Adjusting To Life Outside Prison: Do Ex-Offenders Have A Chance?

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The public uproar over the suggestion to give convicted MARA paedophile scholar a ‘second chance’ after serving his prison sentence has puts the spotlight on how effective is prison rehabilitation for ex-offenders.

While many Malaysians were against giving Nur Fitri another chance at completing his studies using public funds, have you ever wondered how ex-convicts can possibly adapt back to society if we don’t extend them a helping hand?

Every year, more than 300,000 ex-offenders are released from prisons and rehabilitation centres in our country. Often these people carry the stigma of having served time behind bars for the rest of their lives, living in a second prison, with invisible bars, and subject to suspicion, mistrust and discrimination.

The best rehabilitation programme in prison is of no use if ex-offenders find themselves rejected at every turn when they are released back into the community. Perhaps it is time we change our mindset on ex-offenders as a burden to society to one that values them as potential contributors to society.

There are about 49,200 prisoners in 35 ordinary prisons, four reformatory centres, five special recovery centres and three Henry Gurney schools in Malaysia at the moment.

It costs Malaysia about RM35 per day per inmate to care for these people that our country has put behind bars according to finance and money magazine SaveMoney report in July 2014. That works out to RM1, 050 per month, more than some Malaysians on minimum wage take home each month.

That is a huge sum to invest in each prisoner if they continue to be a burden to society when they are released. Isn’t it better to ensure in the long run that a large part of the prison budget goes not into punitive incarceration but to help ex-offenders transition successfully outside jail into steady earners who make enough to pay taxes and support their families?

According to Malaysian Prisons Department assistant commissioner, Abdul Kadir Jailani Ismail, the number of prisoners who were repeat offenders had been declining, forming only 8% of the total prisoners, compared to 30% five years ago, as reported Bernama in January this year.

The revamped community rehabilitation programme starting in 2011 and primarily conducted by the Prisons Department’s Rehabilitation Division consists of three sections, namely entrepreneurship and vocational section, welfare and education section, and special treatment section.

How Effective Is Our Prisons Department's Revamped Community Rehabilitation Programme?

Home Ministry secretary-general, Datuk Alwi Ibrahim had announced in May this year that over 4,000 ex-cons had been successfully placed in gainful employment through the programme.

The programme, which started in 2011, is supported by private companies through the training and employment provided. The programme was part of the department’s efforts to continue rehabilitating the ex-convicts after they left prison following the implementation of the parole system in the country.

As a large percentage of prison inmates are incarcerated due to drug-related offences, the rehabilitation programme places special emphasis on this area. It consists of three units which are the drug treatment and rehabilitation unit (treatment is given through counselling), the general health and HIV/AIDS unit, and the drug prevention and health education unit. Each unit focuses on treating an inmate’s spiritual, physical and psychological fitness.

Early this month, Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had announced that the educational programme collaboration between the Prisons Department and Open University Malaysia (OUM) has resulted in zero recidivism (ex-convicts returning to criminal acts).

“This (education programme) is the new approach to rehabilitate the inmates. We found out that 100% of the people who took this programme have not been involved in any criminal activities once they are out of prison.

“(Overall) the prison recidivism level in Malaysia is among the best in Asia. We are at a rate of 7.6%, whereas the other countries are somewhere around 25% to 35% and the approval of the Correctional Foundation could encourage more prisoners to participate in the programme,” he said.

For the thousands of Malaysians who have angrily denounced giving Nur Fitri a second chance, the facts clearly point to the opposite being the case. True, there are others more deserving of public funded scholarships but as our Home Minister pointed out, there are many ways for ex-offenders to complete their education including through OUM especially when the statistics show that ex-convicts who have completed their studies do not return to their criminal ways.

What About The Effectiveness Of Rehabilitating ‘Special’ Crimes Felon?

The holistic approach of the rehab programme appears to be promising, but does the overall programme takes into account inmates with ‘special’ crimes, like child molester or paedophilia for instance? For these types of inmates, what would be the suitable rehab programme?

There appears to be no laws in the country to tackle possession of porn if the scholarship holder or anyone else here were to view obscene material, lawyers say as reported in an online news portal earlier this month in relation to Nur Fitri’s case.

Criminal lawyer Amer Hamzah Arshad said there appeared to be limited context on using the Internet for disseminating obscene materials under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA).

“This is because while Section 292 of the Penal Code deals with sale and distribution of obscene material, and Section 233 of the CMA deal with the making, creating and transmitting of such material, they do not touch the issue of possession and viewing.

“As for Section 292 of the Penal Code, he said it was more targeted towards preventing distribution of obscene material or selling for profit.

Given the lack of laws to deal with Nur Fitri if he repeats his offence upon returning to Malaysia, Amer said supported the idea that there should be specific legislation to deal with this type of crimes.

The news report also cited the view of human rights lawyer Honey Tan who pointed out that Malaysia did not have specific laws to deal with viewing child pornography. She also supported the call to have a sex offenders’ registry to list down those who have been convicted of sexual offences, adding that it should be made public.

"I believe research has shown that there is a high recidivism rate for sexual offenders," she said.

Currently in Malaysia, we have the registration of certain offenders under the Registration of Criminals and Undesirable Persons Act 1969. These included, among others, those convicted of rape, buggery with animals and carnal intercourse against the order of nature (oral and anal sex by consent).

The Challenges Of Adapting To Life After Prison

While we focus on the physical and moral rehabilitation of ex-offenders, the psychological impact of incarceration on a person cannot be underestimated.

Sometimes, ex-prisoners become brain-washed to accept prison life as the norm and the shock of having to adapt back to society in addition to struggling with a new cursed social status of being an ex-con can lead to undesirable consequences.

Dr Muhammad Muhsin Ahmad ZahariDr Muhammad Muhsin Ahmad Zahari, a Medical Lecturer from University Malaya’s Department of Psychological Medicine, shared his professional insights on this psychological factor playing a role in how ex-offenders integrate back into society.

“It is a challenge for anyone to be imprisoned because they need to adjust to the restrictive environment. The person who was once free to do whatever he likes and be wherever he likes is now being restricted in his every movement. Then when they are released again they’d have to readjust themselves back in the community.

“Those who are in prison for a long time are so used to being confined to the rules; under the watchful eyes of prison guards, and some of them were even highly under control. Every movement of theirs is dictated and it is all about discipline; including their time, their activity and so on.

“Due to this, there will be difficulties for them once they’re released because they have to take care of themselves; being too long in the prison makes them dependant.”

Among Dr. Muhammad’s expertise includes criminal behaviour, forensic and community psychiatry.

The doctor said that some examples which they’ll have difficulties in doing may include job searching, socialising with family and friends, and perhaps to find food. People tend to take these things for granted.

“Ex-cons who are not accepted back in their respective community would become upset and depressed. In this case even evidence suggested that the rate of mental illness is higher than possibly before they go to prison if they already have some difficulties in their life; I mean mental health issues.

“So when they get out they should be looked after carefully. Adjusting to the social environment outside the prison itself made them vulnerable to mental health crisis especially if they have no support and are not being taken care of in every aspect. For instance, shelter; when they’re out, where are they going to live? Every little thing matters and must be considered.

“Plus, some of them who have been in prison for too long have probably lost contact of their family members who no longer want to be associated with them. When released, the lack of financial support could also lead to mental health problems,” the doctor stressed.



Society Needs To Play A Role As Well

When asked about how ex-convicts are faring in Malaysia compared to before and the effectiveness of the Prison Rehab Programme implemented since 2011, Jeevan S Ramamurthy, the President for the Kuala Lumpur Social Development, Crime Prevention and Anti-Drug Volunteer Force Organisation (PENCEGAH) pointed out that the rehab programme alone is not enough.

When asked the areas that need improvement in the current community rehabilitation programme for ex-convicts, Jeevan gave the following suggestions.

“What they can do to ex-cons is that they can set up advisory boards and that all of the ex-convicts that are released from the prison should have a follow up and be constantly monitored. Not just in parole cases, but also convicts that are released. When they have these advisory boards, they must be matured enough to recommend these convicts into the civil service.”

“The government should look into ex-convicts who are truly in need, perhaps allowing them to undergo army training or some kind. The mode of support needs to be changed.”

For Jeevan, training in the armed forces would be more effective. “WE, the society, have to take the first step to change the situation. If the ex-cons go through training in the armed forces, it’ll be a win-win situation for everyone.

“The ex-cons will have regular wage, a trained discipline, and positive influence or company. Once they’ve finished the training, they could then contribute and be of service to the whole nation. At the very least, you’re not wasting too much money here and there.”

“In the United States if someone is released, the public will ask questions like ‘how do you have any work?’ or ‘how are you surviving?”, Jeevan pointed out that in Malaysia the public cooperation to extend such help to ex-cons is still lacking.

“People need to understand the ex-cons. Try putting yourself in the ex-cons’ shoes. Has it ever occurred to you why the ex-cons would resort to crime in the first place? Some of them have no other choice but to commit crime, especially when they’re in desperate need of money.”

According to Dr. Muhammad Muhsin, besides the authority, the people at large are also responsible, like non-governmental organisation where they can optimize the situation. “Before inmates are being released, we already try to inform the family members on things that matter when it comes to supporting the convicts.

Pic: Yellow Ribbon Project websitePic: Yellow Ribbon Project websiteThe suggestion to get NGOs and the general public involved in the rehabilitation process for ex-convicts is the way forward as can be seen in initiatives taking place in other countries today.

The Yellow Ribbon Project in Singapore which was launched in 2004 “seeks to engage the community in giving ex-offenders a second chance at life and to inspire a ripple effect of concerted community action to support ex-offenders and their families," as stated in their mission statement published on their website http://www.yellowribbon.org.sg

The aim of the project is to establish an aftercare network which ex-convicts can draw on to help them as they take the slow and difficult steps to integrate back into society.

Besides asking for those interested to join the network, sponsor rehabilitation programmes, donate or volunteer in programmes, the website also serves as a portal for companies who are interested in employing ex-offenders as a worthy way of helping in their reintegration into society.

From a random survey conducted by Malaysian Digest on public opinion towards ex-cons within the community, Malaysians today are more willing to try not to pre-judge them and this could be an encouraging sign that employers will also be more receptive to ex-cons in the future.

“To me, it depends on the crime the person has committed. I believe that welcoming an ex-con is a good practice for us not to be judgemental, and make us develop positive traits like being forgiving,” says Sherina, a marketing executive at a travel agency.

“Who hasn’t done anything wrong? Some of us are only lucky that we didn’t get caught. Surely if you’ve done something wrong you’d want a second chance, right? So are the ex-cons,” says Khairuddin, a banker.

 

- Malaysian Digest