Thursday, August 5, 2021

The sentence never ends – ex prisoners struggle to re-integrate into society

Botswana Prison Service Public Relations Officer, Oagile Kojane lives in his own little utopia where rehabilitated ex- convicts have a smooth transition from their prison cells to office cubicles or factory floors.

Responding to a Sunday Standard questionnaire he says: “Prisoner rehabilitation is one of the core functions of the Prison Service hence offering psycho-social programmes which address the attitude and behavioral pattern of the offender. Education and skills development programmes also offered to empower prisoners through formal education and skills attainment. The aim of these programmes is to prepare the prisoners for a safe and smooth reintegration into the society upon release from custody. Furthermore, the department in collaboration with other stakeholders regularly provide pre-release monitoring seminars to prisoners who are due for release in order to prepare them for life after imprisonment.”

The real world is however a far cry from the pretty picture painted by the Prisons spin doctor. Here ex-cons find applying for jobs a stressful ordeal, despite doing everything they can to rehabilitate and make themselves employable.

In the real world, the criminal record tick box, often used on government and private sector application forms automatically filter ex-offenders out of jobs, condemning them to life-long unemployment. In Botswana, ex-convicts are the wretched of the earth and their criminal record continues to freeze them out of the workplace. Ex-offenders are the untouchables of Botswana’s workforce who have been disqualified from ever seeing a regular salary again.

Sometimes it is even worse than this. According to a research paper by Kgosietsile Maripe and Boipelo Raboloko, Perceptions of Ex-convicts on Rehabilitation Programmes in Preparation for Reintegration in Botswana, University of Botswana. Department of Social Work, University of Botswana, Botswana. The re-integration of ex-convicts is a concern globally and nationally yet a forgotten phenomenon. It is assumed that families are prepared for the release from custody of their incarcerated member. While the family may be longing to see ex-convict, it may be traumatized by his or her release from prison.  The thinking about the known and anticipated behavior of the ex-convict may affect the acceptance and supported needed by the ex-convict.  This may complicate relationship problems and may perpetuate the negative labelling which affects positive integration. The unpreparedness of families and community may be hostile than being in prison leaving the ex-convict with no choice but to re-offend and be reconvicted and at most, a recidivist.  As a result of this background, it was necessary to explore the process of re-integration of ex-convicts in Botswana and identify the challenges it poses for the ex-convicts. a period of incarceration has some collateral effects that create a gap between the ex-convicts’ home and prison.

That is, masking the real distance the ex-convicts must travel from incarceration to reintegration into society.  The journey might appear simple by perception but a serious challenge for the ex-convict and the family.  By the time of release, the society would have undergone, economic, social, technological transformation which poses a new world for the ex-convict. Therefore, ex-convict re-integration is a complex process requiring the intervention of prison officials, the social workers, and in general, counsellors. Prison institutions speak of reformation and rehabilitation but in actual fact advocates for retributive punishment. This puts so much uncertainty surrounding community adjustment of offenders after release. Consequently, rehabilitation emphasizes provision of needed services to avoid future criminal behavior. Rehabilitation programmes may seem as good initiatives, however, not all of the offenders get to participate in these programmes. There are limited facilities including workshops to accommodate a large group of inmates. As such, many remain idle and unable to acquire skills that would be appropriate for life outside prison. Furthermore, much focus is on vocational training, education and spiritual development rather than on psychosocial and behavioral aspects of rehabilitation.

Clinical psychologist, Dr Sophie Moagi says by far, one of the most challenging aspects that ex-prisoners face is stigma. “Society’s perception is that, for a person to go to prison he is dangerous and was therefore removed from society to keep everyone safe. For an ex-offender who has served their term and is to reintegrate back into the world outside jail, society unfortunately doesn’t forget. They simply feel that that person hasn’t been punished enough. Job hunting becomes tough becomes employers really want to know if you are an ex-convict. This is further fueled by the ‘once a criminal always a criminal mindset.’ Avoiding crime is only one challenge prisoners face. Other obstacles awaiting individuals upon their release are debt and often broken family bonds. Even seemingly trivial things can become problematic. Choosing what to eat, what time to go to sleep at, learning how the internet works and how to behave in traffic can prove challenging. The longer someone has been imprisoned, the harder it gets to find their way back into society. Inside prison they are stripped of every right and become less fit for life outside. Society tends to think that ex-offenders who are now out are still dangerous and haven’t paid their dues. In other countries, there are halfway houses (prisoners sent to serve time at a halfway house at the end of their prison sentence. Time at the halfway house is focused on re-entry participation including job training and drug treatment.) Psychologically, prison introduces embarrassment, self-esteem issues that one is forced to confront and needs a lot of social support. “

Thabiso Gulubane, attorney at Maphakwane and Partners law firm in Gaborone says. From a legal standpoint, prison is meant to serve two primary purposes. The first being, to punish people for transgressions of the law or to show disapproval for undesirable behavior. The second is to shelter society from those undesirable acts.  Becoming a member of a community after prison is a process of social integration. Joining a community involves more than just living in a given place. Community membership conveys attachment to a social compact made up of a set of roles and conferring a basic level of living. Social integration as the development of family relationships, finding a place to stay, and obtaining a means of subsistence are what ex-offenders have to go through and establish. Connections to family, residence, and an income provide the pre-conditions for more fully developed relationships to start. Ties to family, a stable residence, and a means of subsistence allow full participation of community life and fulfilment of the socially valued roles of kin, citizen and worker. Estrangement from family, housing insecurity, and income poverty leaves former prisoners at the margins of society with little access to the mainstream social roles and opportunities that characterize full community participation.”

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