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Prejudice against ex-prisoners

All social groups make rules and at some point in time enforce them. These social rules exist to define whether one particular thing is perceived as right or wrong (Becker, 1963). In other words, social groups decide what is and what is not considered as ethical behaviour.

When rules are broken, the person who goes against the system is seen as a person who cannot be trusted to live by the regulations created and enforced by that particular group. Thus, a person becomes an 'outsider'. To take care of these outsiders, specialised bodies are enrolled to safeguard these rules.

People working in these organisations have a very important job and generally represent the law. Such roles in modern societies are carried out by the police, the Army, and court. Furthermore, every person belonging to a group which creates rules has the duty to safeguard and enforce them.

As Becker, Lemert (1972) emphasised the importance of societal reaction which refers to the reaction of others towards the deviant, also suggesting that the only thing that 'known' deviants have in common is that they have been publicly labelled as such. As such, societal reaction can be seen as the major cause of deviance.

Labelling

One of the main difficulties that an ex-convict faces when it comes to integrating into society is labelling, with its sociological and psychological theories. Howard Becker (1963) developed the Labelling Theory, which remains one of the most important contributions to sociology, precisely in Outsiders - Studies in the Sociology of Deviance.

Becker was influenced by Cooley's Looking-Glass Self Theory (1902) which said that we develop a self-image based on the messages we perceive and that are sent by others. There are three components to this theory.

We tend to imagine how we appear in the eyes of others and what their judgment of us would be. As a result of our perceived judgment of others, we develop a self-feeling which might be a sense of pride if we imagine the judgment to be positive and a sense of mortification if it's negative.

This also resulted in my research on employment after imprisonment where ex-prisoners feel incapable and that for them it is more difficult to do something because the public's eyes are on them. Cooley argues that these judgments are products of our imagination.

As a result, we can develop self-identities based on erroneous perceptions of how others look at us. In fact the interviewees in my research maintained that after the their release they heard plenty of sad comments. The following are some of the comments.

"About a week after I was released I was in a place and met an ex-colleague with whom I was very close. We used to go out together... When I approached her she told me 'I knew you then but I don't know you now'. I will never forget that statement." "We are social animals and we can make mistakes. However humiliating us and putting our details on newspapers will turn our story into a soap opera. In Malta everyone knows each other, so if I go around mentioning three names, everyone would know who they are.

"We don't need to dwell on individual cases. During your jail term you learn how to hate society, hate the authorities, do nothing and learn that going out to work is an idiotic thing to do because you are targeted and labelled a criminal. So it's better to lead a criminal life. Remember we have to prove ourselves more than others everyday. We are labelled."

The labelling theory does not focus on why these individuals commit deviant acts. Instead it attempts to explain why certain people are viewed as deviants, delinquents and criminals, while others are not seen in this light. Reflecting on the contribution of Interectionist theorists, the labelling theory emphasises how a person is considered as a deviant or why he or she accepts that label.

Becker summed it up with this statement: "Deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label" (Becker 1963:9). The labelling theory also focuses on police, probation officers, employers, teachers and other regulators of social control. These agents play a significant role in creating the deviant identity by depicting certain people as deviants. In fact labelling can start from an individual's early years and might be carried through adulthood.

Many theorists conclude that deviant acts are the result of socialisation. 'Primary socialisation' and 'secondary socialisation' are very important for the growing person. Following Cooley's theory of the looking-glass self, an ex-prisoner may imagine that the employer will not employ him/her and so he/she thinks that it is easier not to turn up for an interview.

On the other hand, the employer might want to have referees in order to employ an ex-prisoner and be sure that criminal behaviour is not in the family's blood. As a result no one has ever accepted the person for his real self. So the ex-prisoner might feel unwanted in society and rebels, thus omitting the fact that he/she was in prison and even changing names. At a certain point the person might feel depressed, being accepted for someone he/she is not and acts in a deviant way.

Social inequality

Research in the UK demonstrates that employment reduces the risk of re-offending by three and half times. However two-thirds of prisoners arrive in prison from unemployment and three-quarters leave prison with no job to return to (Liker: 1982). This also applies to Malta as it was shown in my previous article (The Sunday Times, October 23, 2005).

Inadequate attention is given to help prisoners retain jobs they had, and there is more to be done to improve the help prisoners receive in accessing work when they leave. Work within prisons can be of low quality and this adds little to the prisoner's employability.

But there are some examples of co-operation with private sector employers in the UK that should be built on (Social Exclusion Unit, London: 2002). Contrarily, this proposition from the ETC, that employers offer work to people in prison, was not taken into consideration. Neither did the prison consider certain issues proposed by the prisoners themselves, such as brick making and other projects, to help them overcome this hurdle.

The ETC has developed a scheme for disadvantaged groups, including ex-prisoners - Bridging the Gap - designed to support a trainee in the transition period from unemployment to employment. It allows the employer to appraise the performance of the trainee in the workplace, prior to proper engagement.

The scheme offers the trainee a period of work exposure with an employer to enable him/her to demonstrate the skills needed for a particular job. The employer together with the ETC enters into an agreement regarding the work exposure period, whereby a trainee is placed on the scheme with the prospect of employment. The trainee is considered as an unemployed registrant without the obligation to turn up for his/her weekly signing-up.

The ex-prisoners' opinion of this scheme (those who were interviewed for this study) is not flattering. This scheme has a number of advantages and disadvantages. Although it can help and facilitate employment for an ex-convict, it labels him/her from the start.

The employer feels the need to know what the person did and, in reality, an ex-prisoner cannot just refuse to give an employer information. According to the Data Protection Act Office, an employer has every right to know about the past of his personnel.

In addition, some ex-prisoners also argued that grouping them under a scheme did not help because they were not different to others. Therefore is continually being brainwashed in that from the start an ex-prisoner is categorised as such.

Neo-Marxist sociologists of crime and deviance are quite relevant to this theme. They accept that society is characterised by competing groups with conflicting interests. They are all critical of existing capitalist societies and share a concern about the unequal distribution of power and wealth within such societies.

However, none accept that there is a simple and straightforward relationship between the infrastructure of society and deviance. In 1973, Taylor, Walton and Young published The New Criminology, intended to provide a radical alternative to existing theories of crime and deviance.

They accept that the key to understanding crime lies in the 'material basis of society'. Like Marx, they see the economy as the most important part of any society. They believe that capitalist societies are characterised by inequalities in wealth and power between individuals and that these inequalities lie at the root of crime.

This has been supported by some of the informants. But as yet, the will power of the individual in ameliorating his behaviour to refrain from entering prison again should also be taken into consideration. In addition, they support a drastic transformation of society. Indeed, they suggest that sociological theories of crime are of little use unless they contribute in a practical way to the emancipation of individuals living under capitalism.

Media exposure

One of the hardest quandaries encountered in criminal cases and proceedings is that related to the ban of the publication of the name of the accused person and that of the victim. This legal principle is not adhered to strictly enough when legally a person who is undergoing criminal proceedings is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

It happens frequently that persons whose yet undecided cases are publicised suffer a variety of consequences through loss of a job or a negative impact on their business or, in the case of people who exercise a profession, a reduction of their client base.

This will be another hindrance to workers because judgments are passed by the general public first even though the court might still be unheard. However, in certain cases, especially where minors are involved, the court refrains from letting the media publicise the accused's name.

The ETC on Bridging the Gap

ETC officials maintain that this scheme is there to support and target disadvantaged groups to improve their capabilities to integrate into the labour market. The Employment Section assists these client groups by providing counselling and placement services together with referrals to adequate training.

Former substance abusers, former offenders and correctional facility inmates on leave can qualify for this scheme. As a result, the employer has the right to know a bit of background about the person.

Persons under this scheme gain workplace skills required by employers and have access to employment opportunities. The ETC pays about 80 per cent of minimum wage, which at present totals about Lm46 weekly. Furthermore, the person will receive a weekly allowance of Lm35 from the ETC while renouncing the rights to any Social Security benefits throughout the work exposure phase.

The employer on his part has the facility to interview and select the trainee as well as evaluate his or her progress. In this way, the employer is also free from obligations, such as NI contributions, wages and sick leave benefits. The employer is fully supported by the ETC throughout the work phase.

Throughout 2004-2005 (the period when the study was carried out) Bridging the Gap managed to offer plenty of opportunities as shown in this table.

Special thanks go to Antoinette Camilleri for sharing information about the scheme. For more information about the scheme phone the ETC on 2220-1405. To know more about the study e-mail ycc@onvol.net.

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