Govt taking disciplinary action against officers for prison inmate death

Dinesh, 21, was found to have died from breathing difficulties after he was placed chest down on the ground in an isolation cell. -- TNP FILE PHOTO
Dinesh, 21, was found to have died from breathing difficulties after he was placed chest down on the ground in an isolation cell. -- TNP FILE PHOTO

Authorities 'take serious view of lapses, neglect or misconduct by prison staff'

Disciplinary action against the superintendent, supervisors and other officers involved in the death of a prison inmate in 2010 have begun, Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran told Parliament yesterday.

The authorities take a serious view of professional misconduct, procedural lapses, neglect or excess of duty by prison commanders and officers, and will take firm action against them, he said.

"This is important in maintaining public confidence in the institutions, and also in the people who continue to serve in them," the minister said.

Pointing to confusion over what exactly happened in the 2010 incident, several members of the House such as Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) later rose to press for more transparency, including making the findings from a Commission of Inquiry (COI) public.

Mr Iswaran made clear that the COI's purpose was not to establish criminal guilt or liability.

Rather, it was to audit the prison system and its processes, and identify additional measures to prevent a recurrence.

In response to the COI's recommendations, the minister said the Prison Service now puts greater emphasis on the risk of positional asphyxiation, the cause of Dinesh's death.

Protocols such as applying control and restraint techniques on violent inmates in a standing position where possible have been introduced.

All supervising officers must now also be re-certified in the techniques every two years, instead of only officers who directly manage inmates.

These techniques were used 331 times in the past four years to deal with a range of violent incidents, the minister said.

Before Dinesh's case, no inmate had died or suffered serious injury from the measures, which were introduced here in 1990.

Three years ago, the 21-year-old assaulted a warden at Changi Prison. He was subdued by several officers.

Dinesh was found to have died from breathing difficulties after he was placed chest down on the ground in an isolation cell.

Mr Iswaran stressed that the Government had endeavoured to "run a robust investigation to make sure the facts are clear".

"And I think the facts have all been presented in totality," he said.

Mr Singh also asked if the coroner's inquiry could be re-opened.

But the minister said it was not unprecedented nor uncommon for one to be discontinued at the state coroner's discretion after the accused had pleaded guilty.

Lawyers acting for the inmate's family also did not object to the inquiry being discontinued.

The minister then turned to the concerns of Jurong GRC MP Ang Wei Neng, who related how the inmate's mother, a resident in his ward, had said prisons officers did not give her the full story until the court case.

"I think they would have been constrained by the fact that the matter was still under investigation," replied Mr Iswaran.

There was regular and appropriate communication with the family and their lawyers throughout, and on compensation, he said.

The COI also found the Prison Service's overall system and processes for managing violent inmates to be appropriate, safe and effective, Mr Iswaran said.

The Government recognises that maintaining order and discipline in such facilities is difficult and challenging, but expects prison officers to perform their duties with integrity and professionalism, he added.

"It is important that the Prison Service has a team of disciplined and well-trained officers who obey the law, and manage inmates conscientiously according to rules and procedures," he said.

yanliang@sph.com.sg