branches of a large potted plant in the corner.
Chris Plus, there were security cameras on the ceiling and special locks on the doors. We seemed to be standing at the perfect intersection of a bureaucratic institution, a warm personalized space, and a prison. In hindsight, that seems like a pretty good definition of a halfway house.
Wei Yun In Singapore, halfway houses are community-based rehabilitation centres. Some convicts serve the final months of their prison sentences here. The goal is to help them reintegrate into society.
Director We have two categories of residents with us. A great majority would be what we called mandated clients. The moment they are here we don’t call them prisoners – we call them residents or clients. Mandated clients would mean that these inmates would have been chosen by the Singapore Prisons based on their risk profile and they have been assessed to have a very good foundation to be rehabilitated.
Wei Yun These are convicted criminals eligible for early release. They move to the halfway house on a trial basis. While there, they are called residents and not prisoners. This is an important first step in their transition out of the prison system and back into society.
Interestingly, the needy and vulnerable can also stay here.
Director And then we have another category of residents who we call Walk-In residents. This means we open up our doors to anyone who needs help – who needs a place to stay, who needs to have a meal, who needs to come in and have a good wash-up. Well, our doors are open.
Chris After the Director welcomed us and told us a little bit about halfway houses in Singapore, he gave us a tour.
Weiyun The first stop on our tour was called the relaxation corner. It had a couch, some stackable chairs and a television set. It resembled a cozy living room. There were three men in their fifties or sixties watching an Indian drama on TV. They looked at us with curiosity, as you might expect, and then, we moved on.
Director It’s very relaxing actually. It’s like a resort… therapeutic environment.
Weiyun Then we moved to the second floor and saw two carpeted prayer rooms. Each was about the size of a bedroom, with religious icons and paintings hanging from the walls.
Director These are the two prayer rooms for the Sikhs. Occasionally we do have Sikh residents. And then we have the other Hindu room. We have a tie-up with the Hindu center. Religious counsellors come in twice a week to read scriptures and to instill values and morals that are all extracted from Hindu mythology. I tell them that, look, we don’t need to practice intellectual Hinduism. Perhaps, kind of re-frame the Hindu discourse in the context of the lived experiences – making right choices and how their actions impact their families. To [help them] be a bit more grounded. Otherwise, if it is too intellectual, if it is too text-based, it will not go well with my residents.
Weiyun Next, the Director showed us a bedroom – a dormitory with 12 bunk beds. Next to this was a computer lab filled with a dozen PCs. We were all surprised to see the computers, but the Director explained they used them for job training and resume prep. There was only one person inside, a young man who immediately stood up and introduced himself.
Dave Hi, nice to meet you, I’m Dave.
(chatter of introductions)
Overall, the facility felt empty because it was Sunday. This was the one day each week when residents could visit their families, and most residents were out for the day or waiting for family members to visit them.
Director Can we walk to the garden?
Chris I saw some photos in the lobby about the eco-garden. No one’s allergic to bees?
Director Yeah, there are bees in the garden.
Weiyun The final stop on our tour was the garden. It was really a revelation to see neat rows of vegetables and fruit trees here. It was so unexpected. Proud roosters crowed in excitement as hens roamed freely around us in search of food. In fact, the garden is a collaboration between the house and the National Parks Board, or NParks. The project aims to promote eco-conscious living and sustainability among residents.
Director We work very closely with Nparks. They give us all the seedlings. So this is the compost. So nothing goes to waste at the Halfway House. This also teach residents the importance of recycling.
Chris The other purpose of the garden is to keep the residents busy. They are expected to water the plants, pull weeds, and feed the chickens every morning. The garden also helps them feel a sense of accomplishment for their efforts, something that was missing in their time as prisoners.
Weiyun In fact, all the things we saw on the tour have a purpose, which the Director carefully explained. The relaxation corner provides a space to unwind. After months or years spent in prison with no control over their time, some residents are happy to watch TV and make friends. The prayer rooms provide quiet space for deep reflection.
Singapore is a secular state, but it considers religion something that can offer a moral compass, which the Director said can be especially useful for former prisoners. The computer room gives men like Dave a chance to work on his resume and to reconnect with friends and family online. After all, there is no access to Facebook in prison.
Chris After the tour, we asked if we could talk to Dave. We had heard the official explanation about the halfway house. What did the residents think? Soon the intercom crackled to life, calling Dave to report to the main office. It was a bleak reminder that despite the homey atmosphere, we were still in an institution.
Weiyun Dave’s been here for two months and he already knows the routine.
Dave Monday we have Hindu counselling. Tuesday we have yoga. Wednesday we used to have WeCare – it’s kind of like recovery processes for drug addicts. It’s at Paya Lebar. It’s like a walk-in centre that is made just for recovery and addicts and people suffering with withdrawal symptoms.
Chris Dave was convicted for drug use. He’s in his mid-20s, at a time of life when many young people around the world experiment with drugs. But Singapore has very strict laws. Dave was sentenced to a year in prison for having an amount of marijuana that is now perfectly legal in some US states. Now he’s trying to get his life back on track. And part of that is staying drug-free.
Dave Even if you regress and you go back to drugs, you are actually encouraged to come there with no hidden meanings. Nobody will kind of give you up to the cops and stuff like that. Just go there and you seek help and stuff like that. So we go there for like a smart recovery program. It’s a 8-part course where they teach us how to recognize withdrawal symptoms and why we get emotional and what those emotions do to our feelings and because of that why we end up going back to do drugs and stuff.
Weiyun There is plenty of free time at the halfway house, and residents can do optional activities like yoga. But they are still technically in the prison system, and they are supposed to do chores, like gardening and caring for the chickens every morning. Unfortunately, some people seem to prefer a more relaxing routine.
Dave There are always people complaining. No matter how good it gets. There’s always a group of people that are in this habit of complaining because things are not going their way. But they… maybe they know deep down inside that things are not supposed to go their way? Because if it was then they will be just sitting around on their asses the whole day. So there’s always something that needs to be done.
Chris So some people would prefer to do that?
Dave Ya. I mean, that’s the environment that we came from. So you can’t really blame them. I mean, we are literally stuck in the cell, 23 hours day. And it sounds really bad. But when you’re inside, you kinda… adapt? And the morning rituals (are) a certain way, and then the lunch ritual is a certain way and then just before dinner it’s a certain way. And then just after dinner, depending on how physically active your cell is, then there is another three or four different routines you go through before you hit the sack and fall asleep. So in the mornings, the eight people in your cell will be seated in different places doing different things, and lunch they will be doing different things and dinner they will be doing different things. So it’s very interesting to observe these things. But if it goes on for more than a month or so, you start seeing the same people doing the same things on the same day(s) and it starts getting repetitive. And then you start to slowly lose the days and go into that head-space where it doesn’t really do anybody good so. But physically, you’re still in that cell, you’re not moving around, so it gets very sedentary. So people who come here (the halfway house), they’re still stuck in there.
Chris In prison, the institution decides where you should be and what you should do all day. As Dave says, it leads to an incredibly sedentary life. Plus, it can trap you in a certain head-space. Once released, some people fall into those same sedentary routines. This is what Dave sees around him at the halfway house. Some guys become so institutionalized that even when they get out they just sit around all day, like they did in their cells. Dave wants to break free from that routine, so he takes advantage of what the halfway house has to offer. He is definitely not taking this place for granted.
Weiyun So is it better living here than in prison?
Dave Oh definitely. Definitely.
Weiyun Like less conflict and stuff.
Dave Uh… imagine you are floating in the middle of the ocean for six and a half months, and you finally reached the shore. Like, you feel like you’re going to drown at the end of every day, and then at the start of the next day, you have renewed strength. But wait, you’re still drowning! (chuckles) So everyday you’re in this process, and then at the end of that process, you finally become grounded, in the sense that you can walk around, you are in the real world. But it’s a new experience, because you haven’t used your legs in the past duration of the time that you’re in prison. So, now that I’m talking about it, I’m using this example. I don’t know if you guys can relate, but that’s how it kind of feels if i should put it in an example. So it’s definitely way better.
Weiyun After drowning for 6 months in prison, the halfway house was Dave’s first chance to stand on firm ground and catch his breath. Now he needs some time to learn how to use his legs again, and that is what the halfway house provides. Dave tells us what a regular day at the halfway house is like.
Dave Typical weekday is we wake up at 6:45 (AM). The alarm, like you heard, goes off at 6:45. Sometimes it’s an announcement, sometimes they just keep spamming the intercom. So it’s deng deng deng x 5 … Then everybody wakes in a hissy fit. So it’s pretty interesting to watch. So alarm goes off at 6:45. 7 to 8 is our breakfast, we help ourselves, free and easy. 8 to about 9 or 9:30 is area cleaning. So there’s a roster out: so some people do sweeping, some people feed the chickens, some people clean the fish pond and we all share the duties. But over here, like I was sharing with Professor just now, there are some people who have their own preferences. So some people will do a bit of work first, and then they will rest for a good two hours, having a hearty breakfast. So while they do that, we kind of finish up the work.
So, um, some people who are willing, myself included, will do most of the work here. Like sweeping the basketball court and watering the plants. Cause you need to water the plants twice a day, especially the vegetables and the flowering plants. So recently I was put in charge of that, so I do that as well. And then I feed the chickens and I get to know some of the chicks.
Weiyun In addition to having more freedom and the chance to do something rewarding each day, Dave is more relaxed around others. In the prison, he had to be careful who he talked to.
Dave You are completely cut off from anybody who has your best interest at heart because everybody is… is working on that mentality that you’re out to get something from them. And you cannot talk to somebody and get a humane reaction back from them because they are just functioning on their level of fear. Like if one prisoner talks to another prisoner, “hey’s how your day, how’s everything going”, (the other prisoner would respond) “why are you talking to me all of a sudden, are you planning something?”. So it’s hard to talk to somebody that way, especially when you do not have like an ulterior motive. So that’s why I kinda said that you just try to be invisible.
Chris So in the halfway house does that kind of relationship change?
Dave It definitely does.
Chris Do you feel like you can have normal conversations with people without feeling like there’s some ulterior motive?
Dave Yeah, that definitely changes once you come out. But people still have their egos and their personalities. So they try to cling to that as much as they can because that gives them a sense of identity.
Weiyun The halfway house is a step toward reintegration back into the world. Key to this process is to maintain strong ties with family, which is encouraged here. Residents can visit home over the weekends. Dave smiles when we ask about his family, which he gets to see at least once a week. As the director explained:
Director We encourage family members to visit our residents any time, anytime but usually it’s a Sunday. Many of our residents do qualify for what you’d call ‘home leave’. So on weekends, they do go back home.
Chris Oh really. Oh wow.
Director Yah they do go back.
Chris So temporarily they can leave?
Director Yah, morning they do leave and by evening 8PM they have to be back.
Weiyun In contrast, prison inmates are only allowed face-to-face visits once a month. Other visits are done through an intercom system.
The halfway house is more than just a place for punitive confinement. It aims to rebuild broken family ties, and to promote affection and acceptance between residents and loved ones.
Chris Of course, there are limitations to how much institutional spaces can be like home. I suppose they are ‘necessary evils’ given their purpose. For instance, as soon as we arrived at the halfway house, we felt we were being watched. Electronic eyes loomed silently on the ceiling at every turn. This surveillance makes sense. The residents are still technically serving prison sentences. The halfway house is a privilege that only a select few inmates get, and it needs security precautions to deter escape and other problems. The cameras felt stifling to us and must diminish the privacy residents feel there. The surveillance is a constant reminder that the halfway house is an extension of the prison complex, an institutional site that is not yet home.
When we were ready to interview Dave after our tour, we assumed someone would head up to the second floor to inform him. Instead, we heard a loud voice boom through the speakers.
Intercom Dave, please come to counselling room, thank you.
Weiyun Amused, we asked Dave how the intercom system was used in the house and whether such loud noises affect him. Dave told us about a recent hearing test organised for the residents.
Dave We actually had our hearing test here as well. Cause there’s an organization that’s willing to sponsor the residents here hearing aids.
Chris Okay, but you don’t need one.
Dave No. (chuckles) I may need one soon if they don’t reduce the volume of the intercom.
Chris (laughs) It’s so loud! It’s very funny.
Dave I can’t blame them as well. Most of the time they announce “All residents, gather at the lobby.” And only two out of the fifteen people gather. And then the two people have to run around like headless chickens looking for the other residents. So the people here thinking, might as well put it on maximum. So there’s no excuse.
Chris There’s no excuse, yeah. Didn’t you hear it? It was so loud. Anyway, I felt a little embarrassed that we used – the guy – used the intercom system to have you come down.
Weiyun We can imagine how frustrating this is for the residents when they do not have control over noises in the halfway house. As such, Dave chooses to spend his mornings in the quiet courtyard.
Dave Like everyday when I wake up, everybody just comes down, turns on the television and then they start watching the news and then eating and some of them do clean up and stuff like that. But, er, cause of my yoga and stuff, I actually come out here, I sit down at the hardcourt then I just do my yoga, relax. And I’m really grateful that the sounds from there (the halfway house), no matter how loud, doesn’t reach the hardcourt. So it’s really peaceful. And I’m grateful for that as well. So, a lot of things to be grateful for.
Weiyun Homes are places where we can be ourselves. But institutional homes cannot provide that luxury. In the halfway house, residents share intimate living quarters and spend a lot of time together every day. They have to adapt to changing group dynamics since people come and go all the time. It’s hard to make friends in that environment. It’s just not their home, where they can welcome guests and decide who stays and who doesn’t.
The challenge for the Director is to create some feeling of home, while still maintaining the institution.
Director The challenge is to recreate the conditions of prisons, but not in an explicit, in your face kind of way. Very subtle; we have CCTVs, we have barbed wires, raised fencing – all these are statutory requirements. This is a gazetted institution.
Chris What does that (gazetted institution) mean?
Director It is a space that has been authorised by the state to house active prisoners.
Weiyun However, since halfway houses are meant to help prisoners, they must also incorporate non-stigmatizing and community-friendly elements. They need to strike a delicate balance between achieving security and preserving the residents’ freedom.
Director The other challenge is to recreate the conditions of the free community. So, the challenge is half-half.
So make it appear like a residential home. We call them residents. Make sure that the narratives themselves are non-stigmatizing. Humanity should be at the centre of everything we do.
Weiyun All institutional homes try to create a place like home. Even a halfway house in a prison system tries to treat people humanely – giving them some freedom, some sense of self-worth, something to occupy their time, and to reward them with a sense of accomplishment.
But at the end of the day, these are still institutional homes. At the halfway house, in particular, it was hard to ignore the cameras, the gates, the loud intercom system, and the rules.
We make places and places make us. Institutional homes are no different. Institutional homes create institutionalized people.
Chris Dave has gone through the hell of prison and come out the other side. He epitomizes the promise of a halfway house, making use of all the opportunities that it provides and getting ready for the next step of his life. But it seemed some of the others may be unable to return to society so quickly and easily. They seemed like institutionalized men. Hopefully, the halfway house will give them the time and opportunity they need to ease into life after prison. We hope they can one day find their way home.
This week’s episode was written and produced by me and Weiyun, with sound design by Johann Tan and David Chew.
Special thanks to the Director of the halfway house and to Dave, who opened up to us so effortlessly. He was one of the most honest, forthcoming, and uplifting people I’ve ever met in Singapore, and it was my privilege to get a chance to talk with him and to share his story. I really hope he never has to visit a halfway house again.
Please check out our blog for access to transcripts of all our episodes, for photos, and to links to news and academic articles on every topic. It’s at tinyurl.com/homeonthedot
Thanks for listening. Thank you!