“There is barely any sense of time in prison, there are no clocks in cells. Our only indications of time is the little light that seeps out from the vent. And everyday my cellmates would eagerly wait for that light to dissipate, knowing that another day has passed, and they’re one day closer to attaining their freedom.”
This is a sample of the prison reflections written by 16-year-old video blogger Amos Yee from Singapore. Yee was remanded for three weeks last month to assess if he is prepared to undergo reformative training. He was transferred to a mental health facility last week after a judge ordered him to be evaluated for autism.
What crime did Yee commit? He posted a video criticizing the late Lee Kuan Yew, the beloved founding prime minister of Singapore. He was charged for causing “distress” to his viewers. He was also accused of offending the religious sentiments of Christians and for posting obscene material on the Internet.
Many felt that Yee’s video was inappropriate, insensitive, and disrespectful. But many also felt the punishment he received was wrong and irrational. After all, Yee is only a teenager who happened to be vocal about his offensive opinions. It was a nonviolent offense.
Despite his age, Amos was nonetheless arrested and detained by authorities. Because of this, some believe he is already the world’s youngest “prisoner of conscience.” And through Facebook, we are able to learn his ordeal.
“I had never been exposed to sunshine. The closest thing I had to going outdoors was a daily (except for weekends), 1- hour activity called the outdoor ‘yard’ where inmates get to play basketball or sepak takraw. But we’re not doing it outdoors, but in a 5th floor enclosure similar to that of an indoor sports hall. And of course, there is no opening in the ceiling for cellmates to have direct contact with sunlight,” he wrote.
It is quite disturbing to read a prison diary of a teenager who is penalized for thinking differently.
“Cellmates, often thinking about the implications of them being in jail, or getting frustrated by the tedium of being in a cell, become enraged and hyperactive. In a state of restlessness and anxiety, they start singing high-pitched songs, punching the walls, banging their cups and boxes. The unrelenting sounds send me into a deep state of nervousness and apprehension,” Yee wrote.
Yee’s prison notes are posted on Facebook despite his incarceration, prompting many to speculate that he scheduled his posts or that another person is maintaining his account.
Regardless of who updates Yee’s Facebook page, it cannot be denied that he is in detention. His mother shares his experience: “Since his arrest in March and the many twists and turns in the court case, Amos is now exhausted, and yes, frightened. He has been so tired in Changi Prison where he is kept in a cell for 23 hours everyday, with the bright lights kept switched on most of the time, for the past three weeks.”
Human Rights Watch has confirmed that Yee was treated as a regular prisoner. “By the time he was convicted, Yee had spent 18 days in jail for a nonviolent offense. When brought to court for his trial on May 7, he was handcuffed, had his legs shackled, and was wearing a prison-supplied t-shirt with “prisoner” emblazoned across the back.”
The United Nations Human Rights Office for South-East Asia described the criminal sanctions leveled against Yee as “disproportionate and inappropriate in terms of the international protections for freedom of expression and opinion.” It urged Singapore authorities “to give special consideration to [Amos’] juvenile status and ensure his treatment is consistent with the best interests of the child.”
By releasing Yee, it does not mean the teenager is correct about the way he articulated his views on Lee Kuan Yew and Christianity. Instead, it will demonstrate that the Singapore government is mature enough to handle the behavior of a teenager and that it can tolerate contrary views.