The mark of Cain

2010-09-19 13:44

The clothes on your back and R27 in your pocket. This is what the average ex-prisoner will have as he begins a new life on the day of his release. Some will have been behind bars for a year, others for half a century. Some will be “petty” criminals while others will have committed serious and violent crime – often more than once.

Life inside is a steaming human mass of violence and disease. With no recreational facilities, most of the day is spent in lockdown, with up to 60 inmates squashed into a tiny cell designed to hold 20.

Up to 20 hours of the day on average are spent inside the cell, doing nothing.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the country’s prisons last year were running at 139% of total capacity.

Rehabilitation, educational or vocational training in preparation for release is virtually nil.

And beyond the prison walls, a criminal record is a mark of Cain. The ex-prisoner can upon release expect to be avoided, shunned, rejected and, above all, feared.

Spat out by the world they are released into, up to 75% of all ex-offenders will eventually reoffend and end up behind bars again.

“It’s simply an issue of survival. You have nowhere to go, society has changed – and that same society simply doesn’t want you,” says Gerhard van Rensburg, the Western Cape regional manager for the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of Offenders (Nicro).

According to Van Rensburg, given that the public is tired of crime, it’s not surprising that few care what happens to an ex-criminal.

But most people incarcerated for crime are eventually released back into the communities they came from.

Since 1910, Nicro has been running a series of programmes both inside and outside prisons to prepare and assist ex-offenders in carving out new lives.

To date, between 80?000 and 100?000 ex-offenders use Nicro programmes yearly.

Nicro estimates that the rate of recidivism, or return to offending, is significantly lower in prisoners who have taken part in intervention programmes.

Between six and eight months before their release, prisoners volunteer to participate in one such programme called Tough Enough.

The organisation’s psychologists and social workers start working with the prisoner, his family and community members to equip them with the skills they will need to manage the return of the ex-prisoner.

Included in the course is a module on economic issues, where the future ex-prisoner is taught how to manage a budget, draw up a CV and access social services.

But Van Rensburg says the biggest challenge facing the ex-offender is being resocialised.

Inside prisons, he has learned a different set of rules that don’t apply outside.

Prisoners, particularly those who have tattoos, are judged on appearances.

And being accustomed to certain behaviour, such as swearing, makes businesses reluctant to consider them.

You may be released from prison, he says, “but society sentences you for life”.

The country’s crime levels, particularly of violent crime, are high. And public sympathy for the plight of the ex-offender is low.

According to Statistics SA, over a quarter of the “normal” population is unemployed.

With so many others already in the queue, businesses willing to give an ex-prisoner a break are few and far between.

When Glyn Paries first told his staff he wanted to hire ex-prisoners for part-time work, they were horrified.

The furniture upholstery business owner from Kuilsrivier in Cape Town was approached by Nicro in 2003 to see if he could fit some newly released ­­­ex-offenders into his small family business.

He admits he was initially hesitant, particularly as he had female staff who were apprehensive about their safety.

He had his own mental image of the ex-prisoner – covered in tattoos, who would scare his customers away.

Paries was so nervous he agreed to meet the man for a job interview, not on his work premises but at another “safe” public venue.

But seven years later, he has no regrets about his decision. Since then, he has had eight ex-prisoners coming through his workshop.

Many of them have used him as a reference to find other, permanent employment.

He’s had trouble with latecoming and swearing, but he says an ex-prisoner is no different to a “normal” employee.

Although he has tried to convince them otherwise, most of his peers and fellow businessmen refuse to take the chance.

“If we can take somebody who can’t utilise his skill, and help him, we’ll be helping reduce the crime rate,” says Paries.

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