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Re-integrating the ex-convicts into the society: stigmas/problems attached and the need for reforms

By: Nihal Deo & Mehar Kaur* |




“Stigma is an attribute that extensively discredits an individual, reducing him or her from a whole and usual person to a tainted discounted one.”

….. Erving Goffman



John, a 56-year-old resident of Kochi struggled to sustain as the society did not accept him since he was sentenced to life imprisonment for committing a murder in 1998. Not just the society, but also his family members found it difficult to accept him. In our society, a person who commits a crime, which is not petty in nature, is often sentenced to prison for a certain period as a punishment for the wrong s/he did. This punishment is supposed to end when the person is released from the prison. However, the person comes back to the free world with the label of “ex-convict”. Although the person is a free being in the eyes of the law, but the social stigma that exists in the society still identifies the person as a criminal/convict. S/he may have been released from the barriers of legal entrapment, but continues to be a convict in the barriers of “Social Stigma”. This article is an attempt to highlight some of the stigmas attached and the need for reforms, as well as the role of different sections of society all over the world, on this issue by citing few examples from some of the countries.


The Social Stigma & Disgrace


According to the labelling theory, the identity of an individual can get altered to his discredit since certain qualities associated with the behavior are stigmatized. The theory assumes that ‘although deviant behavior can initially stem from various causes and conditions, once individuals have been labelled or defined as deviants, they often face new problems that stem from the reactions of self and others to negative stereotypes (stigma) that are attached to the deviant label.Labelling usually has two aftermaths, the first being that an individual’s self-image is altered along with his social stigma. The perception of being a deviant in society takes over the individual’s true self.


When a convict is released from prison, society still sees her/him as a person who committed a crime. It becomes a “deviant label” for her/him. Every act that s/he does is seen as an act which is done by an “Ex-Convict”. This reaction from the society constantly throws a reminder to the person of the “Act” that s/he committed in the past. This creates a negative image of self on the mind of the person and stops her/him from overcoming the past and living a normal life. There is a high possibility for the person to believe that the life in prison was better since living with mental fetters in a physical free space can be worse than living with some physical restrictions but mental freedom.


What makes the social exclusion of the ex-convicts hard to bear for them is the fact that they have expectations to live a certain dignified life after the punishment (imprisonment) period is over. The life in prison is not easy due to overcrowding of prisons, degraded hygiene standards etc. These also lead to frequent clashes between the inmates with the prison authorities. Thus, as a part of the human tendency, they start to count the days for a better life. They develop hopes and start making plans. Now, when after getting released, they realise that they will be carrying a stigma of “ex-convict” throughout the remaining part of their lives and on facing various obstacles in living a dignified life, they feel helpless and all their dreams and hopes get shattered. All of this creates a tremendous amount of mental pressure on the person. This may result in two grave situations. First, the person may adopt illegal ways to sustain life. Second, the person may commit suicide s/he has lost every hope to live a dignified life. A recent study conducted by The Guardian shows that among the number of ex-convicts under supervision after their release from prison, 153 of them committed suicide.


The struggle does not end here. After release, an ex-convict has to overcome a mountain of challenges in order to find a job. The stigma towards an ex-convict leads to the employers viewing such individuals as the least desirable candidate which in part is also resulting from the legal consequences of the inappropriate conduct and damage of property if any committed by them which would fall on the shoulders of the employer. People are generally reluctant to come into any relation with a person who is released from prison because they apprehend that the person may commit a crime again. The apprehension of threat is directly proportional to the seriousness of the crime that the person had committed.


Now, consider a situation where a person is wrongfully convicted. In that case, not only the period of imprisonment but the life after that getting released from prison can have a huge toll on mental being of the person. Society very often fails to recognize the crime for which the person was convicted or the situation in which that crime was committed. What exists is a general tag of “ex-convict”.


Some reforms and the way forward


Rule no. 64 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners stresses upon the fact that “the duty of society does not end with a prisoner’s release. There should, therefore, be governmental or private agencies capable of lending the released prisoner efficient after-care directed towards the lessening of prejudice against him and towards his social rehabilitation.”Acknowledging the same, the Turkish Labor Law requires the establishments, that employ more than 50 staff members, to include a fixed percentage of ex-prisoners among their staff. Companies are fined for non-compliance with the same by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.


Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that “The penitentiary system shall encompass treatment of prisoners, the vital aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation.” In light of the same, initiatives have been taken to reintroduce such individuals with utmost dignity. Sudhaar, an initiative by the Tata trust, has shouldered several training programs to impart skills in areas like electric equipment repair and tractor repair, which have a high market demand. Most of the programs are being conducted in collaboration with Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) which prepare them for setting a foot in the industrial world with upgraded knowledge of the contemporary scenario. However, in order for such an initiative to be successful, the prison authorities need to take responsibility for modifying the mindset of people inside the prison since they have been excluded for a long duration. Education, drug training, mental health programs could aid in this process.


Reny George, a murder convict who went through all the victimization, both within and outside the prison, is now leading an ordinary life along with influencing others prisoners to do the same is one of the finest examples of prison reform. He provides shade to the children of prisoners and ex-convicts who brawl to find a job in Bangalore along with dedicating his time to motivating prisoners who wish to lead a normal life after leaving the prison.


Despite all efforts, if the society is not ready to accept a person who is willing to walk on a fresh path since he has a black past, then ex-convicts will never find solace in the society. Reforms are required in order to stop people from having such stigmas and create awareness among the masses about the ill effects of having such stigmas. For the same, inspiration can be taken from the Yellow Ribbon Initiative of Singapore which 1. Generates awareness about the trouble ex-offenders face after release and the importance of giving a second chance to ex-offenders 2. Encourages acceptance of ex-convicts to form families and be a part of the community as they return to the free society 3. Inspire public action to support their reintegration and continued rehabilitation.


There is one practical problem that the ex-convicts are likely to face, which is the fact that during the time in prison, the skills and knowledge that the prisoner possessed gets corroded. A research conducted by Glaser shows that “inmates tend to suffer from the immediate gratification syndrome, which is normal to the young child.” Thus, the re-integration of an ex-convict into the society is to be found by blending of her/his preparation in the prison institution and acceptance by the society after her/his release from the prison. In this regard, Sweden’s probation branch of the Prison and Probation Service has set an example for others to follow. The authorities are bound to plan the implementation of sentence and treatment measures not only for probationers and parolees but also for prisoners, providing for early preparation for release from prison.



Conclusion


A criminal record of a person should not become a shadow for that person to travel along for the rest of life, resulting in perpetual poverty, discrimination and homelessness. “De-entry” rather than “re-entry” into the criminal justice system should be advocated for along with a push for equal pay which would motivate the formerly convicted citizens to fight for restructuring their lives by returning to the society with respect and dignity. Not just the government, but every institution of a free and civic society must take measures in implementing the goals as discussed above. When the law itself has declared the person free, no person has any right to take the freedom and dignity of that person for a sin committed by her/him in the past. While there is a call for having a Reformative Criminal Justice System worldwide, the stigmas attached to the ex-convicts remain to be a huge obstacle in implementing the same. The society must understand that to move forward, it is better to look forward and change its mindset for the ex-convicts.


***


* The authors are the students of Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar.



Image Source: https://www.thefix.com/stigma-being-ex-con







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