Jaristotle's Jottings | Prisoner rehabilitation – myth or reality?
Last Sunday, as I was reading through the various newspapers, my attention was drawn to reports highlighting the horrors of living in communities where violence has become so deeply entrenched that life itself has little value. The plight of people in these communities, our fellow Jamaicans, being constantly terrorised, of having to flee for their lives, leaving possessions and loved ones behind, struck a raw nerve for me.
Unless these beleaguered residents can readily abandon their communities, they remain stuck in the quagmires which are their homes. Being stuck, they can either bury their heads in the sand and be sitting ducks, or take steps, oftentimes unlawful, to protect themselves and their families. Ironically for them, such ‘protective’ actions go hand in hand with prosecution and incarceration. The net effect: individuals who would not ordinarily have become jailbirds end up behind bars because of their circumstances.
One would further expect such individuals to bide their time in prison and, having ‘learnt their lesson’ , be sufficiently and voluntarily rehabilitated to earn their release and readily reintegrate into society. But no, not so in our prisons.
Jamaican prisons are not institutions for biding time, for coming to grips with the ills of one’s prior actions, or for preparing one’s self for reintegration into society. Our prisons are literally extensions of the community battlegrounds. Rehabilitation is neigh impossible under such circumstances; survival is more the order of the day, akin to the very circumstances that gave rise to their incarceration in the first place.
Coupled with this, for many prisoners, there is hardly anything to look forward to upon the return to their communities other than the violence that landed them in prison in the first place.
My concern here is not for the dog-hearted who are relentless purveyors of murder and mayhem, but for those who involuntarily get caught in webs of violence, those who, had they been able to escape, would have been conduct-positive citizens, and those who, because of lack of proper guidance, were errant in their conduct – minor offenders in the scheme of things. Is there another avenue outside of the formal correctional system which can facilitate their payback to society on the one hand and their meaningful rehabilitation on the other?
Yes, we have low-risk prisons and reform schools, all of which carry the stigma and rot of the correctional system. What, then of, immersion facilities outside of the normal correctional strictures where low risk and first-time offenders can live in an environment devoid of the spectre of violence, where they can cohabitate with people who, armed with the right values and attitudes, are positive role models and mentors?
I am envisioning attitude-shaping institutions where they are completely engulfed by positive messages and examples; where they are exposed to life skills and opportunities not ordinarily available to them in their communities, where they can experience life without violence and fear; and where they are empowered to make their own choices. Perhaps this is where aspects of Minister Ruel Reid’s ‘Zero to 18’ education strategy may come in useful.
Without getting bogged down with the details, one may reasonably expect that immersion in life-changing environments will improve their desire to embrace conflict-avoidance lifestyles and gravitate towards developing income-generating skills.
Furthermore, such facilities will likely entice those of us who have something to offer as mentors but are not inclined to visit prisons or lock-ups, to engage the ‘wards’, and even facilitate their aftercare and community resettlement opportunities.
Notwithstanding, the uncharted waters surrounding such a novel approach, and given that the current correctional system is unlikely to provide meaningful dividends for the incarcerated who are salvageable, a change of course may prove worthwhile.