The day of release from imprisonment should ideally be the joie de vivre of every prisoner. To step outside the walls of repression and to take in one’s first breath of freedom after gruelling jail time must be elating to say the least. So it’s more than a little baffling when the convict just set free deliberately gets himself caught in an offence that finds him right back in jail.
The experts call this phenomenon recidivism, and it is quite an interesting concept. The prisoner set free, intentionally commits an offence he is aware will lead him right back to the dreadful jail cell he was thrilled to break free of. The question that automatically shoots up in everyone’s minds is why choose the horror of prison, the indignity of incarceration, over freedom and a fresh start, a second chance? My guess is probably that for some ex-convicts, freedom is much less dignifying than the indignity of incarceration. Freedom means loneliness, scorn, poverty, joblessness and an endless list of negatives. Simply put, recidivism is what happens when the freedom offered prisoners means a miserable life for them in society.
If prison officials are half honest about the rehabilitation they are quick to preach takes place in our prisons, then it must be that our prisoners at the time they are done serving their sentences are no longer the dangerous criminals they once were at the time of conviction. Why then have measures not been put in place to integrate these ex-convicts into society; to create a friendly environment for them instead of an environment where they are faced with ostracism. If efforts have been made then they are clearly not enough.
Prison officials boast of the training given prisoners in all kinds of fields: dressmaking, catering, hairdressing and carpentry, all with the aim of enabling the prisoner find employment after their sentences are served. But it ends there. No efforts are made to afford the prisoner employment after imprisonment; they are left to fend for themselves. What happens then is that the ex- convict having trouble fitting in in a society that is disconcertingly anti-convict is lonely to the point of missing the little companionship he shared with his prison mates. He cannot find a job but he is human and has to eat. Thus, he would probably have to steal or find some other unscrupulous means to survive, which they usually do, and hence find themselves right back in jail. And guess what, it’s a relief to be back in jail because over there he belongs, he is not judged as equivalent to garbage. He is with people who understand him as a fallible human being. Aren’t we all?
Recidivism. The concept often brings to memory an interesting episode in the popular television series “Orange Is the New Black” where “Tasty”, a character happy to have finished her prison sentence, finds herself right back in prison in little time. When her shocked prison mates who would give anything to switch places ask why, her simple answer is that prison had become her home. Apparently, life outside of jail was much more painful. At least in jail, she had a place to sleep, three meals a day and most especially, she was not shunned.
It also brings to memory a more gruesome scene in the hit movie, “Shawshank Redemption”, where Brooks, a character, also after finishing a rather long prison sentence is finally happy to be set free but life outside of prison proves so demeaning and empty that he hangs himself. He chooses to die than to bear the loneliness and indignity of his freedom. Before Brooks dies he considers committing a crime that would take him back to prison but decides he is too old for that.
Some may shelve these series and movies that depict prison life as just entertainment but the truth is that they are works of advocacy sometimes based on true life experiences carefully thought through to give the public a peek into the life of prisoners and to remind us that they are very much as human as the rest of us.
The statistics show that about a million of the Ghanaian population are in prisons and this is the life that they live. The choices before them are to remain prisoners and somehow survive or to face the misery that awaits them outside the prison walls, so miserable that sometimes death becomes endearing.
The point is, there is more that can be done than is presently being done for our ex-convicts. The treatment they get and the torturous lives they live after prison reflect to some extent our collective conscience as a people and so far it does not look good.