AN estimated 48% of prisoners in Sri Lanka are repeat offenders, which is a trait that officials are attempting to deal with by appealing to the public and private sectors to actively employ former prisoners in an effort to truly improve rehabilitation processors in the country.
Commissioner-General of Prisons, H.M.N.C. Dhanasinghe has stressed that the escalating rate of recidivism was a result of failure to address the psychological consequences of newly-released prisoners needing to provide for their families and being manipulated into further crime.
Prisons Department statistics show that at the beginning of this month there were 18,771 inmates across all prisons, including convicted, unconvicted, appellant and juvenile offenders. Of these, 8,106 are convicted offenders and 8,542 remanded prisoners.
Fortunately around the world studies have shown attempts to employ former prisoners have positive results. In his 2009 book entitled Punishing the Poor, U.C. Berkeley sociologist Loic Wacquant demonstrates that that 60 per cent of those currently incarcerated in U.S. prisons were at the time of their arrest living at or below 50 per cent of the poverty line. Wacquant further establishes that nearly 70 of inmates were unemployed at the time of their arrest. The message is clear: unemployment in the formal labour market substantially increases one’s risk of imprisonment.
Given that the bulk of prisoners come from poor and uneducated backgrounds they often need to be trained before being given some forms of employment. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy recently released a study suggesting that adult prison education programs can reduce recidivism, that is, the rate at which previously released offenders will re-enter the criminal justice system, by 5-to-20 per cent. Not only does educational programming help to save taxpayers money in the long run, it also allows inmates to develop marketable skills they can take to the labor market upon release.
Post-release employment makes a big difference. An unemployed ex-offender is three times more likely to recidivate than one who has secured steady employment. Currently the Sri Lankan prison’s department is appealing to the Government to allocate a quota system to allow former offenders to be employed in public sector jobs. However other countries such as the U.S. are encouraging companies to absorb rehabilitated prisoners under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit Program, which allows small businesses to be eligible for tax deductions for hiring formerly convicted employees.
Sri Lanka already has a similar system that has employed former prisoners in the past. The Prevention of Crimes Ordinance allows prisoners to be granted work release from jail and this could be used to provide selected prisoners undergoing rehabilitation, an opportunity to work for a company under the supervision and responsibility of the Prisons Department.
A prisoner who fails to keep to the terms of the agreement can be penalised under s.12 of the ordinance.In 2014, some 500 prisoners were given work release outside prison, a decline from 2011 when 20,034 inmates were released under the same programme. Clearly this system is far more effective than releasing offenders who find they have to return to a life of crime in order to survive.
Employment given in this manner can also reduce the stigma faced by prisoners who genuinely wish to reform. Such efforts, if implemented, can actually provide a sustainable solution to Sri Lanka’s overcrowded and under-resourced rehabilitation system.