Women helping women: The challenge of life after prison
This International Women’s Day, meet a lady who rebuilt her life after 14 years behind bars, and the counsellor who helped her do so.
They are both in their fifties now, but life took a very different turn for Theoly* and Emily in their youth.
“In my younger days, I could have whatever I wanted,” Theoly, now 54, shared. “My father’s family was quite well-to-do, but he had three wives, and there were many children fighting for attention.”
Theoly started modelling after her ‘O’ levels, and got married in her early 20s. According to her, she had gotten married “with the wrong motive—to get out of the house”, after her parents were divorced. After having two children, she felt there was “no meaning” in the marriage, and it ended in a divorce when she was only 22.
A few years later, Theoly remarried. “My second husband was very good to me. We lived in a terrace house, when I wanted a pond we got a pond. I wanted koi in the pond and we got koi. But I didn’t work and didn’t know how to spend my time. So I started gambling at illegal dens. The more I gambled, the more I lost, and I had to borrow money from loan sharks. But my husband cleared all my debts for me.”
At the gambling den, Theoly became acquainted with a group of gamblers who took drugs. Out of curiosity, she tried the drugs and started joining them at their secret gatherings in hotels. At one of their illegal gatherings, they were “sabotaged by a friend’s friend” and were caught by the Police. Theoly was sentenced to 21 years for drug trafficking, though she insisted she was not the one who brought the drugs in.
“I was naïve, and believed in people too easily,” she said.
In prison, Theoly decided to file for a divorce. She started going for counselling, chapel and even bible study sessions during her time in prison. While incarcerated, Theoly was counselled by a volunteer from Prison Fellowship Singapore, whom she affectionately calls sister Polly.
“At first I went for the chapel service because I wanted to socialise and meet people. Then every Sunday, I went for counselling and God revealed a lot of things to me. God opened many doors for me. I was given the opportunity to move around in the prison, I got the chance to do handicraft and event decoration,” she recounted. With her knack for art and craft, Theoly even transformed a gunny sack into a tote bag that emerged top in a competition.
“It was during one bible study session that I accepted Christ. After knowing God, I began to fear the Lord. I would think twice about what I was doing.”
Eventually, Theoly’s sentence was shortened to 14 years.
However, upon her release from prison, Theoly faced a whole new set of challenges – getting a job and a roof over her head. The newfound freedom was gratifying, but also daunting.
Adjusting to life outside prison
“When Theoly first came out of prison, she was definitely not this confident,” explained Emily Tan, 50, who takes care of PFS’ ministry to female inmates. “She was in prison for so long that when she came out, she didn’t have friends. She didn’t know how to take the public transport because the MRT lines have changed so much. She was afraid of crowded places like shopping malls too.”
Emily Tan takes care of outreach to female inmates.
Emily and Theoly’s paths crossed when Emily went into prison as a PFS counsellor and met Theoly in the housing unit she was assigned to. For years they met during chapel service, counselling and bible study sessions in prison.
Emily empathises with the sense of despair and hopelessness that inmates feel. She once went through a series of three operations, was warded for more than a month and saddled with a six-figure medical bill that took her family years to pay off.
When Theoly needed practical help after she was released from prison, sister Polly and Emily stepped in to help Theoly look for a job, pay her rent and utilities bills, and assimilate her into a church community.
“I pay them back slowly, now that I am working,” Theoly shared. Now, Theoly holds a regular job as a salesperson in a crowded shopping mall. She also regularly attends the PFS Women’s Support Group, which offers a safe space for female ex-offenders to share the struggles they face, and to encourage each other in this often challenging process of reintegration. “Sometimes the women in the group need food or jobs, and Emily helps us.”
Emily is no stranger to the practical needs that former inmates have upon their release from prison.
“Once, in 2014, this lady whom I’ve been counselling in prison was released,” Emily recounted. “She went back to her home in Toa Payoh and immediately called me, saying she was going mad. Her home was like a rubbish chute. When I went to her home, she had already moved loads of toys and cartons out to the corridor. So the next day I brought two church friends with me to clear out her home, pack and paint it. It took us eight days! Today this lady is happily re-married.”
Emily’s work involves counselling the inmates and sharing God’s Word with them from the time they are in prison, to helping them reintegrate into society through finding employment and shelter for those rejected by their families. She continues to journey with the ex-offenders through weekly support group meetings.
At the weekly support group, the ladies receive encouragement from the bible and also pick up cooking, jewellery-making, flower arrangement, and the like. Many of them do not get to join their families for Chinese New Year reunion, or are orphans, so Emily organises reunion dinners for the ladies. “They are like family members.”
But Emily does not want the ladies to get used to only being on the receiving end of help. She empowers them by organising volunteer trips to old folks’ homes, where the ladies put their haircutting skills to good use.
“Some of the inmates used to be drug addicts. By the time they are released they are in their fifties or sixties, their parents have passed away and their siblings reject them. So they have nowhere to go, and nobody wants to hire them,” Emily shared. In such cases, PFS works with shelters that can accommodate these ex-offenders, or finds backpacker hostels for them as a temporary measure.
Much as Emily tries to offer very practical help to the ladies while providing a listening ear to them, there are still occasions when they would end up venting their frustration at her. Once, an ex-offender asked Emily for a loan, but it is PFS’ policy that staff are not to lend money to the clients. So when Emily refused, the lady started swearing at her loudly in public, creating a commotion.
“But I wasn’t angry. I was more embarrassed than angry. I can understand their anger and desperation. Even if they want to work, they need money for transport, money for food, a phone to contact the colleagues. How do we expect them to find work and start work without anything?” Emily also shared that PFS has a fund for such use, to help newly-released ex-offenders tide through the first month while they settle down.
When asked if she has ever felt like giving up on prison ministry, Emily replied with a firm no. “I cannot judge the rest of them based on one person who abused my trust. Many of the inmates shared with me that they grew up without love. They need love and compassion – if they get discouraged, it’s very easy to just return to their old ways. Now, there are so many young people charged with taking drugs—and they don’t come from poor backgrounds. Their parents are doctors or lawyers, but they don’t experience love at home, so they take drugs or steal things to ‘punish’ their parents. These young people need good mentors.”
“I learn more from them and their breakthroughs actually. And I’ve learnt not to change them because we can’t change them. Only God can.”
How you can help:
- Be open to employing ex-offenders. Get in touch with us if you have a job opening
- Donate working clothes, bags, mobile phones so it’s easier for ex-offenders to find/ start work
- Let the ladies have a day out! Sponsor a trip to Universal Studios for those in the Support Group
- Donate a regular amount to PFS
You can reach PFS at +65 6384 2338 or email email@example.com
*Name changed for privacy