Help for 2,000 former drug offenders

Aftercare groups pulling together resources to meet needs of ex-abusers due for prison release

When a childhood friend was sent to the gallows for trafficking at the age of 27, Mr Rasman Saridin received the wake-up call he needed.

Hooked on drugs since he was 15, Mr Rasman was around the same age and serving a fifth stint at the Drug Rehabilitation Centre for heroin addiction when he heard the news in 1995.

Determined to sober up for good, he made that rehab stint his last. Today, the 46-year-old religious teacher and father of two is the founder of Hira Society, a volunteer group that helps drug addicts and their families. The organisation has reached out to more than 380 families since it was formed in 2011.

In March, Hira was granted society status, and is still in the process of applying to be a charity.

"To see change I knew I must sacrifice," said Mr Rasman. "The first thing I had to leave was my friends... I had to be away from that environment. It was very, very hard but I tried." He turned to his religion and his family, who never gave up on him.

The reformed addict now wants to ensure individuals fresh out of prison have a roof over their heads to keep them from returning to their old ways.

"We're worried because a large number of long-term drug addicts will be released in the next two years," said Mr Rasman in Malay.

About 2,000 long-term narcotics offenders are due to be freed from prison between 2013 and 2014, according to figures from the Central Narcotics Bureau.

The long-term imprisonment regime was introduced in 1998 to mete out harsher sentences to repeat offenders. To help support them on their release, the group is expanding its pool of volunteers.

About 20 of its 55 staff and volunteers are reformed drug addicts. A weekly support group session is in place for former addicts with little or no family support - a gap it identified and wants to plug. Plans are also in the works for a temporary shelter for those fresh out of prison and with no place to stay.

"These large numbers of inmates to be released probably know one another," said Mr Rasman. "It's important that they don't fall back in the trap of going to places they used to hang out at."

Families mired in a constant cycle of drugs and poverty are a primary focus of Hira. Mr Rasman said children are the core focus of its outreach efforts. "We hope that if the parents of these families are unable to change, we can at least guide the children in terms of spiritual and academic support," he added.

On top of existing in-care programmes and services available for offenders, the Singapore Prison Service, halfway houses and aftercare groups have started pulling together resources in gearing up for the prisoners' release.

It is crucial that agencies collaborate more closely on rehabilitative services, said Singapore After-Care Association director Prem Kumar, whose non-profit organisation helps former offenders reintegrate into mainstream society.

"We want to try to coordinate all existing agencies to make sure we are not duplicating services, so no group of clients is under-served," said Mr Prem.

For example, his organisation has a volunteer programme to reach out to inmates, as does the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association and the Hindu Centre.

Last month, at the inaugural Community Action for the Rehabilitation of Ex-offenders Network work- plan seminar, a training plan for aftercare professionals and volunteers was announced.

To be launched later in the year, it will equip volunteers with relevant skills and attitudes to work in the sector and ensure different agencies use the same template for training.

Making sure volunteers keep coming back is among the key challenges faced by aftercare agencies, said Mr Prem.

For the inmates, support from all levels of society is needed to keep them off drugs. This could take the form of emotional strength from family members and society giving them a second chance.

Mr Prem added: "Aftercare is there for them only for a short while. After that, it's up to them to want to change, and for society - their families, friends and volunteers - to help and support them."

maryamm@sph.com.sg