Putting ex-prisoners on road to reintegration : The Tribune India

Putting ex-prisoners on road to reintegration

The outcome of reintegration programmes should include the protection of the victims’ rights and interests. It calls for opportunities for offenders to make amends and help them desist from crime. Offenders can make positive contribution to their communities and must be provided with opportunities.

Putting ex-prisoners on road to reintegration

UNFAIR: Women prisoners face greater stigma and rejection by families.

Upneet Lalli

Penal Reforms Expert

Imprisonment is a costly penal sanction. A debate about its efficacy has many perspectives. Do we follow a forward looking approach or are we stuck with the past, focusing on revenge and retribution? While investment in new prison buildings and hi-tech security gadgets may conjure a feeling of security, there are many other complex dimensions that need to be addressed. Smart investment in the penal system is in terms of future goals, with attention on the reintegration of prisoners back into society.

Since almost 95 per cent of the prisoners get released back into society, merely locking up and forgetting their return back is a costly mistake. The critical questions that emerge are: what happens to them upon release? Are they reformed or criminalised further? Does imprisonment help in reformation and is it an achievable reality? Punishment and reintegration are not contradictory, but can be complementary options as well. We can either punish offenders more severely and risk that they change for the worse or design prisons in a way that helps offenders rehabilitate and change for the better.

In India, the main focus of prison administration is on security and maintaining discipline. Rehabilitation and reintegration of prison inmates remains a neglected aspect in the correctional system. The idea was mooted almost a century back, when the all-India Jail Committee 1919-20 was set up. There is no follow-up of released prisoners, nor is there any assessment of their needs. Last year, 1,84,962 convicts were released, but only 1,827 were rehabilitated. Not everyone re-offends and, in fact, India has a low recidivism rate.

However, apart from sporadic instances, there is minimal support given. A static prison system will focus on security alone while a dynamic one will be proactively looking at preparing prisoners for release, as law abiding and constructive citizens. In India, 53.5 per cent of the convicts were given life imprisonment in 2019. The biggest challenge for inmates is the time spent inside. If it is well managed, it helps promote a new positive self-identity.

Upon release from prison, offenders face many social, economic and personal challenges that tend to become obstacles to a crime-free lifestyle. The release can often be more punishing than the prison sentence itself, as poignantly shown in the classic movie Shawshank Redemption. Facing the barriers of stigma, rejection, suspicion, mistrust and discrimination requires tenacity and support.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, while a lot of attention was paid to reducing jail overcrowding by releasing prisoners, there was little focus on managing release and post-release issues. In India, some of the released prisoners faced peculiar challenges, which included rejection by villagers, lack of accommodation and transport and no means of sustenance. There are no halfway homes in India, nor do most states give any rehabilitation grant. It is just the wages earned by doing work inside that support a few. Some families of prisoners also show reluctance to have another dependent person. The coronavirus pandemic has indeed compounded the challenges of re-entry.

Rehabilitation is not a linear process. It has many layers. The process begins from the time of imprisonment and continues much after the release of the prisoners. It has to be psychological, social, moral and legal. The Nordic penal system, described as the most humane, is based on legal rehabilitation. A social project of rehabilitation founded 40 years ago that is successful is the Delancey Street project in the US. It provides residents with skills that can be used in the job market and education that makes employment possible and supports ex-prisoners re-entering society. Beyond academic and vocational training, residents learn values and social and interpersonal skills that allow them to join the mainstream.

Closer home, more than two years ago, a book cafe was opened on the Ridge, in Shimla. The coffee, tea and bakery items made by inmates were served by two life-term prisoners, Yog Raj and Subhash, who had been selected on the basis of their good behaviour. The inmates left the prison daily in the morning to run the cafe and returned to their cells late in the evening. There were no policemen guarding the place.

The trust these hardworking inmates won and the connect with society helped remove the stigma of imprisonment and made people reconsider their pre-conceived ideas. This acceptance by society helped to improve the morale of both the inmates and the prison staff. This innovative reformative initiative, conceptualised by the HP prisons department, however, suffered a setback with the municipal corporation not extending their lease after two years and opting to give the place to the highest bidder.

I would meet the inmates every time I visited Shimla and it was heartwarming to read the comments of the visitors to the cafe. Unfortunately, like many well-begun projects, this was stifled at a very early stage. The social responsibility yielded to the commercial interests. The open prisons based on ‘trust’ and ‘freedom’, like in Sanganer, promote autonomy and solidify new identities, with opportunities to exercise personal responsibility. I was also pleasantly surprised to see released women inmates working at a petrol pump in Hyderabad, run by the prisons department. Women prisoners face greater stigma and rejection by families, and, hence, require more support.

One of the best cakes and cappuccino coffee I had was in the Boronia Pre-Release Centre for Women in Perth. It is a minimum security prison where female prisoners stay with children in a community-style setting. A French chef was training the women residents in surroundings that were unlike a prison and helping women develop life skills, and be ready for life after release. Many events of the nearby Curtin University were catered to by the Boronia centre. Such incentives for leading a law abiding life are life altering in many ways.

In Singapore, the Yellow Ribbon Project, started in 2004, has won accolades for being a game-changer in terms of raising public awareness and changing society’s mindset in giving former offenders a second chance. State and community partnership facilitates the reintegration.

The outcome of reintegration programmes should also include the protection of the victims’ rights and interests. The strengths-based paradigm calls for opportunities for offenders to make amends and help them desist from crime. Offenders have the potential to make positive contribution to their communities and must be provided with those opportunities. Victim-offender dialogue, surrogate victims and designing restorative prisons create a climate where there is reflection, empathy and desire to change for the better, instead of bitterness and revenge.

I recall a young engineer who not only developed software programmes for the department but was also given an opportunity to go out and coach students. This facilitated his journey of change and growth. His one dream is to go back and open a school in memory of the person whose life was cut short.

Reintegration is ‘a two-way street’ involving changes on the part of the returning prisoner as well as society. Society needs to judge people not by misdeeds, but how they learn from them. The road to reintegration will have many bends and bumps. It can surely be made smoother from the beginning to the end as the journey of redemption continues. 

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