SINGAPORE - When he was just released from the Reformative Training Centre in Changi Prison Complex around five years ago, Mr Joe Daniel Austin felt "condemned" by society - but was greatly encouraged by the support of a grassroots volunteer.
"He was a very good friend to me, and always available when I wanted to talk," said Mr Austin, who is now 25 and works as an account assistant at non-profit organisation Tasek Jurong. "I used to call him at 12 or 1am, and sometimes I knew that I'd woke him up, but he would always say it's okay."
The volunteer gave him advice on his plans to start a social enterprise, among other matters, said Mr Austin.
Having joined the ranks of over 940 volunteers with the Yellow Ribbon Community Project (YRCP) around a year ago, Mr Austin hopes to pay this forward and be a good influence, providing moral support to other former offenders.
As of June this year, 945 volunteers have been trained to reach out to more than 5,700 families of inmates. This is an increase from 898 volunteers and 5,127 families last year (2016), according to numbers from the Singapore Prison Service.
When the YRCP first started in 2010, it had 58 trained volunteers reaching out to 78 families. This project sees volunteers visiting an inmate's family members with his or her consent, to identify their needs and help with referrals or other forms of support.
"Sometimes, an ex-offender relapses because he feels that the community does not welcome him, and goes back to his old circle of friends," said Mr Austin, adding that he used to be self-conscious about mixing with others, and worry that they would think differently of him if they found out he once spent over two years behind bars.
On Saturday (July 8), 30 YRCP volunteers received plaques and certificates for their contributions at an annual appreciation luncheon at the Singapore Expo. The event was attended by more than 350 people.
"The programme has expanded because we all realised that in helping an offender, the work does not start when the jail term ends," said Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing at the event on Saturday.
Families tend to need assistance almost immediately, he added, and if this is not done well, it will cause more problems down the line.
"The most difficult part, and perhaps the most important, is to help the next generation not to fall into the same trap," he said.
Ten new divisions, including Toa Payoh Central and Ulu Pandan, came on board the project this year.
"We are heartened to see YRCP grow from just eight participating grassroots divisions in 2010 to 74 in 2017," said Superintendent of Prisons Serena Lim, who is senior assistant director of the Singapore Prison Service's community and family policy branch.
As a new volunteer at the Taman Jurong division, Mr Austin recalls being introduced last October to a mother of seven whose husband was jailed.
"We provided free tuition for her children, and had them join my charity's programmes, so their mother could go to work without worrying," he said.
The activities include football trainings and outings.
"What is done is done," said Mr Austin. "Instead of looking at what offenders like him have done, we focus on how we can help him when he comes out - to be a good father for his family, and to try and turn over a new leaf. "