Re-integration of ex-prisoners back into society: What more can we do?

I recently shared a paper I wrote a few years back on post-correctional services with two new found friends in the Rwanda Prisons Service and was surprised at the interest it elicited. My original paper, which I have summarized in this commentary, was a contribution to a debate which was based on the concerns arising from the implementation of prisons reforms which involved the release of 20,000 convicted prisoners in Kenya.
Timothy Kiambi Maburi
Timothy Kiambi Maburi

I recently shared a paper I wrote a few years back on post-correctional services with two new found friends in the Rwanda Prisons Service and was surprised at the interest it elicited. My original paper, which I have summarized in this commentary, was a contribution to a debate which was based on the concerns arising from the implementation of prisons reforms which involved the release of 20,000 convicted prisoners in Kenya.

This had heightened fears of insecurity. I cannot fail to draw the parallel with the similar concerns voiced in Rwanda on the release of genocide prisoners and suspects.

Have the governments put in place effective mechanisms for the reintegration of these ex-convicts into their communities, while at the same time preserving the security of the community and ensuring that they do not go back to crimes? If not, what else can be done?

There have been a lot of reforms targeting the police, courts and corrections.

There are efforts to professionalize the police services to inculcate integrity, respect for human rights and adherence to the rule of law.

The courts reforms have focused on achieving speedy justice while the corrections have focused on improvement and decongestion of custodial facilities, and the adoption of alternatives to imprisonment.

At the correctional stage, interventional programs capture the needs for either institutionalized or community based rehabilitation for the various types of offenders.

Our criminal justice systems have for long over-emphasized on the classical retributive method of punitive confinement as a way of deterring offenders from crime. This erroneous assumption of deterrence has however been proved wrong by criminologists and criminal psychologists.

The excessively punitive and “hard labour” type of sentences have the opposite effect of hardening instead of reforming.

The contemporary alternatives to imprisonment which are based on humanistic and existential principles, universal human rights driven conventions are more viable. The approaches recognise the view that offenders are products of their societies with criminality being a reflection and result of the existing social discord. Rehabilitation therefore has to take into account their eventual re-integration into their communities.

Universally, two governmental agencies have evolved in the rehabilitation of offenders; Prisons and community based rehabilitation services.

The orientation and philosophy of these two agencies differs sharply in that the prisons provides institutionalised while the community based rehabilitation services offer community based rehabilitation.

Their administrative and organisational structures are equally different with prisons traditionally maintaining a quasi-military while the later has a social work orientation.

A cursory review of our regional states correctional agencies also indicates an apparent lack of cooperation within the criminal justice systems, more so between the two correctional agencies. The turf wars in the higher administrative echelons tend to negate the inter-dependence and the complementary roles that they play.

At the post-correctional stage, interventions should in essence re-integrate ex-prisoners back into their communities while addressing their psychological, social and economic resettlement needs.

The psycho-social needs of ex-convicts are offset through counselling while economic needs are met through funding or credit for income generating activities. Such a component should be a must for all ex-prisoners.

The tragedy is that they are released from the institutions without adequate preparation for the outside world. The psychological disorientation, social stigma and economic hardships that they experience are at times overwhelming with the inevitable consequences being re-offending.

There are numerous anecdotes of ex- convicts which depict a vicious circle of crime and underscore the need to rethink the post-correctional interventions.

There is the case of an ex-convict who on release from a prison is said to have stood outside the prison gate for a while, and then walked across the road, entered a house and stole from therein a sewing machine head in plain view of the owners.

This act earned him the intended ticket back to the prison. What was apparent was that he had completed his term but was unprepared for the life outside.

Under such circumstances many ex-convicts commit offences with the conscious and unconscious desire to get back into the jail culture.

There was also the case of an elderly man who had the knack of being jailed every season for theft of bananas, maize cobs, beans, potatoes etc.

He had the misfortune of completing the resulting short jail terms in time to be arrested again in the next harvesting season.  

The ‘new thinking’ is that the rehabilitation of criminals or ex-convicts must involve the community. The ex-inmates family, neighbors, clan, church, village, community etc, should be involved in efforts aimed at reforming the individual ex-convict. Research and experience has shown that anything less than this is unfeasible and is bound to fail.

This therefore calls for programs that provide for a pro-active and effective interface with all the community sectors. There is a need for increased involvement of communities in the rehabilitation of their offenders, more so in the spirit of cost sharing with the state. It is universally acknowledged that criminals are a product of the society. Radical views tend to suggest that our social class structures, socio-economic dynamics and social cultural injustices bleed criminality.

It is thus understandable that the rehabilitation of criminals has to take into account their eventual re-integration into their communities and their resettlement. Each community thus has an obligation in the rehabilitation of its offenders.

There is of cause with the added incentive of ensuring that the community is protected from the offenders re-offending.

The latest perspectives on dispensation of justice advocate for restoration and restitution. These approaches are actually derived from the traditional African and Islamic “Maslaha” systems of informal justice.

Our formal justice systems places very little regard to victims. It assumes that justice has been done, after passage of a sentence, be it custodial or non-custodial.

How does a widow and her children benefit when their fathers murderer is sentenced to death?

Interventions should re-examine the need for ensuring that offenders “pay back” to their victims and communities.

The recently introduced community service orders programs are efforts in this direction. Unique system of justice has been noted among various ethnic groups in the region in which ex-convicts are called upon to compensate their victims or community, as a token of their remorse and as a prerequisite for being accepted back.

In some of these groups cleansing rituals have to be undertaken. This is in spite of the offenders having served their jail sentences. In some the burden of compensating the victim, his family or community is shared by the offender and his family, clan or community.

The use of the gacaca system of justice in dealing with the genocide perpetuators in Rwanda is a good example of the use of traditional restoration and restitution philosophy.

Though its focus appears to be more on the sphere of the dispensation of visible justice, it would be interesting to incorporate and fully integrate the systems philosophy into a more formal community based correctional process.

A community interface can be effectively developed through networking, use of community opinion leaders, among them volunteer community workers, use of parole and halfway houses and any other initiatives that put cognizance to the critical roles of the community and its members.

Community based correctional agencies need to develop collaborative and networking relationships with partners and stake holders among them governmental agencies and civil society organizations for the purpose of sharing ideas, information and resources.

They can also tap on the good working relationship between the civil society and the governmental agencies. Working with ex-convicts entails collaborating with the other partners and stakeholders in the criminal justice system.

In governmental parlance, this area falls under the public safety, law and order sectors. The partners and stakeholders among the governmental agencies in this sector include the judicially, police, prosecution, administration, prisons and community based correctional agencies, all of which have a role to play in the criminal justice system.

Forming partnerships with the Prisons and Community Based Correctional Agencies is critical as these are the only governmental agencies directly charged with the rehabilitation of criminals.

The other equally important partners and stakeholders include civil society organizations, religious organisations and community opinion leaders.

Rehabilitation of ex-convicts should endeavour to make use of the community based resources, the most readily available being the human resources. There is need to identify, recruit and train volunteer workers in each community.

These, by virtue of being the ex-convicts’ neighbours and members of their respective communities, can assist the ex-inmate on behalf of the community. As opinion leaders, they would be in a position to mediate and assist offenders in reconciling with the communities.

These volunteer workers can make use of resources available within the community to empower and improve the ex-convicts quality of life.

The concept of volunteering is not a new phenomenon as the traditional African societies have deep altruistic values in their socio-cultural setups. In most of the ethnic societies, philanthropic individuals assume the roles of helping, counselling and guiding those perceived to be deviating from the societal norms.

The use of volunteers in the rehabilitation of offenders goes back to the 1880s, when the volunteer community workers were appointed to assist ex-prisoners in Japan. The need for such volunteers is also recognised in the United Nations standard minimum rules for non- custodial measures (Tokyo rules) of 1990.

The documented success of the hogosi program of Japan and the successful application of the VPO concept by the author and its subsequent adoption as a national in Kenya program, underscores the need for similar programs in post-correctional interventions in Rwanda.

Parole and halfway houses are other new directions in reintegration. Parole is a procedure allowing for convicts to be conditionally released before they have spent their full sentences. They then complete their sentences out of jail under supervision.

Unlike the case in western and developed countries, we have no establishments of parole officers and the supervision aspect is not clearly defined. This system needs to be restructured for it to have an impact in rehabilitation.

Half houses have been used for prisoners on parole or those who have completed their terms. They re-integrate the ex-inmates back into their communities and reducing re-offending.

They are residential institutions situated within the community which assist the ex-inmates to gradually adjust to the new life out of jail and also ensure that the community gradually accepts him back. 

Interventional programs targeting ex-convicts should also address the issue of crime prevention through community mobilization and awareness creation in liaison with community leaders, the administration and the police.

The rates of criminal activity within communities can be reduced through such strategies as; Poverty eradication initiatives, community policing, public campaigns, public crime prevention forums, community empowerment, conflict management etc.

These forums can address the issue of recidivism and the upsurge in drug abuse, offences against children, and violence against women. Lastly there is need for research on the efficacy of post correctional rehabilitation.

The findings could enhance our knowledge of reintegration processes, identify cost effective strategies and delineate the roles of the various stake holders. The data emanating from the studies could be crucial in addressing the challenges posed by release of ex-prisoners into the community. 

The writer is a former Kenyan Probation/Community Service Officer, a Psychologist with interests in criminal behaviour and consultant based in Kigali. /

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