Freedom smiles but society frowns
“I was first sentenced to a two-year jail term for a road traffic offence in 2010. I unsuccessfully attempted securing employment upon discharge around Christmas in 2011 as most transport owners were reluctant to employ an ex-convict as a driver. I joined some other ex-convicts to rob a businessman in Accra as I had to provide money for the upkeep of my wife and two children. Unfortunately for us, we were arrested and sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment each, for robbery”.
This is an account from a re-offender in one of Ghana’s prisons.
Recidivism, the tendency of an ex-convict to re-offend, is widespread in most prison systems the world over. It has become a Gordian knot for most jurisdictions as attempts to check the worrying trend yield little or no results.
Only a small number of Ghana’s prisoners spend their entire lives in prison, as most incarcerated persons are released after a period. The struggle to lead a law-abiding life starts from here.
In 2012, out of the 6,090 prisoners admitted into custody, 1,331 of them, representing 21.8% were re-offenders. The question to ask under the circumstance is, why ex-convicts re-offend, looking at the deplorable conditions in our prisons.
I would try to paint a picture of what ex-convicts go through upon discharge from prison; the pain, alienation, hardship and the stigma they face as they try to put their lives and families back together.
In my line of duty as a prison officer, I have had the opportunity to interact with many re-offenders with diverse offences; robbery, narcotics, murder, manslaughter, stealing, defrauding and other misdemeanors.
One major challenge ex-convicts face upon release is unemployment. Most public offices by law do not employ ex-convicts, no matter their level of competency, until after ten years of staying out of trouble.
The bane of the ex-convict does not end with the formal sector. The informal sector, which in most cases require the expertise of ex-convicts, as most of them are artisans, discriminate against them. Most employers assume that ex-convicts are untruthful and treacherous and so do not employ them with the fear of being swindled or robbed in the long run.
Another worrying trend in this direction is that, some ex-convicts come out of prison just the way they entered, unskilled. This is due to the fact that trade learning workshops required to push the rehabilitation mandate of the Ghana Prisons Service are either non-existent or highly under-resourced. This means that, some inmates may not just have the competency required by employers.
When ex-convicts can take the toils no longer, they get back into the life of crime as ‘man must survive’.
Most people are of the perception that ex-convicts are highly dangerous and so distance themselves from them. Families reject them as they do not want to be associated with the ex-convict. The saying that “show me your friend and I will show you your character” worsens the plight of the ex-convict as it results in friends rejecting them. They are left heartbroken due to a rejection by the very society they call their own. There are cases where ex-convicts commit suicide due to stigmatization by families and friends. What stigmatization of ex-convicts does, in the long run, is to push them to re-offend as prison, in the circumstance, is the only place they are accepted for who they are.
Ex-convicts who served long sentences mostly come home to news that their spouses are either remarried or have had children with other people. Attempts to mend these relationships mostly yield no positive results. Any attempt by the ex-convict to stake his claim for his woman mostly result in reoffending. Murder, manslaughter, rape and assault are likely offences in issues of broken relationships involving ex-convicts.
Some ex-convicts, especially, those who committed murder and manslaughter, fear to go back to their communities for the fear of being attacked by people who may hold their crimes against them. They are, in such cases, forced to start their lives afresh in new environments which undoubtedly, comes with diverse challenges. Gathering resources to begin life is mostly a challenge, as there is no start-up support from government. If care is not taken, prison bells are bound to ring again.
The task ahead as regards smooth reintegration of ex-convicts into our society is great. We either act to check the trend of reoffending now or suffer the consequences later in silence.
Government and public-spirited organizations should come to the aid of Ghana Prisons Service by building trade learning workshops across all prison establishments and properly resource them to offer inmates employable skills. Upon discharge, start-up capital should be provided for ex-convicts who underwent trade training to commence work.
All forms of stigmatization against ex-convicts must cease as prison is everybody’s second home. Walking free does not necessarily mean we are law abiding. When the lenses of justice are pointed at us, most would realize that the above statement holds.
These, when properly observed, would reduce to an extent reoffending of ex-convicts in the country.
Columnist: DSP. Daniel Machator