A leg-up for ex-inmates at Step-Up Centre

Sana para-counsellor Koh Joh Ting having a chat with Mr Ridzwan at the Step-Up Centre. Besides counselling and mediation services, the centre also provides legal aid and financial help.
Sana para-counsellor Koh Joh Ting having a chat with Mr Ridzwan at the Step-Up Centre. Besides counselling and mediation services, the centre also provides legal aid and financial help.PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Run by Sana, centre helps ex-offenders get a job and remove tattoos, among other things

Former drug offender Mohammad Ridzwan had no savings and struggled to support himself after his release from jail in June last year.

Looking for financial help, he decided to visit the Step-Up Centre in the Sengkang Community Hub in October. With the centre's help, Mr Ridzwan, 27, found a job as a clinical assistant. Another thing he hopes to do soon is to have the tattoos on his arms removed under a subsidised programme.

The centre, which is run by voluntary welfare organisation Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association (Sana), began as a pilot project to serve the needs of former offenders and their families in January last year.

It will be officially launched next week, and expects to handle more than 500 cases this year.

Besides counselling and mediation services, the centre provides legal aid, job referrals and a link to support groups. It also serves as a contact point for those seeking information on drug abuse.

The idea to set up the centre was first mooted in 2014, after findings of the Ministry of Home Affairs' Task Force on Drugs were released.

The people who visit the centre are mostly in their early 20s to late 30s. About 60 per cent of the 339 cases seen last year were for financial aid, said Sana executive director Abdul Karim.

"The centre aims to meet their immediate needs, for instance, by giving them small sums of money, pre-paid food vouchers and ez-link cards," he said. "But it also helps them to prepare for the future, by providing guidance for them to upgrade their jobs and social skills."

The centre was set up at a cost of about $300,000, and up to 65 per cent of its daily operations are currently self-funded. It is run by about 30 para-counsellors, who are volunteers with the necessary experience and qualifications in social work and psychology.

The centre also hopes to rally the support of family members by inviting them for counselling sessions and programmes to help former inmates reintegrate into society.

"A lot of our clients struggle with guilt and there's an element of blaming others," said Ms Koh Joh Ting, who has been a para-counsellor at Sana since January this year. "So, we need to talk them through their emotions, and help them find more sustainable coping strategies."

For Mr Ridzwan, the centre was a lifeline after more than a decade of going in and out of jail for crimes such as methamphetamine abuse and robbery. It was at the centre that he was introduced to the tattoo removal programme, which is a joint project between Sana and the National Skin Centre that offers former prisoners a subsidy of up to 90 per cent for laser tattoo removal.

"There is still a social stigma when it comes to people with tattoos, and I got tired of the attention," said Mr Ridzwan, who got his first tattoo when he was 16.

"Removing my tattoos will also give me some confidence."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2016, with the headline 'A leg-up for ex-inmates at Step-Up Centre'. Print Edition | Subscribe