SINGAPORE - In December 2019, Singapore Prison Service (SPS) rehabilitation officer Zulkifli Zakaria and his team began trialling a minibus that could transport sick inmates who need to be isolated.
It became operational on Jan 1, 2020. About three weeks later, on Jan 23, Singapore had its first confirmed Covid-19 case.
Since then, the vehicle has proven its worth in transporting infected inmates to quarantine facilities or hospitals for treatment.
Previously, an inmate with an infectious disease had to be transported individually, and the vehicle needed to be decontaminated at the prison facilities after each use.
In comparison, the Compartmentalised Inmate Transporter can carry multiple inmates in isolation and has an automated disinfection system.
The ongoing battle against Covid-19 is one of many milestones RO Zulkifli, 50, has experienced in his 31 years with SPS, which marked its 75th anniversary on Wednesday (Dec 1).
The virtual commemoration event was graced by President Halimah Yacob, who was presented with a cheque of $75,000. The money was raised by SPS through its initiative to help beneficiaries of the President's Challenge 2021.
Madam Halimah also launched the SPS75 stamp series that pays tribute to its staff, pioneering officers and partners.
RO Zulkifli, who was officer-in-charge of transport for 14 years, told The Straits Times that when his team was trialling the prototype vehicle to transport inmates with infectious diseases, it had tuberculosis, severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and H1N1 flu in mind, as they had no inkling of the pandemic to come.
"We created the vehicle to be future-ready, but we never expected the future to become the present so quickly," he said.
"I had gone through Sars and H1N1, and we kept them in mind when developing the vehicle. But they are nothing compared to Covid-19, which has killed so many people."
The vehicle, which can seat up to six inmates and 12 escorts, has controlled airflow in each compartment to prevent cross-contamination.
It can also be used for inmates who need to be isolated for security reasons.
Recalling the many changes and innovations SPS has undergone during his time there, RO Zulkifli noted how it has moved from a lock-and-key role to one that is multifaceted.
Keys have been replaced by biometrics and closed-circuit television cameras to monitor every corner, as well as analytics to alert staff if inmates are up to no good or are fighting.
The infrastructural developments since 2004 have boosted operational efficiency and allowed prison officers to focus on the rehabilitation of inmates, SPS said.
Retired SPS officer Mohamed Sallim, 56, is another veteran who has seen first-hand the importance of rehabilitation.
After 33 years working with inmates as a senior personal supervisor, he now uses his knowledge and experience to engage students who play truant, disrupt classes or get into altercations.
The discipline aide in a secondary school said the students he works with lack adult supervision at home, and some have parents in jail.
Many of them lack a sense of purpose and have low self-esteem.
Instead of being strict with the students, he takes a friendly approach, with the goal of inculcating positive thinking.
"Many students who make a scene in class do it because they don't understand what's being taught and want the teacher's attention," said Mr Sallim, who has four children.
He tells them the teachers would be willing to help them after class. He also works on building their confidence by focusing on their interests, such as sports.
"My experience taught me to not judge the inmates and students, but to guide them to think for themselves, to think before they act and think about what they want."
Thanking the SPS for its service, Madam Halimah said: "The work done by SPS staff and partners is often unseen by the general public. It can be challenging at times and may not bring about immediate results. But it is also very meaningful and can be life-changing."
She said she has met many inmates who have gone on to positively impact the lives of others.
"The impact that each of you makes creates a ripple that goes beyond the individual inmate to touch their families, society, the nation and beyond," she told SPS staff.