Notes from inside death row in Singapore

Pannir Selvam Pranthanam, who is seen here in Cameron Highlands at the age of 23, is 32 years old this year. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family
Pannir Selvam Pranthanam, who is seen here in Cameron Highlands at the age of 23, is 32 years old this year. — Picture courtesy of Pannir Selvam’s family

COMMENTARY, Aug 19 — I was sentenced to death on May 2, 2017. The judge said that even though my involvement was just as a courier, he has no any other choice because the DPP of Singapore did not want to issue the certificate of co-operation.

I saw my family break down with my very own eyes, they couldn’t believe what was happening. 

At that moment, the lowest point of my life, I mustered the strength to stay strong for my family and consoled them by saying, “I can still appeal, there is hope.”

It hurts to see our loved one in this sort of situation. Words can’t describe the burden which I had placed in their hearts. 

All my family ever did was love me for who I am and be there for me and all I have given them is burden and pain that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. This realisation hurts more than the sentence could ever itself.

I was transferred from B2 TO A1 SHU (Special Housing Unit), the death row. Once I arrived here, the first thing the officer did was to shave my head bald and give me a white T-shirt and shorts to wear. 

They then led me to cell No. 26 and told me that I have to remain in this cell for two more months at least, before they can transfer me to different cell which has a TV.

I was given soap, brush, a small white towel, toothpaste and a bucket. I stumbled into the cell and my mind was just blank, I hadn’t recovered yet at that point. Everything happened so fast that I couldn’t collect my thoughts.

The cell was quite creepy and I felt unsettled, to say the very least. It wasn’t even five minutes yet but I already felt alone. I guess that is the point of this place. 

It’s a very a dark and gloomy place and you can almost see all the sadness, disappointment and loneliness the place bears. It feels like it could even devour you alive.

For someone who’s not on this side of the bar, like the officers or counsellors, they probably don’t really understand how we death row inmates feel; some of them think they do understand or that they know but I beg to differ. 

In here you are only for yourself and only God is your solace if you are a religious person. If you’re not a believer, it’s going to take an immense amount of mental strength and fortitude to find the light of hope in this darkness.

The next day, I was informed that the state will provide a lawyer to do my appeal if I can’t afford one, and if the appeal doesn’t go in my favour, then I can send a petition of clemency and if that too doesn’t go well, then I would be hanged, an estimate of 14-15 months. 

Great! Could any news make me feel "better" than this one? I don’t think so. It makes me feel so much "better" until I can’t sleep at night. 

To think what lies ahead for us (death row inmates) is not something encouraging to do, for you will be torn apart in the war between hope and reality.

For the first two weeks, I was locked down in cell No. 26 with no access to the one-hour yard time. This meant that I stayed inside the cell 24/7, for two weeks, with the lights turned on the whole time 24/7. 

It was very hot and I couldn’t sleep, if you use the floor mat given, you would feel hotter, so I just slept on the floor with the lights on. 

Most of the time I slept not because I wanted to, but because my eyes were too tired to be open any longer. I would wake every one or two hours after I had fallen asleep.

I don’t know why they would give this form of psychological torture to someone who is already sentenced to death, who is already suffering mentally and emotionally. 

I don’t know what joy they take in watching their fellow human being been treated in such a way. Reminds me of the stories I’ve read of the Nazi concentration camps, although the prisoners there would have suffered far, far worse than I have. 

After one week, I got access to newspapers, but still no yard time. Only after two weeks was I allowed to go to the yard. 

I was allowed to keep books which were taken from the yard library. The food is better than before and there are slices of bread available every evening that you can take as much as you can eat. 

The food menu is mostly chicken, egg, sardine, some vegetables, fish and sometimes anchovies. The menu rotates every day. 

The cell is consisted of a toilet and a big iron bar door with four iron rods in between for the air to come in. The cell is just 6 or 7 normal footsteps in length and in width. 

Each cell has a CCTV that runs 24/7 at the top corner of the ceiling where the toilet is. It is not something new, I was living my life for the past five years like this. Doesn’t matter if you’re taking bath or a dump, there were always people watching you. 

Even in B2, as a remand, you would have to strip and get naked five days a week whenever we entered the yard. There will be two officers at the yard’s gate entrance to see your bare body and genitalia twice — in and out — and you will feel humiliated. 

Before they take your life itself, they will try to take everything else they can from you –- your freedom, dignity, rights, dreams, hope, value, and respect. 

Everything, like a vacuum cleaner, is sucked away before your life is ended. That why I mentioned earlier that the others who are not in our shoes, they don’t know what it is like. 

There are more things that I could describe here but this is a little summary of pretty much most of it.

There isn’t a fan inside the cell, each cell has a fan fixed outside of it. The wall colours are very dull, pale pastel yellow as though it has been purposely chosen so that your brain would become dull too as you are going to see it every day. Oh, and the floors are grey.

I (and all prisoners) was only provided with one floormat and two blankets which look like they’ve been used in World War 2, and no pillows. 

So one blanket becomes a makeshift pillow. One of the most advanced and safest cities in the world, and they can’t even provide us inmates a pillow, most mornings you wake up with a pain in your neck and every day the officers see us as a pain in their ass.

After two weeks on death row I was told that the coming Friday someone was going to be hanged. A guy who was also convicted on a drug case –- a Singaporean — and that Thursday evening, he came to my cell to say his last goodbye. 

I didn’t know what to say to him. It was hard to imagine this healthy young man was going to be hanged the next day. 

Can you imagine seeing someone today, and knowing that tomorrow his/her life will be taken away? This person would cease to exist anymore. I personally didn’t know him but I still can’t imagine how hard it must be for him to go through all this.

I will pray for him, at the very least that’s what I can only do, and pray for his family too. After two months I was transferred to cell 6 which had a TV inside the cell, apart from that, the cell was the same as the previous one.

Fast forward to April 2019, it’s been two years now for me on the death row. My appeal was dismissed on February 9, 2018 as written in my previous article and about all the time and things that I have learned here in death row, about life, passion, freedom and the value of a human life.

I forgot to mention the last time that the prison also provides inmates on death row a canteen list to order some food. It goes by levels. 

Inmates who haven’t done with their appeal get to write canteen for S$12 (RM36) a month, for those who appeal had been dismissed, they get S$40 a month and at last for those who have already submitted their petition of clemency gets S$60 a month.

Before my appeal, I requested to be baptised in prison but I was informed that only those whose appeal have been dismissed would be allowed to be baptised. 

So I would have to wait till the outcome of my appeal. I pray to God, “Lord you know when is the right time for everything, as such I leave this matter to you.” 

As my father is a church pastor, he used to say, “Come learn the course and take the baptism.” He was baptising other church members every now and then but I used to answer, “I will learn the course and take the baptism when I am ready.” This is because I didn’t want to live a double life and take baptism for the sake of just being a Christian.

Miraculously, the only upside to my current predicament is that my relationship with my family and God is being healed and it has been getting stronger past these five years. 

Yes, there were times when I was down, but I got back up, only to fail and stand back up again but all that now, I’ve realised, is a process which I have to go through, to be a better person, to grow in faith and to seek God’s will and purpose in my life.

After my appeal had been dismissed, I did fasting for 40 days in the name of God and prayed. There’s a lot of struggle in that too, as you keep hoping something good will happen — anything that may help to save my life but what I keep getting was disappointments and setbacks.

Back in my mind, I knew time was flying fast, and once I send the petition of clemency, my days are numbered without even me knowing when it will end. 

"In my vision of the dark night, I have dreamed of joy departed but a warning dream of life and light, hathleft me broken hearted." — Edgar Allan Poe.

The above line rings true when you really understand what goes on here. For some inmates (perhaps all), every waking hour reminds us of nothing but pain and regret, and that all these things that we are going through are real and I can’t just write on only what is good and positive. 

How can I be positive all the time, staying in death row and not even being given a chance for redemption?

Up until April 2019, I have seen 22 people hanged, and in many ways it took a toll on the rest of us inmates.  People would change, as the executions would carry on, until it’s their turn. 

They would lose sleep, some heavily rely on medication, some become resentful, reserved and taciturn, some even forget how to laugh, some would lose their minds under pressure. 

They just snap like that as they can’t take it any longer. They start to talk to the wall, hear voices, have nightmares. Some even forget to clean themselves for weeks, lose their appetites (maybe their will to even eat), their social and communication skills fade away and some even refuse to see their own family that came to visit.

Amidst all of this, I have to draw a line, find a balance between everything, between hope and reality, in spirituality, in moral values, in good and the bad, and in almost in everything. 

I have to know where I am standing. If I have failed to find that balance, then whatever I’ve been through or learned these past years would amount to nothing.

In the midst of all these struggles and troubles, I must not lose myself but strive ever harder, to find myself.

* Pannir Selvam Pranthanam is a Malaysian on death row in Singapore.

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