The families of death row inmates
Note: I am a co-founder and active member of We Believe in Second Chances, a group campaigning for the abolishment of the death penalty in Singapore.
Lenduk sat on the sofa, tired and dejected. It’d been a tough day, having to sit through another meeting once again discussing potential funeral arrangements even though she’d only just been to visit her son in Changi Prison.
Kho Jabing, Lenduk's only boy, is running out of time. He'd been convicted of murder and sentenced to death, and his clemency appeal had been rejected by the President (on the advice of the Cabinet) on 19 October. The letter reached the family in rural Sarawak in East Malaysia a few days later.
Now Lenduk and her daughter Jumai are in Singapore, trying to spend as much time with Jabing as they can while also grappling with a bewildering amount of issues: what more can be done to snatch Jabing from the brink, and how should they afford and manage the death rites if/when the worst happens?
“Do you think your mother would like to speak to a counsellor?” we asked Jumai.
“I think she would like to speak to Inah. She helped us the last time and spoke with my mother. Her brother’s cell is next to Jabing’s.”
I rang Inah this evening while on the way to meet Jumai and Lenduk for dinner. She was still in the office. “We’re going to meet for dinner, feel free to join us if you like. They were hoping to meet you today,” I said.
Inah was there within the hour.
It was the first time I’ve seen Lenduk smile. Jumai stretched out her arms to give Inah a hug, then broke down completely. They held each other for awhile, crying. Perhaps they were crying for both their brothers. Across the table Lenduk dabbed her eyes with a tissue, then pressed her face into Inah’s shoulder when it was her turn for an embrace.
There is no one who can understand the stress and anxiety that Jumai and Lenduk have been through like the family of another inmate. Inah’s brother, Roslan, is also on death row under very problematic circumstances. She has been trying for years to save him.
People like Inah, Jumai and Lenduk are not usually the people we think of when we talk about victims, but they are victims too. They have committed no crime, yet suffer the pain and turmoil of losing a loved one through one of the most deliberate ways a person can be killed. They know that the gallows are looming, yet are often limited in the things they can do to snatch their loved one from the brink.
There is no support for the families of death row inmates. There is often no sympathy at all, as society turns its back on their family member, and by extension, on them. If the relative on death row is the sole breadwinner of the family, it becomes even harder for the family to emerge from poverty. When the execution is done, it is the family who bears the cost of death rites, the emotional trauma of loss, and perhaps even the financial and practical support needed in their lives.
It is only natural then that people start to look out for each other, meeting at Changi Prison and exchanging words of encouragement, signing one another’s petitions to plead for clemency, or simply being together in shared anguish. While working with the families of death row inmates in difficult times we have seen moments of generosity, solidarity and care that is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting.
One might say, “Yes, they suffer, but the families of the victims their relatives murdered or caused to die suffer too.”
But how does capital punishment support the families of victims, whether they’re victims of crime or of state violence? The sufferings and marginalisation of families of death row inmates do not alleviate the struggles of the families of murder victims. Neither side can access the social, emotional and financial support needed to rebuild their lives after tragedy strikes – it is simply assumed that the death penalty will restore the balance and bring the matter to a close.
Does the pain of one family really cancel out the heartbreak of another? Or does capital punishment simply leave victims on all sides?