Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Carla Gullotta | Remove job barriers to ex-cons

Published:Wednesday | October 26, 2016 | 10:04 AMCarla Gullotta

The concept of rehabilitation appears to be lost on us collectively. While progress has been made to improve the treatment of prisoners, the orientation of our system and the mindset of the security apparatus continue to be focused on punishment rather than creating meaningful change in the life of inmates so that they are less prone to reoffend when they are released from prison.

This judgmental approach extends to how society treats with ex-inmates, particularly as it regards employment. The problem with this approach is that it hinders any meaningful action to address the problem of violence and ignores the positive impact of rehabilitation not only in the lives of inmates but also in the wider community.

Gainful employment has been proven to act as the one of the most potent alternatives to a life of crime and violence. Many inmates would not have ended up in prison were they provided with the opportunity to earn an honest bread.

If they struggled to join the labour market before incarceration, any hope that they can become employed is utterly obliterated when they are released because of the stigma and discrimination attached to imprisonment.

Ultimately, inmates become trapped in a cycle whereby the inability to gain employment pushes them into a life of crime and violence, the end result of which is imprisonment. Once they serve time and are released, the cycle begins all over again.

With a 30 per cent recidivism rate that continues to increase, it is time for society to take steps to break the cycle of reoffending by removing the barriers to employment for inmates.

If we are serious about bringing crime under control, we will have to begin to devise sustainable solutions to address the needs of ex-inmates.

A vital component of rehabilitation is to provide inmates with qualified professional skills. Once they have served their time, they should be able to utilise their expertise to avoid being forced to return to their previous lifestyle.

The concept of Correctional Industries (CI) is one that has reaped significant results in other countries. CI programmes often hire inmates for positions that require reliable individuals who are willing to develop vocational skills and work with others to produce a quality product and generally transitions inmates into stable employment, through partnership with local businesses, once they are released from prison.

Research conducted by Washington State University found that CI significantly reduces recidivism, improves institutional behaviour, and increases employment after release. The introduction of an intensive CI programme in Jamaica could go a long way in reducing the tendency for ex-inmates to return to a life of crime.

Work reduces recidivism, with the important caveat that the sooner ex-offenders are employed, the less likely they will commit future crimes resulting in further jail and prison time. It also costs the State much less to keep an ex-inmate in a job than to keep them in prison. This has been demonstrated by numerous studies across various countries.

It is indeed a difficult moral decision to hire an ex-inmate and only human to be sceptical about whether or not someone leaving prison has been fully rehabilitated, particularly if the crime they committed was a heinous one. But if employers can overcome their prejudices, they will realise that ex-inmates can be an asset to their organisation.

Through the Jamaica Reducing Reoffending Action Plan (JRRAP) and the educational and skills training programmes offered by Stand Up for Jamaica, a number of prisoners have been equipped with the tools to make meaningful contributions to the workplace.

If inmates have taken the initiative to turn their lives around, the least we can do as a society is to accommodate their reintegration through gainful employment.

Given the difficulty some business owners may have in being first movers in regards to employment of ex-inmates, it would, perhaps, be helpful if the Government could provide some sort of incentive, either through a tax credit or tax deduction, to employers so that they would be encouraged to employ ex-convicts. This proposal was raised by Senator Kavan Gayle in 2013 during debate on the Omnibus Tax package but has not been given serious consideration by the Parliament.

Such a programme of incentives could be modelled on the Work Opportunity Tax Credit programme, the Job Training Partnership Act and the Prisoner Re-entry Initiative in the United States.

Government has to also take the lead by offering employment to ex-inmates through its various roadworks and skill-based work programmes. Through the CI programme proposed previously, policy could be introduced which stipulates that a particular percentage of labour on all government contracts should be reserved for inmates and ex-inmates.

The Ministry of Justice should also take steps to share the results of the JRRAP with the public so that there can be increased awareness of the positive impact of rehabilitation programmes on the lives of both inmates and ex-inmates.

This would go a long way in helping to drive a culture change in the public's attitude to those who have been incarcerated.

- Carla Maria Gullotta is executive director of Stand Up For Jamaica, a human-rights groups that carries out rehabilitation work with inmates in the island's correctional facilities. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and sufjmedia@gmail.com.