Life on the Inside
Dignity and self-respect are wrested from an inmate. A long-anticipated visitation with a family member means having to undergo a strip search, where he has to doff his uniform, bend over and squat while a guard checks every body orifice for any concealed contraband. Food is served through a hatch of a metal gate. Twenty-four hours a day, inmates are only allowed one hour outside the cell. On Sundays, the prison is on lockdown.
Stervey was handed a box that was his “entire life”: a soap, towel and one-centimetre-thick straw mat to sleep on. Once hobnobbing with CEOs, he was now sharing a cell with convicted rapists, loan sharks and the like. “For the first two months, I was afraid for my own safety. I didn’t know if I was going to be raped or get beaten up.” Altercations between inmates were a common affair. His first night in prison he barely got any sleep, his mistake kept repeating in his mind like a vinyl record stuck in a loop. “I couldn’t see beyond my reality. It was dark. I was a person who was always in control, and able to envision the next step. Suddenly, I lost everything. I had lost in this game called life.”
It took Stervey three months before he settled into the humdrum routine of prison life. 6am was count time, and he had to stand by the door as an officer did the mandatory roll call. Breakfast was served at 7am: four pieces of bread, each with a patina of kaya; and stale tea, coffee or milo to wash it down. “How it goes is that the server will make his round, and when he is done serving the last inmate, he will collect the empty trays, beginning with the first inmate he served. You have to wolf down your breakfast; there is no luxury of time.” Thereafter, the guard would call for a spot check. Towels had to be hung in a universal manner. Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno — always there would be someone who would try to game the system, and everyone would get into trouble for it.
Due to his good behaviour, Stervey was given the opportunity to work, ten months into his sentence. Working from morning till 5pm every Monday to Friday and for a dollar each day, he was stationed at an NTUC FairPrice outpost within the prison. “Not many people know that the prison is behind the preparation of the breads and cakes for the recruits undergoing Basic Military Training at Pulau Tekong. I was part of the production line. Working there helped me to pass my time faster, and it also returned some normalcy to my life.”