“The greatest fear of a released prison inmate is what to do with himself after that,” says Hanniel Choong a seasoned trail runner. He speaks from his experience as he lost practically all of his youth to drug addiction, having been in and out of jail four times before he was 30 years old.
This is why he is one of the most dedicated supporters of the Yellow Ribbon Project and devoted to helping released inmates reintegrate into society. Now 57 years old but looking 15 years younger, Hanniel credits his rehabilitation officers, his faith in religion and his fitness regime as the key factors in putting him back on the right track.
“When we are young, we like to think that we are invincible, but also have a need to feel accepted by others. I was introduced to drugs at the age of 16 and for many years, my only motivation in life was to keep getting ‘high’. Even when I was caught and in prison, I craved to get that feeling and upon every release, I went back to my old contacts for drugs. It was a horrible cycle,” says Hanniel.
Once, in 1983, he leapt over the railings of a stairwell and dropped three storeys to the ground to escape the police. He fractured both his ankles and was arrested. He was so deep into his addiction that even as he lay in the hospital under police guard, he was formulating plans on how he could get his contacts to smuggle drugs to him.
Thankfully, all that is in the past now.
He reveals that his motivation for change came when the rehabilitation officers encouraged him to look further ahead and see where his life was going. At a time when practically all of his acquaintances were addicts, Hanniel also realised that most of them were either in jail or dead from an overdose.
“That was when my life motivation changed,” he says. “I knew I had to stop chasing after drugs, or else I could well be dead by 30. It was tough because all my friends were addicts too. I endured long periods of rehabilitation and it was only after my fourth try did I really break free.”
It was while recovering at a halfway house that he decided to take up running as a hobby and use it as a way to refocus his energies. After decades of road running, he has now moved into ultra-trail distances and is not looking back.
“Of course, after having abused my body with drugs for years, running was very tough in the beginning. But I learnt to use it as a constructive and healthy way to get ‘high’, and I’ve also met so many positive people in my years of running and exercising.”
One of the pillars that aided his rehabilitation was religion. Hanniel is now a Christian and has been working at the Adam Road Presbyterian Church for many years. After being free of drugs, he also got married and now has his own family with three teenage children.
He still volunteers at halfway houses to help others understand there is a life without drugs. After so many decades, Hanniel notes that the motivations of drug addicts remain unchanged.
“Upon admission at a halfway house, practically all of them ask me, ‘will they still ask me for urine tests?’ I tell them that everything they’ve done, I have experienced before too. You fear the urine test because your mind is still focused on wanting drugs. You think and scheme about how to get them and avoid the authorities even while in a rehabilitation centre. I help people look beyond drugs, to be a productive member of society and live a fruitful life. You have to aim for, and not just be obsessed with the next hit. No one can do it alone, and everyone needs support. With drugs, you only end up in jail, or dead,” he says.
The Yellow Ribbon Prison Run is an event that he almost never misses, and since the first run was organised in 2009 he has taken part in almost every edition. He aims to show by example, that after all the troubles of his youth, ex-offenders can overcome barriers and be stronger and better.
The Yellow Ribbon Prison Run will be held on 9 September 2018. This event is organized annually by the Yellow Ribbon Project as a race to complete the distance while bearing in mind the difficult journey ahead for ex-offenders. Show your support for the reintegration of ex-offenders and register at www.yellowribbonprisonrun.sg.
Also, get into the groove with an exclusive Yellow Ribbon Prison Run workshop with Run Singapore! A warm-up run and yoga session at the Running Lab in Marina Square is happening on 28th July 2018. Find out more and sign up here: www.runmagazine.asia/shop/yellow-ribbon-lifestyle-and-wellness-clinic/